Hanging in the lobby area of Berkmar High’s gymnasium, you will find the retired jerseys of Tony Akins, Adrien Borders, Shawn Ikpa and Clark Williams, four former basketball players the school recognized as standout athletes during their tenures.
Arguments could be made that other noted hoop alumnus, such as the Witherspoons, William, Wesley, and Wynton, should have had their jersey, No. 11, retired alongside those above.
But one such former student-athlete, Wayne Arnold, has probably the best case for why his jersey should no longer be in rotation.
His accomplishments while a student-Athlete in Lilburn make for a compelling case: 24 points and 4.5 assists per game his senior year, winner of the Mr. Georgia Basketball award, and a starter on the back-to-back 2000 and 2001 championship teams, just to list a few.
Over the years, there have been theories about why the sharpshooting guard with great handles hasn’t been admitted to the exclusive club of retired Patriots.
Perhaps Arnold’s self-confessed averseness toward his studies, often skipping classes in favor of hoops and hanging out during lunch periods with friends, sabotaged his opportunity?
Or maybe him getting kicked off the University of Georgia’s basketball team for smoking weed was the reason?
Nothing seems definitive.
But one thing is sure, Arnold dealt with a lot his senior season and the proceeding years that followed. He admits it doesn’t excuse some of his nonchalant behavior, but it helps to paint a bigger picture for why he acted out.
It was actually around the time he was in the sixth or seventh grade that his life would change.
It’s when he found out his mom, Shawn Jones, had cancer.
Jones, beloved in the community, routinely sat amongst other team parents during capacity-filled games, cheering hard for her son and his teammates, even while her health steadily declined.
“Imagine going through the trauma of your mother battling cancer. From driving her to chemotherapy, to watching her lose her hair, weight, and brain function,” he said.
And while Jones’ fight was courageous, she succumbed to her illness just four days before Christmas in 2001.
Arnold would miss the holiday tournament that year to fly home to Ohio to help lay her to rest amongst loved ones.
“My senior year was chaotic, to say the least,” he said. “I was never focused on school. The only thing that kept me motivated was to not let my mother, grandmother and grandfather, down,” Arnold said before mentioning that his grandparents also died just a few months after his mom.
“Aside from that, whenever I was in the locker room, and my teammates looked into my eyes for leadership and strength, I didn’t want to let them down either.”
And he didn’t, leading the Patriots to the Elite Eight before they lost to the Wildcats from Wheeler.
His next stop was UGA.
After getting caught smoking weed with five former UGA football players by Campus Police, Arnold was given a misdemeanor possession charge and community service.
Then-coach Dennis Felton, who had just replaced Jim Harrick, who was mired in an NCAA-violations-ridden scandal at the time, had a zero-tolerance policy for player indiscretions and dismissed Arnold from the team once he caught wind of what happened.
Arnold subsequently transferred to LA City College in Southern California for a season before making his way to Tennessee State University, where he and the Tigers found moderate success.
Post TSU, the 6-foot-4 guard would go on to play professionally, making stops in Japan and the Middle East, winning multiple championships and individual awards along the way.
But despite his renewed focus since his mishap in Athens, nearly two decades have passed, and his jersey still won’t be found in the lobby amongst the other four.
“(Former head coach David) Boyd made a deal with me (during his senior year),” Arnold said. “He told me that after I graduated, he would have the school retire my jersey.”
Boyd, who led the back-to-back state championship teams, resigned before having a chance to fulfill his promise.
Arnold, who once outdueled current Atlanta Hawk, and former South Gwinnett superstar Lou Williams in a game in which the Patriots prevailed, found it odd that he still hasn’t been recognized by the school even as current coach Greg Phillips took over the program.
“In so many words, (Phillips) told me that he would look into getting my jersey retired if I come around the program more and donate a shooting machine,” Arnold said.
Phillips, whose Berkmar team fell just short in this year’s championship game against Milton, offered a different take on his conversation with Arnold and the school’s stance on retiring jerseys.
“Retiring jerseys at the high school level isn’t practical because of the limited numbers we are allowed to use,” he said. “However, we can absolutely honor and pay tribute to former players who left an indelible mark at Berkmar.”
Phillips states he even has a larger vision for recognizing Arnold and other players on the championship team, who once ranked as high as fifth nationally.
“My plan was to bring back the 2000-2001 state championship team at our “throwback night” to honor them. However, when COVID hit, we were unable to do this,” Phillips said. “But it is something we hope to do this upcoming season to mark the 20th anniversary (a year later) of this great accomplishment.”
Phillips, who won three straight tiles as an assistant at Norcross and who has continued to grow Berkmar’s program into a powerhouse, said he plans to get together with principal Durrant Williams and the new athletic director, who is coming in to execute the latter’s vision concerning tributes and honors. He would also like to update some of the jerseys, which he notes are getting old and falling apart.
Arnold, meanwhile, isn’t sure how he would feel initially if he were to be honored for his accomplishments.
“I think it would be bittersweet,” he said, “A great honor, but I think it’s been tainted with the events that have led us here.”
But he openly concedes that his No. 34 being recognized would still give him joy.
“It would bring me closure and a sense of peace,” Arnold said. “Being able to go back to Berkmar and see my jersey hanging in the rafters and remembering all that I’ve persevered through at that time at such a young age, I’m sure it would be emotional for me.”
Whether it happens or not, Arnold is moving forward in his life. He hasn’t had any further incidents like the one at UGA and recently decided to hang up his sneakers for good in favor of entrepreneurial undertakings while teaching kids how to play the game he’s found therapeutic.
The former Patriots standout, whose journey has been filled with both heartache and triumph, offers parting words of reassurance for other student-athletes that may have to deal with incredible heartache like he had when he lost his mom.
“First and foremost, love yourself hard,” Arnold said. “Second, hold onto your true north with every ounce of your existence. There will be people around you who love you and hate you or love what you can do for them. There won’t be many people left when the ball stops bouncing and the lights cut off, or trauma and adversity hit. One thing that will always be a constant in your life, and that’s you.”