Eyesight vs. Mind-sight

At one of Alabama’s best high schools, a new coach took over for the 1998-1999 basketball season. He talked to players and parents, stating that the program would develop into one of the best in the state, and would eventually win a state championship. A freshman on that team remembers people in the room laughing. The school was not exactly a basketball powerhouse. But it would soon become one.

In 2001, the basketball team made the state final four. It made return trips to the state elite eight in 2003 and 2005. But the program never quite got over the hump. That freshman, the one who remembers the laughter, took over in 2009. Under him, the boys won eighteen games, then twenty-five, then twenty-three, then twenty-four. They were repeatedly knocking on the door of excellence.

In 2013, that door was knocked down. The team steamrolled through the season, finishing with a 30-6 record and a state championship that it won by twenty-one points over its opponent. The baby-faced coach describes that team as one of the least likely to win a state championship. They didn’t win much as a junior high team. But the group loved the game, worked hard and loved each other. It was a fearless team. The boys returned to the state championship game a year later, and did the previous season’s team one better. The boys posted a 34-3 record and became a nationally ranked team. They also won another state championship. 

You may believe that the team was made up of superstars who were taller than the rest of their competition. You may believe the team had one player on its roster who was a standout, who was going on to play at Duke or North Carolina or Kansas. You may believe competition in Alabama high school basketball was not up to par. You would be wrong.

That team was made up of seniors who never quit. There was a senior guard who had come to his coach as a sophomore and told him he wanted to quit, that he didn’t believe he was good enough, that he let everybody down. The coach asked him if he were to play basketball on an island, would he enjoy it more. Of course, the boy said, because no one else was there. The boy was so unselfish that he feared he would let people down around him. His coach encouraged him to play and live fearless. He became the winningest player in school history. 

One senior was cut during tryouts for his seventh and eighth grade basketball teams. He made the varsity team as “a project” as a freshman and played sparingly as a sophomore. The same happened during his junior year. But as a senior, he blossomed into one of the best big men in the state and earned a basketball scholarship. Another senior had not made the team until his sophomore year, and as a junior was put on the junior varsity team. He became a deadly three-point shooter and went on to play college basketball. 

Another boy didn’t make the varsity team as a junior but came back and made it as a senior. Early in his prep basketball career, he had been one of the first twenty boys cut during tryouts. Another senior was the ninth-best player on his team up until his sophomore year, and during the run to the 2014 state title, his three-point percentage was the highest in the state.

Those seniors struggled before they finally made it. They were humble. There was no ego. Their team will go down as one of the best ever in Alabama high school basketball.

“They were hungry to make it,” the coach says.

Many people would not have thought back-to-back state championships were possible for this basketball program. The coach sees it as inspiration for other people in their own lives.

“They see things that have been accomplished and they say, ‘Well, this was accomplished. No one thought this was possible. This is an inspiration to me that I can achieve things in my own life that I didn’t think were possible,’” the coach says.

He attributes the success of those two teams not to high three-point percentages or a suffocating man-to-man defense. He credits mind-sight over eyesight. He provides a hypothetical example: Two players trying out for the basketball team don’t see their names on the list of boys who made the cut. One player rants about how hard he has worked since second grade, how he can’t believe he didn’t make it and will never make it. That’s eyesight. The second player, also hurting inside, doesn’t see his name on the list but can see himself getting better and coming back the next year because he knows he can do it. That’s mind-sight. That’s what his teams had.

“They didn’t fear adversity,” he says.

There is not much adversity in this town, at least socially. It is one of the most affluent cities in Alabama. The coach, having grown up there, knows this. Stories you hear about coaches providing players with places to live, food to eat and more are not often heard from this city. So he creates adversity. He creates it with times players must make running the track in the offseason. If they don’t make the time, they try again. He creates it in practice with how fast they go. The boys will reach a point of not believing they can make it, but when they finally do, their beliefs change.

“That’s where I think we help the most,” the coach says. “Everything is serious adversity. Everything is a mental game that day in and day out they harden themselves to be like, ‘Well, I can overcome anything.’”

For this young coach, it has always been a process-driven philosophy. It is not about wins and losses. Most seasons, he doesn’t know what his team’s record is. Most times when the boys practice after a game due to a poor performance, it’s actually after a victory. The goal isn’t to win. The goal is to be the hardest-working team around, to be unselfish and to be fearless.

“If you do that, you’re going to have incredible results,” says the coach, who I believe could coach at the collegiate level any time he pleases. “It’s the way it should be.”

It has certainly worked for this program. In 2015, the team had the opportunity to go for the three-peat, to win its third consecutive state championship in basketball. It came up short, losing by seven points. 

The coach remembers someone not long after that loss saying that it was a down year for the program, to have lost the state championship. He thinks back to when those parents and his own teammates laughed at his high school coach, and now he laughs.