First in his class: Okolona’s Gardner named first-team Parade All-American

OKOLONA – First his coach, and then his principal took to the intercom Monday afternoon to announce the big news.
D.J. Gardner just sat quietly in the Okolona High School library, still trying to grasp what he’d learned about an hour earlier: He’s a first-team Parade All-American.
That’s not just big news in Okolona. That’s big news, period.
Gardner, a Mississippi State signee, is only the second male basketball player from the Northeast Mississippi area to earn the honor, the other being Starkville’s Travis Outlaw in 2003.
Outlaw made the second team, so Gardner is the only area player to make first team.
As his coach, Bobby Ford, said on the intercom, “This is a very prestigious award.”
The 40-member team, which is divided into four 10-man squads, was released Monday. Established in 1957, it’s the longest running prep All-American basketball team in the country.
Gardner, a 6-foot-7 guard/forward, said the news was “shocking to me,” and it might have been mildly surprising to basketball observers. Johnny O’Bryant, a 6-10 center from Cleveland East Side, was a fourth-team Parade pick who some consider the best player in Mississippi – he’s also a McDonald’s All-American.
Others think the state’s top player is Meridian’s Rodney Hood, another MSU signee who did not make the Parade team.
“There’s not too many people that are going to shoot the ball any better than D.J. shoots it, and with the range he has,” Ford said. “I think that’s what makes him special.”
Gardner averaged 32.0 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range last season, when the Chieftains reached the Class 1A North semifinals. He’s scheduled to compete Friday in a national 3-point shooting contest in Houston.
There have been many accolades for Gardner, and more are sure to come – the Daily Journal’s All-Area team will be released Sunday. As best as Ford can tell, the four-year starter handles the attention well.
“I’m just real proud for D.J., the recognition he’s getting and the honors and just the publicity, it’s just great for him and his family,” Ford said. “I’m just hoping he continues forward and does well at State, considering where he came from.”
Gardner’s apparent humility is probably a product of his being focused on constantly improving. He’s spent several late nights in Okolona’s gym, his earphones in as he hoists shot after shot.
Gardner noted that a lot of talent comes through Okolona, and he’s had to work hard to separate himself.
“Out here playing behind the school on the playground back there, everybody comes out there and plays ball,” Gardner said. “It’s a lot of talent.”
Gardner was quick to credit his teammates for helping him reap all his rewards, “Because without my teammates, there wouldn’t be no me. The role players make the team just as much as I do.”
Gardner and O’Bryant are the first Mississippians since 2005 to make the team.
Readers can find the entire Parade All-American team in the magazine, which comes in Sunday’s Daily Journal.

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@journalinc.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal