Girls’ high school basketball in the city of Madison has become more exciting and entertaining over the last 5 years. Attendance is up. The energy is up. The teams are producing Division 1 and Division 2 athletes. At some point, we have to give the head coaches – all four of them African-American men – a little bit of credit.
“Having four African-American coaches in this league and in this city, I think all four of us have helped to raise the bar,” James Adams, head coach at Madison East High School, tells Madison365. “We’ve raised the bar in the competitiveness in our schools and the overall value of the game. When we play each other here in Madison, it’s a packed house. The numbers we are seeing attending girls’ basketball has been unbelievable, in my opinion.”
Adams, Marques Flowers of Madison Memorial, Chaz Jones of Madison West and Will Green at Madison La Follette have converged at Cargo Coffee East to talk with Madison365 about the historical significance of having four African-American head girls’ basketball coaches at Madison’s four high schools.
“This is a pretty unique situation,” says Flowers, who’s in his fifth year as the Spartans head coach. “I know it hasn’t happened in boys’ basketball or football either. And those are the only two sports where you would see that happen. So, it’s a pretty cool thing to be the first time that one sport in our city has all African-American coaches.”
All four of them describe their relationship with each other as a brotherhood. But, like brothers, that means that their rivalry is still pretty fierce. At the end of the day, however, they have a love and respect for each other and they all share in a commitment to making it a highly competitive and a rewarding sport for the girls they coach.
“I think it’s good that we have a healthy rivalry between each other because it’s building the base of fan support. Now, people really anticipate these games between Madison schools,” Adams says. “We know people love boys’ basketball, but now they are coming to see the girls. It used to be crickets in the gym. Now we have folks coming out and spending money to see the girls play. It’s been great.
“There’s a bigger picture, here, too,” Adams adds. “We’re talking to the kids, we’re mentoring kids, and we’re engaging the kids and we’re trying to build things in this city.”
“For me, even just doing this interview … I feel like in Madison we have a brotherhood. Even though he’s at East, he’s at West, he’s a Memorial, and I’m at La Follette … we still have this commonality that we go through that kind of brings us together,” Green says. “When it comes down to it, it’s all for the kids. We talk about our mission and what we’re doing and that’s where the drive is.
“I’ve always felt like an outsider here in Madison and I’ve finally found something where we are all dedicated to the cause,” Green adds. “We all really care about these kids on the court. Outside of coaching, we all really care about these kids in this city, too. We want the best for all of our kids, no matter what. We have a bond that can’t be broken. It’s a brotherhood. It really is.”
But you guys are rivals, right?
“No doubt about it! No doubt about it!” Green says. “Anything I can do to beat these guys, I will.”
“When you talk about the ties that we have. I’m a La Follette alum and Will [Green] is a coach there. I still have connections to the La Follette community that go back to when I was 15, 16 years old. I’m happy to see him succeed because of that.
But I want him to lose twice a year [to us] when he plays our girls. Same thing with Chaz and same thing with James. I got nothing but respect for them. Everybody’s trying to do good things. I hope they do well. But when they’re playing us, I hope they can’t pass, they can’t shoot. I hope they can’t dribble when they play us.”
Head Coach Marques Flowers
The coaches do have strong ties to various sides of Madison, which can make rivalries more complicated. Green, for example, is the longtime director of Mentoring Positives, an innovative, referral-based mentoring program that works directly with kids and families. Its home base has always been in Darbo, a few blocks down the road from Madison East. He interacts with a ton of East students. Meanwhile, Flowers is a graduate of Madison La Follette and part of a famous basketball family who all played for the Lancers including brothers J.J., Jason, Jonte, and Michael. The family is basketball royalty at La Follette. But now Flowers is a Memorial man.
“When you talk about the ties that we have. I’m a La Follette alum and Will [Green] is a coach there. I still have connections to the La Follette community that go back to when I was 15, 16 years old,” Flowers says. “I’m happy to see him succeed because of that.
“But I want him to lose twice a year [to us] when he plays our girls,” Flowers adds, laughing, and cracking up the whole table. “Same thing with Chaz and same thing with James. I got nothing but respect for them. Everybody’s trying to do good things. I hope they do well. But when they’re playing us, I hope they can’t pass, they can’t shoot. I hope they can’t dribble when they play us.
“Because we all have connections to different parts of the city, it’s all about us raising up the city. And putting the city first,” Flowers says, getting serious for a minute. “I’m from Memorial, but I want to see the east side do well. Especially, in a sport like girls’ basketball. We are all out here trying to figure out ways for young girls to get involved in the game in the city of Madison. Having them grow and to develop and be the best that they can be … give them opportunities. We’ve all been trying to do that for a long time and now we’re starting to see the fruits of it at the high school level. It’s raising the level of the competition in the city to the point where you have four schools that are very competitive in girls’ basketball. That’s what you want.”
Fighting for recruits
While the four coaches are trying to create a stronger overall city, they still want to build their own team first. That means fighting with other three city coaches for recruits. And that can start early.
I let them know that my one-year-old is 110th percentile in height – off the charts. Her mom and dad are both very tall. Mom is a huge leaper and a volleyball star. And, most importantly, we live a few blocks from Madison East High School.
“I’ll be there. I’ll still be there by the time she gets there,” Adams smiles. “We can talk. Let me know.”
“Might be time to get a house on the west side, man,” Flowers interrupts.
The men crack up and laugh, but it’s true: in this city, they fight – sometimes against each other – for every kid to come and be a part of their program. They have to.
“Middleton doesn’t have to fight to get their kids. They get the best kids from their middle school. Verona is the same. That’s where our competitiveness comes in,” says Adams, who’s in his seventh year coaching at Madison East. “We want the best kids to come to our school to make the program better. They have four big schools here. They have options. But no matter what school you go to, you’re going to get a quality girls’ program.”
“Coach Adams made a good point about the increase in participation of the girls in the city … and if you look at all of our four teams, we have teams that reflect the community,” Flowers says. “We all have a substantial amount of African-American young women playing on our teams and I think that’s important to create a place where young brown and black girls feel like they belong. That’s something I think is very important as a community and I hope we continue to invest in and build it up so we have a place for our young women – particularly our young brown and black women – can go and have something that is theirs … and be successful.
“On top of everything I want people to know that in Madison, we play serious girls’ basketball here and it’s something that young girls can get excited about,” he adds.
The team is a family
No matter where young, talented girls decide to go to play basketball, they can be assured that they will be joining a family. Some of the girls that play for all four schools come from low-income homes. Some are missing pieces of their own family. Many don’t have a lot of resources and networks readily available. That’s where the basketball team and the coaches can come in.
“We’re building that family culture at West right now,” Jones says. “It’s gotten better the three years I’ve been there. We have an open-door policy where our players come in and talk to us about anything. We don’t pry for information, but we have that relationship with our girls where they can come in at any time and talk to us.”
“I always tell my girls that it’s bigger than basketball. You have to understand that you all need to support each other as women and as girls,” Green adds.
“All four of us are fathers of girls,” Adams says. “There’s maybe one boy between us all. So we have a really cool understanding on how to coach and how to understand our female athletes.”
East High School is like a big house for the young people, Adams says.
“Kids on the east side don’t go directly home, they hang around the school because they don’t have food at home or family members at home … so they stay around at East and hang out until somebody is home,” he says. “This is what makes this a great story because we are all fathers of girls and we’re trying to provide a family-like atmosphere for our basketball team.”
East High girls stick together as a family on and off the court. If you have a quarrel with one of them, you have a quarrel with all of them. Last month, the team came out to warm up for their varsity game against conference rival Middleton High wearing exclusive #FuelOrCrutch shirts made especially for them by creator Jamaal Eubanks, a movement he started that focuses on positivity and overcoming adversity in a neverending effort to become great.
“That’s been stemming awhile. One of our girls came to me and asked if we could show our support for ‘Fuel or Crutch.’ It was the perfect time to use the Fuel or Crutch against Middleton after the incident that happened last year and the other incidents that have happened with Middleton over the years,” Adams says, speaking of a controversy that erupted after a Middleton student wrote a disparaging Instagram about the East players after last year’s game signing it #youregonnaworkforusanyways. “We want to show that whatever tries to bring us down, we’re not going to use it as a crutch. We’re going to continue to move it forward.”
Madison misses the boat
It’s important for the four coaches who have high percentages of African-American young women on their teams to help their squads improve both on and off the court.
“We don’t even get to discuss all of the intricacies of the issues that we have to deal with – even on a game day – with these girls. The issues that we go through … it can be tough,” Green says. “One thing I do know is that the kids that I work with, many don’t have a father figure and a lot of times we really are that father figure. We really are. It’s like having 13 relationships. Thirteen different ones who all need different things.
“So, I think it’s important what we are doing. And I think Madison misses the boat when they do see something special like this and they don’t promote it. We don’t promote our kids at all four schools who are just doing incredible things. We don’t put their face on the walls or in the media,” Green adds. “However … every time somebody does something negative, it’s the first thing that’s displayed. It’s messed up. That’s what we’re fighting against.”
Flowers drives home the point a little deeper.
“Coach Adams has a player on his team – Erin Howard – she’s an amazing young woman. She’s a senior. She has a scholarship to play at Auburn University. Every little girl in Madison should know who she is,” he says. “It’s a shame that this young women is not being promoted and out there so that she can be an example and a role model that people want to read about and look up to. All we see in the newspapers and the media is about the deterioration of the black community in Madison – all of the bad things going on. We don’t talk about Erin Howard because it doesn’t feed into the current narrative of what’s going on.
“People who leave the city and want to send their kids to school in the suburbs have this narrative that ‘black people in Madison are this’ and ‘black people in Madison are that’ and we don’t provide a counter to that,” Flowers continues. “We have to change that. We really have to put out and promote our young people who are doing amazing things and who are being successful. That’s going to encourage our young people to want that spotlight and to do great things themselves.
