After Long Drought, Bibb County Basketball Ready To Return To Former Glory
CENTREVILLE, Ala. – Over 90 minutes had passed, but Russ Wallace was still quietly seething.
It seemed innocent enough. As two teams of five worked on plays on the court, a group of kids – freshmen and junior varsity players – waited for their turn to play and shared a laugh.
If only they knew.
Not only were the laughs ill-advised, but they came at a poorly timed moment in practice, when Wallace was providing a teaching moment for those currently playing. He let them have it then, and he sure didn’t forget by the end of practice, either.
“Nothing’s ever personal. It’s business,” Wallace told his team as they circled up around him. “When me and (assistant coach J.J. Russell) are talking everybody’s going to shut up. That’s just how it’s going to be.”
It is the first official practice of the season for Bibb County High School boys’ basketball team in mid-October, but it seemed more like mid-season the way Wallace conducted it. It didn’t matter that all but four of his varsity team players were absent due to football team priorities, the message was clear: Play it my way or don’t bother playing at all.
“I’m going to win a championship sooner or later with or without you,” he continued. “Some of you have some ability, but some of you have excuses.”
He speaks from experience. He’s won it before – twice – just not at this school. Not yet.
There are two different Coach Wallace’s that his players know: the one inside the purple line that stretches around the Bibb County basketball gym and the one outside of it.
It’s not that he can’t take a joke or have fun, it just matters when and where you are doing it.
“He always tells us inside of the court we’re not human, we’re part of a machine, so if that part is not working correctly, he’ll take it and put another part in it that will work for him,” said Jon’Nita Henry, a senior guard and all-state honorable mention player last season on the Bibb County girls’ basketball team, which Wallace also coaches along with the boys. “But outside the court, he’s a very cool coach. He’s fun to be around and everything. It’s just when it comes down to basketball, he means business.”
At first, the players had only heard of the on-the-court Coach Wallace. They only knew about his back-to-back state championships in 2010 at Pickens County and nothing about his off-the-court demeanor. As a result, some of the players were admittedly fearful about what was ahead of him.
“Everybody was telling me he was a good coach, but he straight means business, like he doesn't want any of that foolishness,” junior guard-forward Maleake Kersh said. “I was kind of scared and I was like, ‘Oh man, I never thought I would have a coach like this,’ because Bibb County used to have a coach and he was just all playful and stuff and really didn’t care.”
When Wallace arrived at Bibb County three years ago in June 2012, there were a few things he knew for certain about the basketball programs. 1) There were athletes, 2) there was tradition and 3) there was support. The problem was that you couldn’t tell if any of that was true.
What did putting a hand in the passing lane mean? They didn’t know. Where was the recognition for past championships, including the boys’ 1970 and 1989 state championship titles? It didn’t exist. Why wasn't there any excitement from fans in and around town and at the school itself? Well, you have to win to do that and neither the boys nor girls were doing much of that.
“It was pretty bad,” Wallace said. “I think the boys had only won seven, eight games a couple years in a row, or something like that. It’s been over 10 years since they made it to a regional, so it’s been a long time. That’s not Bibb County. With the athletes that are here, Bibb County ought to be in the regional, at least, every year just about.”
And the girls? Besides two regional semifinal appearances in 2004 and 2006, it was essentially a blank canvas with no real history to speak of. In the previous six seasons before Wallace arrived, the girls never won more than five games in a single season.
It was going to take some time.
When Wallace arrived at Bibb County in June 2012, he was underwhelmed by the new, $2 million basketball gym the school had just built. It was nice, but there were some issues. The goals of the basketball hoops were put up backwards. The scoreboards had extension cords hanging sloppily along the wall. The floor itself had suffered some water damage that needed repair.
But perhaps worst of all was the overall lack of any sort of identity or charm. There was no logo at center court or “Choctaws,” the school’s nickname, running along the sidelines. The four walls of the gym were bare, seemingly refusing to share any pride for past glory and history. “When I got in here, it was just a plain, purple line all the way around the floor,” Wallace said.
Some of the problems would have been an easy enough fix had they been able to do it right away.
“The first season he came he was talking about it, but we didn’t have any money in the system,” Kersh said. “Nobody cared about basketball.”
It would have to be put on hold for the time being. That wasn’t too big of a deal at the time, however, because there was at least one thing Wallace could work on right away.
