Tag: High school basketball

A higher calling

The young coach keeps the text message as a reminder. 

It was sent to him by a basketball player from his former high school, where the coach was departing from to take a job at another Alabama high school. 

The text message, in part, reads, “I just wanted to let you know having you coach me this past season has truly inspired me. Before you I had quit going to church and praising God. I was lost but your enthusiasm for the abilities that God gave us helped lead me back to the path. I’ve been going every day that it is open and I have you to thank. I’m happy that God sent you to to help me see my errors not only in basketball but in life. It has truly been an honor to play for you and I will miss you yelling at us at practice.”

“I keep this message with me to remind me that, yes, I love winning and want to win championships more than anyone, but reaching kids, helping to make them better people, is a higher calling, one I never want to lose sight for,” the coach says.

The coach played at a small school in Walker County, and in one of his seasons, helped his team post a 30-5 record and finish as the state runner-up, the best season in school history. His coach demanded excellence and held his players to a high standard.

“I want to have that same impact on my players that I come in contact with, and help mold them to be successful young men and women, to let them know that anything is possible with God, hard work, dedication and belief,” he says.

After his playing days ended, he coached at his alma mater for two years, one of which included a run to the state Elite Eight and a 29-5 record. He was then the head junior varsity and assistant varsity coach at another Walker County school for three years. In his time there, he also helped with the middle school boys’ and girls’ teams. 

“I got into coaching first and foremost because I love the game of basketball, and what it can do for a player both spiritually, academically and athletically,” he says.

He is now the head coach of the varsity girls at a school in Jefferson County, and an assistant for the varsity boys’ team. He says he has been a part of some good teams and some not-so-good teams in his young career, but the one thing that remains his top priority is helping his players become good men and women, which can translate into them becoming good fathers and mothers, employees and citizens. 

“Sports can help play a critical role into a young person’s life,” he says. “I tell my players continually that they have to believe in themselves and work relentlessly for their goals and to never give up.”

He translates his point into real-life scenarios. He uses job loss as an example. Are you going to not look for another job and have a pity party while your spouse and children depend on you? Or are you going to fight with everything inside of you to find a way to provide for your family? When circumstances pop up, and they will pop up, don’t give up. That’s the time to dig deep and fight with all that’s inside of you to make a way. He stresses to believe in God and believe in yourself because God has placed greatness in everyone. He tells his players that it’s up to them to tap into that belief. 

“I want my players to remember not just how many games we won but that I taught them how to be a good man and woman,” he says. “I want them to come back and have a good career and family. I believe that most kids are afraid to strive for greatness because they are scared that they will fail. I feel that the only way a person can truly fail is not putting every ounce of their being into something.”

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.

In the bleachers

We have lived in this town for more than two years, and we had never set foot in the high school.

That isn’t unusual, considering we are a handful of months past our ten-year reunion from a school in a different county. None of us has a kid that age, yet. 

But earlier this month, we decided to go with a couple friends to a Monday night game against our town’s neighbor, separated by a bridge over the interstate. The Blue Devils versus the Green Wave. Where do they come up with these nicknames?

We pulled into a pickup-truck-filled parking lot about a half hour before tipoff. Walking into the gymnasium was like stepping into the past. The smell of cheap popcorn. Black Nikes squealing on a shiny floor. Cheerleaders forming a pyramid. 

As a reporter, I grew accustomed to pretty much ignoring all this, and waltzing past the ticket counter, a badge emblazoned with “MEDIA” my key through any door. On Monday, I had to pay. 

We sat with our friends in the top corner of the visitor bleachers, above the rickety black handrails, and I got to really take it all in. I did not have to scribble down statistics and Tweet about three-pointers. I just sat and watched. 

It was a struggle of a game. The Blue Devils wore the Green Wave down late, winning 39-23 in a 32-minute game. The teams combined for fewer than two points per minute. The motion offense lacked motion at times. The two-three zone had holes. Wide-open shots grazed the side of the backboard. Passes went astray. One team dribbled the ball around for forty-plus seconds without shooting. There really should be a shot clock in high school hoops.

But it was all so beautiful. I was not buried in a notebook or scanning team rosters or shrinking some game information to 140 characters. I got to look up and take note of other things. 

I saw the support of other Blue Devils, the students sitting in a circle ten rows up, talking with each other, face to face, instead of through Snapchat or whatever teenagers talk through these days. 

I saw navy- and green-clad parents leaned against the wall on the back row, fixated on the flow of the game, some clapping, some with hands clenched tight when the game was close. 

I saw tall banners covering the walls behind both basketball goals, each showing posed seniors. There were basketball players, wrestlers, others. How cool, to have your own life-size banner. 

I saw a toddler obsessed with Mickey Mouse episodes on an iPhone during timeouts and at halftime, only to look up, hardly blinking, when the ball was being dribbled up and down the court. I saw another toddler, after the game, on a man’s shoulders, trying to throw a basketball through one hoop.

Being in the moment, instead of reaching in your pocket or purse to filter it on Instagram, is far underrated. 

So look up.