Anthony “A.J.” Gibson had the type of gregarious personality that made it difficult for coaches to stay upset with him for long.
Whenever Antron Yates, King George’s first-year boys basketball coach, had to implore A.J. to hustle or go strong to the basket, A.J.’s smile put him at ease.
The Foxes saw that smile for the last time Tuesday night in a road game at Brooke Point High School in Stafford County. A.J. was substituted out in the second quarter and Yates was considering putting his junior starting forward back into the lineup on the court.
But that’s when spectators heard a loud “boom” after A.J.’s body visibly tensed up and he fell backward from the bench to the floor. Witnesses said his legs were straight and his hands were by his side. His mother sat a few rows behind the King George bench and rushed to the floor to be with him.
The Stafford County Rescue Squad responded, but the 16-year-old junior was pronounced dead Tuesday night. The state medical examiner’s office said the cause of death had not been determined as of Wednesday afternoon.
The game was canceled and grief counselors awaited the King George team on its return to the school. More were present at school on Wednesday when A.J.’s classmates arrived.
“It’s one of those things where God said it’s time to come home,” Yates said. “No matter the cause, I don’t think it could’ve been prevented.
“I don’t think the answers we’re looking for we’ll ever get,” he added. “There will be a cause and that will be the cause, but at the end of the day, I think it’s time for him to start for another team, and it’s a better team than mine.”
Yates recalled that when he would express love for his players, A.J. was always the first to respond “I love you, too, coach.”
King George County Superintendent Robert Benson announced the death in a statement on Instagram early Wednesday morning, saying, “It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of our beloved King George High School student A.J. Gibson.”
The mood at school was downcast Wednesday, officials said.
“It’s obviously a somber time,” King George athletic director Alex Fisher said. “It just goes to show how much he was liked here.”
Yates said there were no red flags for A.J. on his sports physical that’s required by the Virginia High School League for participation. Former King George coach Anthony Mills, who is now the head coach at Colonial Forge High School, said there were no health concerns with A.J. when he coached the team last year.
Mills said A.J. was the junior varsity team’s leading rebounder and a top three scorer last year. He was elevated to varsity just before the team’s Region 4B tournament contest against Hanover in February.
A.J. was approximately 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds, but his coaches said he had plenty of stamina. Mills said A.J. was a “good kid” with a lot of family support.
“He always had a good attitude. He was always a hard-working kid, not just on the court, but in the classroom,” Mills said. “One thing I’ll always remember is that he had a big smile.
“It’s a very sad story and I’m just at a loss for words to hear that a young man goes so early in life,” the coach added. “His family is in my thoughts and prayers and I’ll reach out to them once everything settles down.”
Fisher said King George won’t play Thursday’s scheduled contest against Stafford High School.
Benson’s statement said A.J.’s “enthusiasm, athleticism and close friendships made him an important and respected member of our school and community.” The superintendent stressed the need for King George’s staff and students to support each other during this time.
“He was a smile-all-the-time kid,” Fisher said. “The coaches respected him. He was a hard worker. He was fun to be around. He was a good kid.”
Yates said A.J. was a talented athlete with a promising future at King George. He said A.J. was extremely unselfish, almost to a fault.
“For a big man, he had some of the best feet I’ve ever seen,” Yates said. “Quickness-wise, I felt like he could be a very good football player with those feet. He was hands-down the best passer on the team. When he got the ball in the paint and I’m thinking he should go up strong, he was always looking to pass.”
Yates said the Foxes will press forward. The Brooke Point game was just the second contest of the season. Yates expects King George to return to action as early as Monday, when it is scheduled to host Stafford to start a three-game week.
“I can’t address our mental stability right now,” Yates said. “I feel like we’re going to come back stronger. There are some players speaking out right now and galvanizing the team while we’re trying to put the pieces back together.
“You’re looking at a basketball team that really has a cause. Every moment they’re going to be playing for that kid.”