If you’re going to play for Coach Wallace, don’t think you can just be a part of the team for three or fourth months out of the year and remain in his program. As soon as one season ends, it’s onto the next one.
“I give them about a week off,” Wallace said. “When school’s still going on, it’s five days a week. They get the weekends off and then when the summer gets here, it pretty much continues through June because that’s when all your team camps are and things like that.
“Then in July we back off and go two days a week, and then when school starts, I give them a week off there. It’s a year-round program. A lot of high schools don’t do that. I feel like that’s why once we get there, we’ll be competing at a high level every year.”
It’s a cycle that dates back to his 14 years at Pickens County, where, in addition to state titles, the Tornadoes won 13 of 14 area championships, making it as far as the Elite Eight six times and the Final Four twice.
It’s a lot of conditioning, workouts and keeping your hand on the ball – enough to keep you ready for when the season actually starts. And even though he never previously coached girls’ basketball, it applied for them too.
Tryouts are essentially held at this time, so aside from the occasional late addition, the team has already been finalized long before the start of the season. Attendance is mandatory, even if you’re Danjel Purifoy, who, prior to his July move to a Virginia military school, was the top-rated prospect in the state of Alabama, according to all major recruiting services.
Purifoy, who would have been one of the team’s starters as a senior this season, skipped out on several spring practices and was promptly cut from the program.
“When you don’t come to spring practice, you don’t play. I don’t know what he was thinking, thinking he didn’t have to come,” Wallace said. “I guess he thought because he was one of the Players of the Year, or one of the top-3 candidates, that he’s special and he doesn’t have to do what everyone else does.”
It’s not the first time Wallace has done something like this. In the one season Pickens County failed to win the area championship during Wallace's tenure in 2009, a group of veteran players failed to fully buy into his program and philosophy. When Wallace told them after the season that needed to change for next year and it didn't, the culprits, mostly seniors, were cut. In their place, a sophomore-laden team went on to win the first state championship in Pickens County history, following it up with two more in 2011 and 2012.
“If you do something wrong, he’s going to make you keep doing it as long as possible until you remember what to do,” junior center Brandon Rutledge said. “He wants you to know it when you sleep. He wants you to dream about it.”
Good things seem to happen when the team outweighs the individual, whether it’s under Coach Wallace or the Bibb County of old.
Charles McCaleb, 64, knows Bibb County basketball better than anybody. In a town with a population just north of 7,500 if combined with the adjacent town of Brent, it’s not likely somebody knows more than the man, who, after playing for Bibb County from 1965-68, has worked at the school every year but two since 1973, serving as the boys’ or girls’ basketball coach in nearly every one of them.
He was the point guard on the first Bibb County team to make the state tournament in 1967, made it back as a boys’ assistant in 1976 and did it again with three Final Four appearances in four years from 1989-1992 as the boys’ head coach. After a two-year retirement from the school after the 1996-97 season, he returned for the 1999-2000 school year as the girls’ head coach, leading them to their most successful run in team history for 10 seasons.
Thus, during his successful run as a player and coach, he developed a keen eye for basketball talent, including coaches. So with the Choctaws needing to fill both basketball head coaching jobs after the 2011-12 season, McCaleb, who now serves as a part-time driver’s education teacher and athletic director at the school, jumped at the opportunity when he heard that Wallace was available.
“I told everybody because I knew how hard Russ’ teams played at Pickens County because we played them a time or two, and I had the girls back then,” McCaleb said. “And I saw how hard he worked them and how hard he stayed on them during the game, and I said, ‘Golly, he’s an excellent coach.’
“So when the opportunity came to hire him, it was a no-brainer.”
Wallace, who was planning to go to Fairhope High School for an interview later that week, eagerly accepted the Bibb County job from McCaleb soon after he received a call from him out of the blue one Saturday afternoon.
In Wallace's first season, both the boys and girls made progress, but it wasn’t readily apparent at first. Both teams made it as far as the sub-regional for the first time in years, but the boys still had a record that had become commonplace in recent years at 13-16, and the girls only had one more win than they did the season before at 6-17.
But even if any doubt still remained about the direction Bibb County basketball was heading, Wallace certainly didn’t have any.
“It wasn’t hard to get the kids to buy in, because I think they were hungry, wanting something different,” he said. “It’s been an easy transition, it really has, from that standpoint.”
