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New head basketball coach has senior-laden Devils aiming for the top

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By Bill Sorrell

Photos by Kevin Lewter 

Basketball has brought Jason James the best of times and a connection to his worst.

“I always say that April 7, 2015, was the worst day of my life,” said James, Germantown High School’s new head basketball coach.

A colleague he talked with twice a day for five years, Torrey Ward, the associate head men’s basketball coach at Illinois State University, was killed in a plane crash near Bloomington, Ill. He and six others were returning from the NCAA men’s championship basketball game in Indianapolis.

A guard at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the assistant men’s coach at Ole Miss from 2006-11, Ward was 36.

“We became like brothers,” said James. “After that happened, it put everything in perspective. I hugged my kids a little tighter and family became so much more important after that day. Man, we love basketball but there is so much more to it than winning or losing a basketball game.”

Despite the tough times James has been through, the game has brought joy.

“I have always said that most of the good things that have happened to me have been a result of this game. For that reason, I have a lot of respect for the game of basketball. I cherish it. I love it,” said James, 38. “Probably the greatest memories I have had in the game are meeting my wife and having my kids being born in Jackson, Tenn.”

Through basketball he met his wife Dani. She was an athletic trainer at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where James coached from 2002-14. He was head men’s coach from 2009-14.

Their oldest daughter, Sadie, was born in 2011, after a bracket-buster game with Bradley University. Their 2-year-old son, Austin, was born after a basketball practice. Their 3-year-old daughter, Claire, was born after the season in April.

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“You remember winning games, you remember the good times but you remember the kids more than anything,” said James, who has a Germantown team that will be a memory-maker.

Through early February, the Red Devils had a 22-2 record, including 10-1 in District 15-AAA. There are 13 seniors on a squad that has had many of them playing together since sixth grade.

“Our guys have bought into playing together,” James said. “They have been through the wars. They know what to expect. They have been through every situation. That has helped us out a lot.”

Senior point guard Michael Bamrick called “closeness” a tie that binds.

“We are a family unit,” he noted. “We do everything together. We work as hard as we can to make each other the best player possible. When you get us on the court, through good times and bad times, you are going to see how close we are.”

James said, “Our experience is a huge strength. Our ability to make shots is a strength. We are deep with a bunch of guys that can play. That is a strength. I think one of the hardest things to guard in basketball is balance and a lot of games, we have had that balance. It’s been a huge asset for us.

“We try to be disciplined and uphold responsibility to each other. I try to let them play in the right spot, teach them some different things about what to look for and let them go do it.”

The Red Devils have played in close games but have been victorious through most all because of their ability to stay cool under pressure and execute.

“He (James) has the ability to keep everybody calm through tough situations,” said Bamrick.

Germantown’s 3-point ability has made opponents scramble.

“You are a lot harder to defend when the ball goes in,” said James.

The offense thrives around putting players in correct positions to be successful, whether it is a guard or a post-player.

“Those guys have done a good job of that,” said James.

The defense has been been mainly man-to-man.

“We have still got to get better at that. It is something that we have worked on every day,” said James. “We have got to learn to guard people. If we want to get to the next level, we have got to be more efficient on the offensive end and defensive end.”

Practice has made almost-perfect.

Senior forward Cooper Foreman said, “Last season the team wasn’t as fired up and wasn’t willing to put in hard work at practice. You should see our practices now.”

 

James, who has coached for 16 years, said he still gets excited about practice.

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“I get excited about a chance to teach the game that I love. I get excited with an opportunity to see these guys get better and see them improve,” he said. “It is exciting watching tapes of our next opponent. I get excited on a daily basis. I think the practices are for us coaches and that the games have always been for players.

“I expect to be at my best every day. They have always said there is one guy who can’t have a bad practice and that is the head coach,” he continued. “I expect to prepare these guys for every basketball game, no matter who it is, no matter where it is. I expect to be the best I can be and not let these dudes down. You try to be the best you can be as a team and try to be the best you can be as a person every day. That is important.”

Seniors the team has counted on, James said, are captains Darrell Brown, who is the leading scorer, Jonathan Bins and Rodney Williams.

“Rodney has been a great leader for us,” said James. “He has done a heck of a job on both ends. Dacoda Stone has fit in nicely. Cooper Foreman has been a good leader for us. Jacob Ivey has been a good leader. In different situations, a lot of those guys have done things that leaders do.”