“What do we hear about in Madison all the time? Stealing cars. Meanwhile, there are young people in Madison doing positive, great things every day. They have great stories. Tell those stories. This community won’t recognize them,” Flowers adds. “In the course of all four of us coaching for years, we’ve all had young women doing amazing positive things for the community and are on a path to success … and nobody talks about those kids. Nobody highlights those kids because it goes counter to the narrative that already exists about black people in Madison.”
Coaching is in our blood
The four men have quite the passion for being coaches. How deep is that passion?
“It’s like crack. And I don’t anything about crack, so don’t make that the headline,” laughs Adams. “But I love coaching so much. Can’t get enough of it. We all do. We all played ball and it’s still within ourselves and we want to keep giving and to keep providing our wisdom and our abilities to teach people how to play the game of basketball … and how to play the game of life. That’s what we’re doing.”
“If I could a find a way to just do this, I would,” adds Green. “It’s so gratifying. It inspires you in a way that is incredible. To be able to get that knowledge out there, it’s a beautiful thing. To see these girls working and to see them progressing every week. And you see it. That’s a beautiful feeling.”
Jones says that his favorite part of being a coach is watching that progress and watching his girls grow as individuals and as a team.
“We’re trying to build a culture here at West. It’s been up and down over the past 4-5 years prior to me getting here so I’ve just been trying to provide some consistency with the girls and to get things going,” says Jones, who is originally from Milwaukee and has been in Madison since 2009. This is his third year as coach at West. “They didn’t really have a feeder program going, so we’re just now getting it going – we have 2 or 3 teams building. We’re doing things one step at a time trying to change the perception of what the program has been.
“You can start out really low, but each day you can see a little bit of progress. I like to see a development. I don’t like to see the finished product handed to me. I want to be a part of making something from the ground up,” he adds.
“He’s a great coach. He’s a great coach. And he’s a great coach,” Flowers chimes in, pointing at the three others individually. “I’m not saying that to be facetious at all. These dudes – I respect the hell out of these guys. It forces me to make sure that I’m on my toes when I go against them because if you aren’t ready, they’re going to get you. That rivalry that we have with each other elevates us as coaches and it elevates our teams. We push each other.”
The coaches say they not only make each other better coaches with their rivalry, but they make each other better-dressed coaches.
“These are the three best-dressed coaches in the Big 8 [Conference]. Every time I play this guy he has a shirt and tie on,” laughs Adams, pointing over at Coach Flowers. “I’ll be texting him, ‘Coach, are you going to be suited and booted tonight?’ Because you’re going to force me to dress up, too!
“I like to wear a polo shirt and be comfortable out there,” Adams laughs. “I’m a big fella. Sometimes I sweat.”
Flowers laughs, too, but gets serious as he explains that there’s a certain way that people perceive African-American men and it’s important to be dressed up. “From the age of 12 on up, as a black man, once you start to get some height and some size to you, you always have to be conscious of how you are presenting yourself in society,” he says. “We have to constantly be worried about how people are looking at us. For a lot of people who don’t see African-American men in a leadership role, we always want to put our best foot forward because we are paving the way for somebody coming behind us who looks like us to be able to do what we do someday.”
The coaches talk and text each other all the time. They are prone to talk about anything – even suits and ties. They offer each other support and advice. Sometimes the texting can slow down when two of the coaches’ teams are about to go head to head.
“The last time we played each other, Coach Flowers texted me, “You’re dead to me for this week,’” laughs Adams.
Coach Jones is the youngster of the bunch and he loves the camaraderie and the brotherhood.
“I pick up a lot from these other dudes. I pretty much changed my style from watching them,” Jones says. “When I first came, I was kinda wild. But I toned it down because I’ve seen the impact it has on our girls. I also look up to them and get tips on when to say something and when not to say something to our girls in the program. It’s good that I can look at these dudes and not feel uncomfortable picking their brains.”
Beyond the X’s and O’s of coaching, the four men are all heavily involved in their greater Madison community. That has made things easier to do what they are trying to do with their own programs and for their own girls.
“I think that the reason that the girls’ game has grown so much in Madison is that we all do have ties in the community that go well beyond basketball,” Flowers says. “We’re all engaged in different things in the community. It makes our game more popular and it opens up opportunities for our girls.
“Having a community that supports these young women helps them feel valued and feel like what they are doing is important and what they are doing means something outside of our own locker room,” Flowers adds. “It makes these girls believe in themselves. These girls in our community can do amazing things if we invest in them and we believe in them. They will do amazing things.”
Come out and support all four Madison’s girls’ basketball teams tonight in the WIAA Girls Basketball Playoff. Madison La Follette hosts Verona, Madison West plays at Mukwonago, Madison East hosts Kenosha Tremper and Madison Memorial hosts Janesville Craig. All tip-offs are at 7 p.m.