Before the next season started, both programs had a makeover. All the things that they wanted to have before but couldn’t afford – logo, signs, new floor – were now there. They even had new uniforms, a scorer’s table and a basketball shooting machine. “He told us he was going to bring this place up to standards,” Kersh said.
The start of a new season didn’t come without tragedy, however.
Only a week into the 2013-14 season, Desmine Phillips, a 16-year-old junior on the boys’ team, died on his way home from a Friday evening practice after he struck another vehicle head on.
His teammates were motivated to play on in his memory.
“We honored him,” Kersh said. “We carried his No. 15 jersey around every game and we won’t let anybody wear his number. We put his jersey on the chair as we run out and we touch it before we run out every game.”
After initially struggling to come to terms in the immediate aftermath of their teammate’s death, the boys, who had already opened the season 2-0, went 24-6 the rest of the way, falling in the regional semifinals to the eventual state champions, Dallas County, to end their season.
And though Phillips’ passing may not have directly affected it, the girls’ team also made strides, making it back to the sub-regional once again, but this time with a record of 14-12, one of its best ever.
It was the first winning season in eight years for the girls and nine for the boys.
Bibb County was finally back.
They know it was only one season, but it would be hard to argue against the ultimate goal now being in their reach.
Each team returns the majority of its players and four of its starters from a year ago, and many of the powerhouses in Bibb County’s 4A classification have moved up to 5A, leaving an open door that’s hard to ignore. Even the fan base that used to regularly pack out the gym during the glory days sees it.
“When we first started two years ago, there weren’t that many fans here and then going through last season, we saw more and more people come,” said Rutledge, who like many of the current Bibb County players has had several relatives play for the great Bibb County teams of the past. “Our last probably like 10 games last year, a whole bunch of people started showing up. They started supporting us.
“Now every time we go into our gym and start playing, a whole bunch of people will just be standing against the wall, watching us play. They don’t say anything the whole time, they just stand there. They are so into it, like they’re right there into the court with us. They get us excited, happy.”
After seeing progress in the last two seasons, Wallace believes that both teams have a legitimate shot at winning a state title too. He’s not one to make that type of claim if he didn’t honestly believe it.
“My selling point was that in three years, I want to get Bibb County back on the map to where they’re recognized throughout the state as a solid basketball program like they used to be,” Wallace said. “The girls got a shot at it, too. They haven’t really done a lot, and this year’s team will probably shatter any girls’ record that’s been around here. They got a chance to win 20-plus games.
“I told them all that in the third year, I want to be competing for a championship.”
It’s dimly lit inside the old, outdated gym at Bibb County High School, where a few signs from decades past hang proudly on the wall and a stage that once served school plays and assemblies still exists.
Heave a shot from distance in this gym and your ball will have almost as good a chance of hitting the ceiling as it does the bottom of the net. Try to dribble past a defender and you’ll find that maintaining your balance on the slick floor is as much a task as scoring on the opponent.
Up until the completion of the new gym in 2012 – the same year Wallace arrived – this was the only home for the Choctaws, a place that still looks a lot like it did when it was first built in 1967.
But because girls’ volleyball is practicing in the new gym on this afternoon, it is home once again for the boys’ basketball team, at least for one day.
Its shortcomings are obvious and it’s nowhere near as nice as what the new one has to offer, but everything Bibb County basketball really wants resides in here. This is where all the great players, the sold-out crowds and the champions of the past happened. It is history.
“Last year, we knocked at the door a little bit,” Wallace said. “We didn’t go all the way through it, but we knocked on the door a little bit. This year, we want to blow through the door and say, ‘Hey, we’re here now. We’re back and we ain’t going nowhere.’”
Practice is coming to a close, and Wallace uses it as more than just time to lecture his players. He reminds his players that basketball forms need to be turned in soon and that good grades in school are still required, otherwise it’s after-school study hall for them or no basketball at all. Winning is important to Wallace, but so are his players’ best interests.
“All these little freshmen and JV kids you saw us yelling and screaming, that’s exactly how some of the varsity players were when first started coaching them,” Wallace said. “It’ll take some time to get those kids to be smart and understand, you got to play it this way, you got to make these kind of decisions.”
The team huddled up to break down practice. “DP on three. One, two, three, DP!” Desmine Phillips, their fallen teammate, is still on their minds. The Bibb County Choctaws are driven to succeed in his memory, but also for their school and surrounding community as well.
Positioned on the wall behind them is the team photo of the 1989 state championship squad. The prize is almost literally there for the taking.