My Saturday morning had already gotten off to a great start in Falls Church, Virginia, my company landing a new client. My girlfriend slash business partner and I began driving to our next stop in Frederick, Maryland. My old friend and former coaching colleague Robert Speers texted me from Atlanta to say that the Mercer Bears were about to take the floor against mighty Duke in the NCAA tournament. I regretted that I couldn't watch the game but I was counting on Robert to keep me updated.
I care about the team from Macon, Georgia for a number of reasons. My dad is a professor of education there and both of my younger brothers attended Mercer. My main reason for following the Bears, though, is point guard Langston Hall -- No. 21 in my program but No. 1 in my heart as the old saying goes. I had the good fortune to coach Langston in basketball and baseball way back when he was a youngster playing in a recreational sports league run by Rehoboth Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. Langston was a solid baseball player but he was a silky smooth natural on the hard courts even then. He was one of but two or three players I ever coached that I knew would play college ball some day. He was just that good.
But that's not what made him so special in my book.
Memories started flooding back to me as I added more antiques and collectibles to one of the spaces we rent in antique malls. Robert's text messages lit up my phone as we toiled away. He reported that Mercer was holding its own early on against the Blue Devils. I thought that by itself would make memories for Langston that he could tell his children about some day. How many people who ever play basketball ever get the chance to play in the NCAA tournament against one of the most storied teams in hoops history?
I toiled away unpacking and stocking. Robert's texts grew more tense. It was late in the game and Mercer was still in it. Then he reported that Mercer had a late lead. This couldn't be happening, I thought. I nearly dropped my phone when the next message informed that the Mercer Bears had pulled off the humongous upset.
I was stunned.
I raced back home to Silver Spring, Maryland to watch highlights. I flipped from channel to channel and Langston and his teammates were everywhere! ESPN broadcasters were calling out Langston's name as they showed him making one slick pass after another -- including one to a big white guy who became even more open as Langston lead him to the hoop with a one-handed bullet pass.
I laughed out loud and clapped like crazy. I had seen the African-American youth make exactly that kind of pass many times before on the Rehoboth courts. I'll never forget one in particular. Langston pounced on a loose ball on the defensive end of the court and broke toward our goal. Eight players were behind him. Only one other player was heading up the court with him. The other guy was a heavy white kid who lacked athletic graces. He had not scored a point that game and had probably not scored more than a few times all season.
Langston could have cruised to the easy layup and padded his stats. He dribbled the length of the floor and passed the ball instead. The other kid made a layup that used a lot of glass and metal before falling in. The awkward white kid's face beamed like the sun. All the parents of both teams went nuts in applause. Robert and I went nuts. Our guys went nuts. Everyone in the gym recognized Langston's unselfishness. I doubt Langston remembers that moment now a decade or so later but that one play symbolized Langston's approach to sports: It wasn't about him as an individual; it was about the success of the team.
I attribute that mindset and his mature-beyond-his-years character to Langston himself and to his parents, Fred and Alda Hall. They were among the finest parents I ever met in my coaching days. They did everything right, especially when it came to handling their athletic prodigy's development. Unlike some parents that put all stress and pressure of their unfulfilled dreams and economic aspirations into their child athletes, Fred and Alda gave Langston room to be himself. They let him make his own choices, letting sports be an option instead of an obligation. They cheered him as proud parents, making noise only to cheer and not to criticize. They did not interfere with me and Robert as coaches: They let us coach our way and supported us instead of undermining us. Sports leagues don't give out awards for Most Valuable Parents but they should -- and Fed and Alda Hall should be the first recipients.
Fred and Alda instilled great humility in Langston, too. He was always the best player on any team whose jersey he wore but you never knew it from the way he conducted himself. Langston's intelligence was off the charts as well. He learned offensive and defensive schemes faster than I could teach them. He was a coach on the floor even as a kid.
Langston was tough as nails, too. If memory serves, Langston was on the rough end of my scariest moment as a coach. That year's basketball team was on a training run at Stone Mountain Park. We were all jogging through the trails, hopping over stones and leaping over roots. I heard a loud thud coming from right behind me and turned to see that Langston had crashed head first into the ground. The whole team looked on with the same panic that was on my face. I had never had a player get seriously hurt and I feared that streak was over. Langston popped up, brushed himself off, and walked with us the rest of the way back to the cars. He might have picked up a few bruises but he was ready for tipoff at the next game.
Through it all, Langston made me and Robert better coaches because we constantly had to invent new challenges for him. He always wanted to learn more, work harder. He never let us coast. Honestly, Langston taught us way more than we ever taught him.
And there Langston was on Saturday all over my television. "The Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year," the broadcasters kept saying every time they mentioned his name. The Mercer Bears were on every channel. Then CBS cut to a live interview with Coach Bob Hoffman and Langston. I could not believe I was sitting there watching Langston on national television -- and that he was so calm, cool and collected, as if he was on national TV every day. I started clapping and crying and hollering at the TV.
I don't know what the future holds for Mercer against Tennessee on Sunday or for Langston after his college basketball career ends. I do know this: Langston is already a champion of a human being, just like his mom and dad.
Chris Lancette is a former journalist and an occasional blogger who spends most of his time running Orion's Attic, a Silver Spring, Maryland company that sells antiques and collectibles and conducts estate sales. He can be reached here.