Monday, November 24, 2014

Todd Day Returns Home

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2014 at 12:45 PM

Todd Day - WKNO
  • WKNO
  • Todd Day

The question seemed easy enough, but Todd Day, Hamilton High School’s new boys varsity basketball coach, struggled to come up with an answer. Naming his favorite spot on the basketball court during his playing days was difficult only because the game was so simple for Day when he prepped at Hamilton in the late '80s. His shooting range was infinite. When he left Hamilton and, later, the University of Arkansas, it was as those schools' all-time leading scorer. “I guess if I had to answer,” Day finally says, “it would be anywhere on the court, but definitely somewhere behind the three-point line.”

If only coaching was as easy and smooth as Day's jump shot. Coaching teenage boys is different. Patience is required. Lots of patience. Day learned this lesson during his five years at Memphis Academy of Health & Sciences (MAHS), where he began his high school coaching career. “It really helped me to become more patient,” Day says. “When I first started coaching, I wanted players to be as good as I was, and do the things I could do in high school. But it takes gym time. And that’s something these kids don’t get these days — a lot of gym time.”

Over the summer, Day’s patience was rewarded when Keelon Lawson decided to step down as Hamilton’s coach to join the college ranks at the University of Memphis. Finding his replacement was a no-brainer for Wildcats’ Athletics Director Jerome Griffin. All he had to do was look up to the school gym rafters, where Day’s number 10 jersey hangs. “Todd is Hamilton,” said Griffin. “He’s true and blue. Not only that, he was qualified for the position. He gives credibility to the program. The community and parents and kids can see that a kid from Hamilton can go on and have a successful college career and play professionally,” referring to Day’s four years at Arkansas and nine years in the NBA.

Day, back in the day.
  • Day, back in the day.

Former long-time Hamilton coach Ted Anderson agrees Day was the right choice to replace Lawson. Anderson, Day’s step-father and former high school coach, admits he may be bit biased, but says coaching basketball on the high school level is more than x’s and o’s, and Day understands that. “I didn’t have to talk to Todd about basketball or give him advice on that community. He’s going home. He knows the history. He grew up over there. His biggest challenge is going to be living up to expectations.”

Day was excited for the opportunity to return to Hamilton, but admits he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. He didn’t know how he would feel about having to carry a walkie-talkie around and making sure kids were getting to class on time. “I didn’t know how I would feel until I started walking these halls again,” he says. “It brings back a lot of memories. Just the opportunity to give back to some of the kids the things that were given to me coming here. Giving them an opportunity to further their careers is what drives me at this point.”

That and winning. And he has the roster to do a lot of it in his first year. Lawson may have left Hamilton, but he also left the program with his talented sons, Keelon, Jr. and Dedric, both consensus top 100 players. “What a gift,” Day says. “Dedric and K.J. are great players with great attitudes, plus they already kind of know my system. So it should be a good transition.”

Day and Keelon, Sr. played high school ball together and have remained friends. “The fact that we know each other makes it easier for me to talk to him about his sons,” Day says. “I’ll get with him just like I will do with all the other parents and get their expectations, but the fact that we know each other’s temperament makes it a lot easier.”

It was nearly a moot point. Dedric and K.J. were once headed to Florida to play at Arlington Country Day. But their plans changed when their father accepted a job as an assistant on coach Josh Pastner’s staff. The Lawson boys remained in Memphis and during the summer played AAU ball with Team Penny, where Day served as an assistant coach under Penny Hardaway. “It was great coaching that kind of talent,” Day reflects. “It’s a coach’s dream. We were loaded at each position. Even the bench players were great.”

And with great players come great expectations, and a great dilemma right out of the gate. “Really I’m in a no-win situation,” Day laments. “If I win, I’m supposed to win. If I don’t, it’s like 'how could you lose with two of the best players in the state.'”

Despite the jump in talent from MAHS to Hamilton, Day insists his coaching philosophies and style will remain the same. When asked about the goal for his team this season, there is no struggling to find the answer: “Win a state title,” he says, without hesitation. “That’s always the goal.”

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Coach Keith Lee: Raleigh-Egypt's Gentle Giant

Posted By on Mon, Nov 17, 2014 at 10:47 AM

keith_lee_whistle.jpg

The game ends, and Keith Lee and Andre Turner embrace near the scorers’ table and exchange a few words, much like they did in the 80’s as teammates at Memphis State University. But this time they do not walk off the Mid-South Coliseum court together. Instead they walk to separate locker rooms at Raleigh-Egypt High School, mentors of young basketball players — Lee as the head coach at Raleigh-Egypt and Turner as an assistant coach at Mitchell.

Lee’s Pharaohs are on the wrong end of a 62-47 final. After his chat with Turner, Lee declines an interview request. “I’m not going to do that,” he says with a hand wave, all without missing a step. It’s easy to assume Lee is in no mood to talk after losing in his first attempt as head coach of the Pharaohs. But the more realistic theory is Lee is just not a talker. He’s never been a talker nor has he ever cared to be.

