The Commercial Appeal
Why pride isn’t enough to retain top talent
Alijah Curry could have left Memphis East during his freshman year to go elsewhere for a boys high school basketball season. He had every reason to leave.
When Memphis-shelby County Schools announced that all 2020-21 high school athletics were canceled, every coach knew the damage it would do. It was about to pull some of the best talent away from the city and, potentially, trigger a lengthy rebuild to get Memphis city teams back to the top of the state.
Two of his former teammates, Tadarius Jacobs and J.R. Jacobs, left for Bartlett that season. With those three players on the same team, Curry and coach Jevonte Holmes each believe their Memphis East team would have been one of the best in the state that year.
That same offseason, Amarr Knox joined the Jacobs brothers at Bartlett from Memphis Central, denting the hopes of another strong city team. In the 2021-22 season, Knox and J.R. Jacobs led the Panthers to the state semifinals.
Players like Curry, though, saw the value of staying. The pride of playing at Memphis East, with all the program’s history, was too good to pass up.
“It’s a lot of players that came through (Memphis East); it’s a lot of history,” Curry said. “I just keep the tradition going and I just try to make my own tradition myself.”
That’s also why his teammate Jamarion Harvey and senior Overton guard Jordan Frison opted to continue with their respective schools.
There’s still a whole lot of pride in playing high school basketball in Memphis.
This week, East and Overton are two of the area’s five schools competing for a state title; in fact, every Memphis team in the Division I boys state tournament is from the Memphis-shelby County Schools district, except for Power Center Academy High School, which is a charter school located in Memphis.
But now that the suburban schools are catching up, and teams around the state are evening the score in a tournament traditionally dominated by Memphis schools, is pride enough to restore the shine on Memphis high school basketball’s prominence?
“Pride no longer has nothing to compete with anything,” White Station coach Jesus Patino said. “It’s all about, ‘What can you do for me now?’ That’s what the new generation is now.
“... We have to get with the times.”
A new challenge
Last year, when Bartlett was bounced out of the Division I-4A boys
semifinals at the buzzer by Dobyns Bennett, it ended a 26-year streak of at least one Memphis-area public school playing for a state title.
Memphis was no longer the most feared city at the boys basketball state tournament. Memphis teams became beatable.
That moment had its beginning three years ago. As teams recover from the Covid-induced damage, there’s a new challenge facing MSCS schools.
Holmes, the head coach at Memphis East the last four seasons and part of the program since 2016, has been fighting uphill for basic facilities improvements for his program over the last 18 months. Something as simple as getting new lights in the gym has been a struggle.
East isn’t the only school dealing with facilities. Overton recently received new scoreboards, lights and got the hardwood floor re-buffed for the first time in about two years.
It’s an ongoing issue that has Memphis city schools at a disadvantage to other local municipal schools and private schools.
“We’re thankful for what we have, but we would love to have better facilities,” said Overton coach Shelvie Rose. “Have the SCIAA (Memphis Shelby County Interscholastic Athletic Association) take a little bit better pride in building up some things.”
Overton spent time before this year’s state tournament practicing at Christian Brothers High School and a basketball facility in Hernando to replicate the conditions it would see at MTSU’S Murphy Center this week.
“When you’ve been exposed to all of that stuff that they’re building between the private schools and the municipalities where they’re independent,” Patino said, “and they actually understand the important role that that plays, Memphis now no longer has the power over anybody because now everybody is closing in.
“You can’t blame parents for that.” MSCS did announce its plans to upgrade to four Memphis area football stadiums and there are no plans for similar upgrades to any of the basketball gyms at this time.
“We are encouraged by where our athletic program is today,” an MSCS media relations person said via email. “And we are moving forward with plans to improve facilities and recruit and retain top-caliber coaches.”
But that’s just the beginning.
High school basketball coaches in Memphis aren’t just worried about losing current players, now they’re worried about losing some of the best upcoming talent, too.
Retaining middle school players is becoming increasingly harder. Schools like Bartlett, Christian Brothers, Briarcrest and Collierville now have some of the best facilities at the high school level. Two of the area’s top freshmen, Cello Jackson and MJ Hayes, played at Havenview last year, one the top middle school basketball programs in the area and traditionally an athletic feeder school for Whitehaven. Both are at FACS.
Coaches also battling prep schools that pluck out the elite players too, a phenomenon that’s finally arrived in Memphis.
“You have a lot of schools competing for a lot of these kids coming out of middle school now,” Holmes said. “You got kids that normally wouldn’t go to those areas that’s going to those areas and trying to have better facilities.”
How are schools like Overton, which is landlocked by neighborhoods and I-240, and East, right in the heart of Midtown, supposed to compete with Collierville, which has hosted a collegiate Women’s National Invitational Tournament game?
It starts with the administration backing its coaches, which they’ve done. And it takes coaches continuing to connect with players and their parents and remind them of the tradition the city of Memphis prides itself on as the mecca of basketball in Tennessee.
It also takes an effort to bring the basketball gyms, weight rooms and accommodate the basic needs the coaches need to continue to compete at the level everyone else around the state is starting to catch up to.
“We got a lot of great athletes in the inner city; a lot of great athletes in the surrounding area, period,” Holmes said.
Reach Wynston Wilcox at email@example.com and on Twitter @wynstonw__.