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‘A warm smile, a big heart’
Statesboro High family honors O.J. Reese, who died Friday
reese
Family, friends and classmates of O.J. Reese pay tribute to the Statesboro High student and basketball player on Monday, July 13. Reese died while playing AAU basketball last week. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Friends and family members gathered Monday to say farewell to Statesboro High student Ojaryn “O.J.” Reese, a member of the Blue Devil basketball team, who would have been a senior at Statesboro. Reese died Friday afternoon after collapsing in the middle of a basketball game in the Atlanta area.

Friends and family met in the Statesboro High parking lot next to the Blue Devil gymnasium. They released balloons in his memory and shared stories of the young man who helped the Blue Devils advance to the state playoffs the past three seasons.

Reese played on the Georgia Suns, an Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU, team, with three other members of the Statesboro basketball team, and they were competing Friday in an exposure tournament called the Hoopseen Showcase in Suwanee. The tournament was not an AAU-sanctioned event.

Reese was known as the kind of person who never met a stranger. Coaches and friends spoke of his big smile and shared their thoughts on what kind of a player he was, as well as the kind of warm-hearted personality he had.

“It hit me so hard when I heard the news Friday,” said teammate Garrison Littles. “I met him in sixth grade basketball at William James Middle School, and we became friends pretty quickly. He stayed with me a lot over the next few summers, and we developed a pretty tight bond. He was somebody who never complained and always helped anyone who needed it.”

Teammate Jo Kilcup said: “I want you to let the people know that not one person in Statesboro could ever say anything bad about O.J. As long as I’ve known him, he’s always had a smile on his face, and he will be missed. We all loved him.”

Reese had a great impact on those who coached him as well. 

“O.J. was an amazing young man,” said Statesboro coach Marty Holder. “His smile and spirit were infectious. Even when I would try to get upset with O.J., he would end up making me laugh, and I would forget what I was upset about.

“He never met a stranger. He would frequently be found before a game talking to members of the opposing team, not to divulge strategy, but just to be friendly. His heart was just open to everyone. This is a huge loss for his family, our school and our community. O.J. made an unforgettable mark in everyone's life at such a young age. I am a better man because of O.J. Reese.”

William James coach Brian Hall said: “I had the pleasure to coach O.J. in middle school. He always had such a huge smile on his face all the time, walking down the halls. His teachers all enjoyed him, and loved him. He was just the kind of person that goes out of his way to help others.

“As a player, he was such a hard worker. In the sixth-grade tryouts, I’m not sure he even made a basket, but he was the tallest one there, so we kept him. He really worked hard from there to end up earning a starting spot. It is a huge loss.”

Statesboro coach Horace Harvey recalled: “As a player, O.J. improved each year. He really did love the game of basketball. His game really picked up towards the end of last season. We were very much looking forward to seeing him reap the benefits of his patience and persistence paying off in his senior year.

“As for O.J. the person, he was full of life. He enjoyed life. He had a great sense of humor, and people enjoyed being around him. O.J. will be missed by his friends, teammates and definitely the coaching staff of the Statesboro High basketball program.

“O.J. Reese was much more than just a basketball player. There was no way you could know O.J. and not have him have some type of effect on your life.”

Reese’s Georgia Suns AAU coach Melvin Flowers added: “You couldn’t ask for a harder worker. He would happily do anything you asked from him. He was such a respectful young man who always said ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ You could tell he was trying so hard to reach his goal of playing college basketball.

“I wasn’t at the game (Friday), as I was feeling ill that day. I got a phone call that he had passed out during the game, and that he was on his way to the hospital. By the time I got there, I was told he had passed away. When I got there, his family was around him, and it looked like he actually had a smile on his face. It was as if he just reached out and touched the Lord’s hand. He looked at peace.

“We had talked about just heading home, but his teammates wanted to try and play for O.J.,” Flowers said. “They had a ceremony for him before we played on Sunday. We also retired his number 5. No one will ever wear that number again. That number was O.J’s.”

Aside from coaches and players, Statesboro faculty members remembered Reese fondly as well.

 “O.J. was a kid who always had a smile on his face,” said Statesboro principal Chad Prosser. “I remember on a few occasions having to run him out of the gym at the end of the night. He would still have that same smile. He loved basketball and being with his friends and teammates. Our lives are better for O.J. being a part of them, but our hallways and court will feel empty without him.”

Teacher Ashley Thompson said: “I’ve known O.J. as an athlete through basketball, since I am the basketball cheerleading coach. This year I got to know O.J. a lot more, as he was a junior and I saw him in my hallway every day. He was always smiling and polite. He hugged me every time I saw him. During the quarantine, we talked several times about life and his goals. This summer, we talked more about accomplishing some of his goals.

“Nothing prepares a teacher to lose one of their students, but O.J.’s legacy will live on at SHS forever. I will miss his smiles, his hugs and his ‘Yes, ma’am’s.’

“I hope that O.J. lives on through the Class of 2021. Let’s make O.J. proud; we owe it to him.”

Funeral service arrangements and visitation plans have not yet been finalized.