Back on April 8, 1981, as a senior at West Memphis High School, Lee was set to announce his plans to play college basketball at Arkansas State. The school set up a press conference for Lee to make the announcement. Lee never showed up. He didn’t bother to tell his head coach either, leaving the school’s athletics director, Wallace Chandler, with the task of calling and apologizing to members of the media.

Of course, Lee never signed with Arkansas State. He would go on to become the University of Memphis’ all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and perhaps the program’s greatest player. Judging by the figurative distance between Lee and the Tiger fan base since he left the school, it would be easy to assume animosity exists, but the standing ovation Lee received when he appeared at Memphis Madness in 2012 suggests otherwise. Memphis fans want to embrace Keith Lee, but he apparently has no interest in being embraced. Perhaps nothing personal, it’s just who he is.

Lee’s reluctance to talk may soon be tested if Raleigh-Egypt is as good as Eric Robinson believes they will be this season. Robinson, known in the Memphis basketball community as “Cowboy,” is Lee’s right-hand man and the Pharaohs' assistant coach. He says their 15-point season opening loss to the Class 1A defending Tennessee state champions is not indicative of how they will perform this year. Robinson predicts they could be one of the top 2A teams in the city. Robinson is the teams’ de facto spokesperson, but if his prognostications are correct, Lee will likely have to speak on behalf of the squad at some point.

In the meantime, those interested in hearing Lee speak will just have to sit near the bench during Raleigh-Egypt games. Against Mitchell, Lee worked his team from the sideline. He possesses the skill of being able to talk loud to his players without yelling at them. “Are you going to let him fight you (for position)?” Lee asked a player from the bench. During a timeout, he pulled a player to the side, and showed him the proper box-out technique, all without raising his voice above a conversational level.

keith_lee_coaching.jpg

It’s not that Lee doesn’t tear into his guys from time to time. Robinson can attest to this. Robinson, along with Lee, was an assistant under head Coach Duane Stokes last season. If tough love was a major, Robinson would have received his advanced degree from the dean, former Hamilton Coach Ted Anderson. Robinson not only played under the cantankerous coach, he served as Anderson’s assistant at the school for a decade. “He was tough,” Robinson says of Anderson.

Robinson recalls the first time he heard Lee really get on a player. “[Lee] was an assistant coach (last season). Coach Stokes did all the yelling. I never saw Coach Lee yell last year at all. So when I finally heard him get into some kid, I was like, 'Yes.' I knew it was in him”

Lee became the head coach at Raleigh-Egypt shortly after Stokes died unexpectedly in August. Stokes, who attended Memphis State, and Lee were great friends in college. And Stokes was both a mentor and friend to Robinson. The team paid tribute to Stokes at halftime of the Mitchell game and presented his family with a plaque and framed poem. Lee’s appointment as the team’s head coach after Stokes’ passing has made it all a bit easier to deal with for Robinson, who remembers watching Lee play at Memphis.

Lee was part of the reason Robinson became a Tiger fan. He was in awe when he learned he and Lee would be working together as assistants. “He’s an icon,” Robinson said of Lee. “Last year when he arrived and he came to the first practice, I called my momma and told her I met Keith Lee.”

Lee’s players were born after his time at Memphis and his stint in the NBA, yet they intently listen to what he has to offer — not because of his legacy, the tone of his voice, or the fact they literally have to look up to him (Lee is ‘6-11”). “The kids love him,” says Robinson. “You know the reason why the kids love him? Because he loves the kids. He’s a genuine guy. He does it for the right reasons. He’s just picked up right where Coach Stokes left off.”

Lee also has the endorsement of Turner, his former teammate. “I think he’s going to do fine,” says Turner. “He knows what it takes to be a winner. It’s just a matter of him instilling that into his guys and his guys buying in.”

As for Lee’s low-key status, Turner reaffirms what most already know. “(Lee) is an introvert,” says Turner. “He likes being to himself. But he loves this game. There’s sides to Keith Lee other people don’t know about. He’s got a strong personality. If he makes up his mind to do something, he’ll do it. And as the season goes on, he’s going to continue to get better as a coach.”

“He wants to help the kids.” says Robinson. “At the end of the day, some of these kids won’t have the opportunity to play college basketball. He pushes them every day in practice because it’s more than just basketball.”

When it comes to his players, Robinson says, Lee’s message comes through loud and clear.

You can follow Jamie Griffin on twitter @flyerpreps.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Memphis Preps: The Transformation of Marlon Hunter

Posted By on Mon, Nov 10, 2014 at 11:05 AM

Marlon Hunter
  • Marlon Hunter

Marlon Hunter has committed to play college basketball at Western Kentucky. Some may say “Big deal.” Some may say “wrong Kentucky.” Actually, if you know Hunter, 1) it is a big deal and 2) it is the right Kentucky.