The team has relied on leadership from Bamrick, DeMarcus Mitchell, Charles Grayer, Marcus Mitchell, Chris Willett, Calmar Davis, London Gool, Myles Montgomery, Kevin Cheatham and Morgan Richmond.

“We have got some guys who will play in college, who I don’t know. We are getting a bunch of interest from different schools on a bunch of different guys. A lot of these guys are good enough to go to the next level. It’s just about finding the right fit,” said James.

Before games, players dance. They turn on rap music in their locker room and seniors Willet, Grayer and Richmond lead.

“That is a ritual. We all get wild and dance around. So that’s fun. It relaxes us. It calms us down,” said Bamrick.

Williams likes to play tricks on other players said James.

“They all like to be funny. They like to laugh and joke with each other. It’s a close-knit bunch,” he said. “They have been together a long time.”

If a player leaves his phone lying around the locker room, Williams “takes a bunch of pictures” he said.

The comradery is fueled by team chemistry said Williams, whose favorite part of the game is blocking shots.

“It’s a technique to do it,” he explained. “You have to have your timing down.”

Chemistry has also allowed players to get in each others’ faces in practice.

“We are all best buds and aren’t afraid of being critical towards one another,” said Foreman.
Williams said, “We talk to each other on the court it never goes past that. As soon as basketball practice is over, we are right back friends like we were before.”

The familiarity has allowed the Red Devils to know each other’s moves before they make them.

“We know where a player needs to be in order to perform the best,” said Williams.

Planning to go to Army reserve basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., July 6 through mid-December and then be in the ROTC at Ole Miss in January where he will study engineering, Bamrick compared the game to the military.

“You learn to work as hard as you can,” he said. “You were born to work hard. That is one thing that drove me to the military. I always work hard. If you make one mistake in the military, you can endanger somebody’s life. If you make one mistakes in basketball, you can put the team’s chances of winning at risk.”

The team is on a mission to improve last season’s 20-plus win record that lost in the first round of the regional tournament.

“We shouldn’t have lost at all,” said Bamrick. “We have made a mission as a team to have a lot better year. We returned everybody and added a couple of players as well. We knew that we would be good but this level of success is a little bit of a surprise.”

Calling the season “a journey,” James said that the team is trying to improve daily.

“That has been our goal. It’s been a relentless pursuit of excellence. Our whole goal every day is to be the best basketball team that we can be. If we do that, the winning and losing will take care of itself. For the most part, these guys have done that. They have answered the bell just about every day. They have done what has been asked of them. We have been able to be successful.”

Germantowns Jonathan Bins floats in for a easy layup

A native of St. Louis, James was a point guard at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. He began his coaching career at Forest Park Community College in St. Louis. After leaving UTM, he coached at Blytheville (Ark.) High School during the 2014-15 season.

Missing the state tournament by one game, Blytheville finished with a 14-11 overall record. In the previous two years the team had won eight games combined.

“It was a blessing. Those kids definitely overachieved. It was all about them. I wasn’t much we did,” said James. “It was really a good experience for me. The kids were great. We were able to win some basketball games. Those kids had a lot to do with that. They bought in. They did everything we asked them to do and more.

“I owe a lot to the city of Blytheville and to the high school for giving me an opportunity to be a daddy and coach basketball and get my love and passion for the game back,” he continued. “For that reason, they will always be important to me and we will always pull for them.”

James’ first day at Germantown was Nov. 2, 2015.

“They are good kids,” said James of his team. “I enjoy getting to know them and spend time with them. They are good in the classroom. They do right. I think they care more than some times they lead on.”

His best advice as a coach has been “to be yourself,” he said. “Don’t try to be anybody else.”

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The game is about relationships. James called it the best part.

Getting to know players and watching players, in high school and college, mature has been part of the “joy” of coaching.

He has learned himself. “I try to be more of a teacher. I try to explain things a little bit better. Since I have kids, my patience has gone way up,” he said.
“The biggest things that are important to me, we had some guys at Martin who weren’t supposed to graduate from college but did. I hold those accolades for those guys just as high as any basketball game that we have ever won.”

James wants the Red Devils to “play as long as we can,” he said. “If we continue to improve, if we continue to put our best foot forward and continue to be at our best, then we will be successful.”

For Williams and Bamrick playing as long as they can means playing through mid-March.

Where does Williams want to be then?

“With a pep rally in the gymnasium where they give us our (state championship) rings.”

Said Bamrick,”We want to be holding up that gold ball. I hope we win it, then all go on spring break. That would be the greatest.”