R-MA Middle School boys’ basketball team was very young in experience, with a starting line up led by Jiseong Choi ’23 and Nnamdi Odom ’23, both only in their second year of basketball, and Patrick Brewer ‘23, who was in his first year playing organized basketball. However, raw talent and strong determination outweighed that inexperience. The team dominated the Valley Middle School Conference, winning both the season and tournament championship titles.
“Nnamdi and I had a goal to be champions this season, because last year we lost to Mountain View [Christian Academy] by one point,” said Choi. Frustrated by that close loss, the two of them, along with Brewer and anyone else who would join in, worked hard on improving their game, both during and outside of practice. They had a long way to go, as their second game demonstrated to them—they lost to Highland School by 20 points.
“At the beginning of the year, the whole team wasn’t working together as we did later on in the season,” said Brewer. “Our only game that we lost against Highland, we weren’t communicating as much. As a team, you have to communicate to each other.”
As they worked on their skills, Choi took what he had learned as a captain during soccer and tried to apply it to his basketball team. “It’s about our relationship as a team,” he said. “I knew everybody was going to work hard, and some were going to lead and some were going to follow. But I think the bond, I think that’s the most important thing, whether we lose or we win. I was really focusing on our environment and making team bonds, so everybody could feel like they were part of the team.”
Choi’s efforts, in conjunction with those of Coach Kyle Mackey and several key teammates, were successful. “I feel like we came together as a team this year, not because of one person, because the whole team knew their job and we all played it,” commented Odom.
Mackey saw the team dynamics slip into place in January. “I knew [we had a chance at the championship] when the new year began, when we went to St. Joe’s and we beat them,” Coach Mackey said. “I said, ‘Oh, we’ve got something.’”
Mackey credited the players’ hard work as the primary reason for the season’s success. He explained that the newer players would often get a rebound, but immediately look to throw the ball rather than dribble, so in January, he set his team to doing dribble drills over and over. By the end of the season, all of his players, even the sixth graders, were dribbling up and down the court. “The game is about dribbling,” he said. “Everybody should know how to bring the ball down the court, nobody should be afraid. No one was afraid by the end of the year, of anything. They stepped up, all of them, as a team.” Their fast style of play was hard to keep up with, other teams never knew who was going to take the ball to the net, and the Yellow Jackets defense was intimidating. It was a recipe for success.
Spirits and expectations high, the team didn’t fool around during the first quarter of the championship home game against Chelsea Academy, as they quickly gained the lead and finished the first quarter 16-6. In the spirit of sportsmanship and because he wanted all of his players to share in the experience, win or lose, Mackey pulled four of his five starters at the start of the second quarter, soon followed by the fifth starter. When the half was called, Chelsea had closed the lead slightly, to 22-16.
During the third quarter, the score again ebbed and flowed, but R-MA never lost the lead. Soon Chelsea was lagging behind by ten points again. When Odom went down and had to sit out for a while, Chelsea surged back and suddenly, at the start of the fourth quarter, the score was 30-27. That was the closest Chelsea got to the Yellow Jackets as several starters returned to the court, and Chelsea was called for a technical foul. At the end of the game, the score was 43-37—and every single player on the R-MA team had gotten to play. The girls’ team, whose game had been postponed, ran onto the court screaming in excitement as the boys jumped up and down.
Later, the athletes were quick to give credit to their coach for their win. Ironically, they also said that winning was never his focus.
“I think he wanted everyone to have fun in basketball, even if it was the championship,” said Choi. “So I feel like Coach focused on having fun in basketball, not just winning everything.”
“He doesn’t care about winning,” agreed Brewer. “He’s more focused on education and getting stuff done.”
It’s safe to say that Coach Mackey and his team “got stuff done.” And in taking care of the essentials, they took home the trophies for both the season and the tournament.