It wasn’t long ago when playing college basketball did not even appear to be an option for the 6' 2” combo guard. Hunter, a senior at Houston High School, was a kid who lost his way in Panama City, Florida, six years ago.

His father was locked up. Hunter was developing into a good player on the court, but a not so good person off of it. “I would call his house looking for him and he would be out,” recalls Carlos Lambert, Hunter’s uncle. “And it was past 12 o’clock at night.”

Lambert lives in Memphis, but he took an interest in Hunter because he was his brother’s son. He spoke with him often over the phone, sent him basketball shoes. They talked about plenty of things, mainly basketball. He made Hunter feel wanted.

Carlos Lambert
  • Carlos Lambert

As a seventh-grader, Hunter joined an AAU team in Panama City. As luck would have it, one of the tournaments his team was to participate in, the AAU Nationals, was being hosted by Wooddale High School in Memphis. It gave Lambert the opportunity to not only spend time with Hunter, but to critique his game.

Lambert was impressed with his nephew’s skills but concerned about the position he played. Hunter, 5' 9” at the time, was his team’s center. So Lambert talked with his nephew about developing combo guard skills.

But when Hunter went back home to Panama City he got in trouble and had to do community time after being involved in a fight. Lambert knew it was time to get him to Memphis. “They had to agree to my terms,” Lambert says of Hunter’s parents. “We were going to have to do things my way.”

“I knew he was about what was best for me,” Hunter says of his uncle, but the transformation wasn’t easy. Looking back on it, Hunter admits his uncle’s talks alone were not getting it done. “It was the paddle,” says Hunter. “He put the paddle on me. That got my attention.” Lambert demanded discipline in the house first and foremost, which carried over to the hardwood.

“We spent hours working on getting him to lay the ball up with his left hand,” says Lambert. “He started crying and telling me he couldn’t do it.” But Hunter continued to put in the work, working on his ball-handling skills and his outside shot.

“It was hard,” says Hunter. “It was really tough. But I could see that my left hand was getting stronger.” His overall game was too. His biggest problem, basketball-wise, was that he continued to grow, a problem most young players would love to have. But Lambert just wasn’t sure how much more growing Hunter had left to do and didn’t think he could make it to the next level with the skills of a center but the height of a guard.

With a little luck and some convincing by Lambert, Hunter was able to play combo guard at Oakhaven Middle School, despite being the tallest person on team. Then the team’s starting point guard got injured, forcing the coach to play Hunter at guard even more.

After middle school, Hunter took his combo guard skills to Melrose and played his first two high school seasons there. Hunter decided to leave after coach Jermaine Johnson was fired as the team’s coach. Houston’s coach William Buford was more than happy to accept him. Hunter averaged 22 points, 3.6 steals, and 6.7 rebounds last year as a junior with the Mustangs.

He puts in a lot of time,” says Buford. “He’s the last leave. He comes at 5:30 a.m. for workouts.”

“I workout, take a shower, and then head to class,” says Hunter.

“Then he comes back to lift weights,” adds Buford.

They are both hoping the added muscle from the weight-lifting will pay off for Hunter, who has gone from 188 lbs. to 205 lbs. in two months. “It should help him play against bigger and stronger players, especially defensively.” says Buford. “Taller and bigger players won’t be able to just bump him off screens.”

If you asked Hunter what makes him one the best prep players in the area, he will not offer his size as an answer. “I’m an energy guy” says Hunter. “Plus I can play without the ball.”

But with the ball in his hands is how his coach prefers it. “Our offense runs through (Hunter),” says Buford. “He’s a leader and he’s not a selfish player. He knows to get the ball to the guy who has it going.”

The guy who had it going recently in Houston’s exhibition game against Hamilton, was Hunter. He scored 50 points by using an array of moves not found in most players’ repertoire. He realizes his days of playing in the post before making the move to guard really helped in diversifying his game. “It’s was kind of weird coming from center to guard,” he says, “but I can still use my big man moves along with my guard skills.”

For all of his improvements on the court, Hunter’s most important transformation came in the classroom. “He was making D’s and F’s before I got him to A’s and B’s now,” says Lambert. Because of Hunter’s dedication to his academic work, he will be a full qualifier at Western Kentucky after scoring 21 on the ACT.

Scholarship offers came in from Arkansas, UT Martin, and ETSU. Hunter says Memphis was never really on his radar. But there were several factors that made Western Kentucky the right school for him. “When I (visited the campus) it had a good atmosphere. I liked Coach (Ray) Harper. I liked his coaching style.”

But more importantly, as with his uncle Lambert, Western Kentucky made Hunter feel like no other school did — wanted.

You can follow Jamie Griffin on twitter @flyerpreps.

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