How do you celebrate the first national junior college men’s basketball championship in the long, storied history of the Mississippi junior college system?
Jones Junior College coach Jay Ladner, one of the best coaches 99.99 percent of the country never heard of, answered his cell phone Sunday morning and answered that question.
“We’re pulled over on the side of the road, somewhere between Longview, Texas, and Shreveport,” Ladner said. “Our bus broke down. But we’re still celebrating. It’ll take more than a broken-down bus to stop that.”
Besides, another bus was on the way to take Jones Junior College and the conquering Bobcats the rest of the way to Ellisville where the celebration should continue for weeks.
What Jones did in the national tournament at Hutchinson, Kan., was astounding. In a matter of five days, the No. 11-seed Bobcats not only won five games, they defeated the No. 22 seed, the No 6 seed, the No. 3 seed, the No. 2 seed and top-seeded and previously No. 1 ranked Indian Hills (Iowa). Indian Hills fell 87-77 in the championship game.
“Nobody can accuse us of backing in,” Ladner said. “We beat the best, five times in five days. I can’t even explain it. It’s surreal.”
There are so many angles to the Jones championship story, there’s no way we can cover it all here. But we can try.
Start with Ladner, a 21-year Mississippi high school coach (20 at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis and one at Oak Grove near Hattiesburg), son of one of the most influential coaches in Mississippi history, J. Larry Ladner.
“Basketball has always been my dad’s passion and he’s touched more coaches than I could count throughout this country,” Jay Ladner said. “To have him there the whole time in Hutchinson to experience this was special beyond words.”
And then there’s Ladner’s relationship with his former college coach, M.K. Turk, who died four months ago. Ladner played for Turk’s 1987 NIT Championship team at Southern Miss.
“I was in Coach Turk’s first basketball camp when he took the job at USM,” Ladner said. “We remained close. I dedicated this entire championship season to him, and his family knew it.”
Throw in a little – actually a lot – of Richard Williams’ influence. Williams, the ex-Mississippi State coach, a soon-to-be Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, used to serve as a volunteer assistant to Ladner at St. Stanislaus.
Jay Ladner: “I’ve learned a lot of basketball from a lot of people. Richard Williams is right up there with my dad and Coach Turk. So much of what we were doing offensively in that championship game all came from Richard Williams, who is the best analytical basketball mind I’ve ever been around.”
And then there’s the Bobcats themselves, three from Brooklyn, N.Y., the rest from Mississippi. (Not a single Indian Hills player was from Iowa.)
“There’s a toughness to our team that is probably best explained by the fact they are either from Brooklyn, or from Mississippi,” Ladner said “Everybody else in New York looks down on Brooklyn. Everybody in the country seems to look down on Mississippi. Our kids are tough because they have had to be.”
Every championship story has some magic to it, too. Leo Garrett, who scored 15 points and had five rebounds in the championship game, spent the 2012-13 season as Ladner’s manager. That’s right, he handed water and towels to the other players last year. He washed their jocks and socks.
“We knew Leo from Bay St. Louis, where he lived before Hurricane Katrina,” Ladner said. “Then his family moved to Brookhaven after the storm and he finished school there and was out of basketball, out of school. He called last year and all I had to offer him was a manager’s position. I noticed him shooting around at practices and making a bunch of shots. We gave him a uniform…”
And the rest, as they say, is history, Mississippi history.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum