The coach motioned to the court as he explained his school’s relative lack of success there. “We do well in football, because the kids are coachable,” he said. “Then we come out here to basketball, and the same guys think they know everything.”
I nodded, glumly.
That recent real-life conversation illustrated one Central Texas school’s hoops challenge. But it really only provided a tiny piece in a far greater jigsaw puzzle that, once assembled, presents a big-picture question: Why don’t more Central Texas boys basketball programs win state?
It’s a question I’ve been asking and pondering for 20 years now, and I’ve yet to find a definitive answer.
First, in a matter of full disclosure: I love basketball best. All the sports are my beloved children, and I glean enjoyment from each. But in this case I make no allusions about playing favorites – I played basketball the most as a kid, and still get out and lumber up and down the court as a middle-aged dad. Consequently, I watch and follow the sport with great frequency and fervor.
So my befuddlement over Central Texas’ basketball landscape masks a certain frustration level. The reason I ask the question is because I WANT to see better basketball.
But here’s the cold, hard truth. On a state level, the Centex area doesn’t stack up. The last school in the Tribune-Herald’s coverage area (which encompasses 60-plus schools) to seize a state championship in boys basketball was Mexia in 2001. Since that time, a pair of teams who formerly fell within the Trib’s circulation area – what I’d call extended Central Texas – have won state, Academy in 2002 and Calvert in 2012.
But that’s it. Closer to home, it’s been 18 years since the Kevin Gill-coached La Vega Pirates captured a championship banner, as the last McLennan County boys team to achieve that feat. In the same time frame, since 2000, Centex schools have won a total of 39 state football and baseball championships.
So, again, what gives? Clearly the area is not devoid of talented athletes. Is basketball that much different?
In a word – maybe. In two words – kinda sorta.
One theory – basketball is something of a city game. Dallas and Houston-area schools win at least one state title every year, and more often multiple banners. Here is a partial list of schools that have won UIL state titles in the past five years – Dallas Madison, Mansfield Timberview, Cypress Falls, Dallas Lincoln, Lancaster, DeSoto, Plano West, Houston Yates, Dallas Kimball, Galena Park North Shore, Dallas A-Plus Academy, Rosenberg Terry and Fort Bend Travis.
The big metro areas possess an inherent population advantage. With more players and teams to pull from, simple math suggests that Big D and H-Town should fare well. Those cities also boast numerous AAU and other travel-league teams, which serve as an important farm system and training ground for the local high school squads.
But the UIL doesn’t just hold tournaments in Classes 6A and 5A, either. Plenty of mid-sized cities and rural areas produce champs every season.
I don’t think it would be fair to make a blanket assumption that Central Texas school districts don’t care about basketball. They all field teams, and the players who make up those teams, along with the coaches who lead them, obviously want to win. Many work very hard to that end.
But I do subscribe to the belief that there are some local athletic directors who view basketball as a necessary evil. One former AD at a local high school was known to discourage his football players from even going out for the basketball team, instead nudging them to spend their time in offseason football workouts or helping the powerlifting team.
The towns and teams that care the most tend to fare the best. Mexia is home to one of the better basketball traditions in Central Texas, as evidenced by state title flags from 1999 and 2001. The Blackcats’ efforts are buoyed by a supportive fan base that fills up the bleachers even in the leaner years.
That matters. Coaches tell me all the time it matters. If the Mommas and Daddies have your back, the players will follow. On the flip side, a critical collection of parents can poison a team’s direction. I couldn’t help but shake my head at a recent girls game when a lady loudly called from the stands, “Why isn’t Pamela (not her real name) in the game?” Guess what, Momma? First, Pamela has been a turnover machine in this game. Second, even if she hadn’t been, you’re not helping.
Speaking of girls basketball, it’s interesting to note that Central Texas doesn’t shoot blanks when targeting state titles in the girls’ game. Midway is steeped in tradition, with seven state banners hanging in the rafters, most recently representing 2009. Other Centex girls teams that have won state since 2000 include China Spring, Robinson, Mexia and La Vega.
Why have those teams succeeded where their brethren have fallen short? Heck if I know.
What I know is this – my in-laws live in San Antonio, which also doubles as the home of the UIL state basketball tournaments. And I’m more than happy to book a stay with them during the weekend of March 8-10, when the state’s top boys teams will vie for the ultimate prize. Even better would be seeing one of our Central Texas teams hoist a trophy aloft at the end of that event.
Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?