The 14-and-under Griffin Grasshoppers AAU basketball team ended their season this past weekend in style, winning the Back 2 School Jam in Knoxville, Tenn.
“This was a special victory in more ways than one,” said Grasshoppers founder and head coach Alan “Duck” Richards.
Just prior to the team’s departure, Richards received a phone call and was informed former Grasshoppers assistant coach Angelo “Boo” White died of a heart attack.
“Coach Boo helped me form the original Grasshoppers team (more than a decade ago),” said Richards. “His two sons, Chauncey and Courtland, were both members of the Grasshoppers. My prayers go out to his wife Cassandra and to the rest of his family.”
Richards said none of his current players ever met White, but he explained to them who White was and what he did for the Grasshoppers.
“Coach Boo will never be forgotten by the Grasshoppers,” said Richards.
After being notified of the death, coach Duck’s wife, Gayla, who is six months pregnant and unable to travel with the team as she usually does, suggested the Grasshoppers not make the trip and play in the tournament.
“I was concerned about his mental state of being because he took coach Boo’s death real hard,” she said of her husband. “But he’s the coach. He loves helping kids and I support him and trust his decisions.”
The decision was made to go, but not before Richards gave a speech.
Richards told his team why it would not only play in the tournament but why it would win it. He challenged each player to only play their role and execute each play one step at a time.
After arriving in Knoxville, however, things didn’t go well to start with as one of the assistant coaches took a wrong turn and did not make the opening game - against the host team Knoxville Panthers - until five minutes remained in the second half.
Furthermore, three of the team’s five starters were with the assistant coach who took a wrong turn. The remaining players tried to pull off an upset but Knoxville pulled away to win 51-46.
Even in defeat, coach Richards was pleased with how the reserve players stepped up and maintained the Grasshoppers tradition of playing hard from the opening buzzer to the game-ending buzzer.
In the post-game speech, however, Richards had to level with his players: “In order for us to accomplish our goals we cannot loose another game.”
The Grasshoppers listened and responded in like fashion, taking down the Farragut Flash 45-24, the Atlanta Select 53-31 and the Seymour Eagles 46-34 in succession to advance to the title game against the Knoxville Panthers.
Knoxville went into the title game undefeated. The Grasshoppers were excited to have a second opportunity against the team that handed them their only defeat.
The score at the half was 27-all. That’s when Richards made adjustments and had his team go into a man-to-man, full-court defense. It turned out to be the turning point as the Grasshoppers forced four turnovers to build a 10-point lead early in the second half. They never relinquished the lead the rest of the way and won 54-42.
“They were an excellent shooting team from the arc,” Richards said of Knoxville. “Earlier in the game we were playing a zone and they made several key baskets from the perimeter.”
Richards, who was celebrating his birthday, couldn’t say enough about the way his team overcame adversity throughout the weekend.
“I’m very proud of this team,” he said. “They really wanted to win and I knew they could.”
Members on the 14-and-under Grasshoppers include: Jamal Foster, Robert Drewery, Michael Johnson, DaShun Robinson, Roderick Watts, Torri West, John Garland, Michael Richards, Chris Johnson and Williams Parker.
After receiving the championship trophy all of the players immediately took it to coach Richards and shouted, “Happy birthday!”
The Grasshoppers will have their season-ending picnic from 12 noon until 6 p.m., Aug. 12 at Centennial Park in Atlanta. There will be music, prizes and fun giveaways, plus all the food you can eat for free.