Kneeling, L To R: Kevion Guy, Desmond Bratcher, Tadarius Jacobs Standing: Tony Moore, Jelani Willis, Darius Waterford, Marquon Dean, Jonathan Lawson, Jalen Brown, Omari Robinson, & Jacob Roberts
As the Memphis Grizzlies’ season gets underway, we want to introduce you to another basketball team with grit and grind: the Memphis Wildcats. These talented 12-year-olds won the PrimeTime Sports 2015 National Basketball Championship last summer, beating out 70 other teams for the prestigious title.
If you’re familiar with the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) competitive basketball league, then you’ve likely heard of the Wildcats, led by head coach Dedra Lawson and assistant coach Jeremiah Brown.
On the way to nationals last summer, they competed in six tournaments and won them all. What does it take to be a champion? Hard work, determination, and plenty of practice.
“I push my boys pretty hard. It builds their confidence and helps them realize they can accomplish something if they work hard,” says Lawson.
The nucleus of this 11-man team — Jalen Brown, Jonathan Lawson, Tadarius Jacobs, and Jacob Roberts — have played together since second grade. In 2009, the Wildcats won the AAU National Championship for players ages 8 and under. This year, Dedra’s son, Jonathan, and Jeremiah’s son, Jalen, have been noticed by coaches who scout for promising young athletes.
“They play the game the right way and they won every single tournament this past summer,” notes Brown with pride. “We’re trying to keep them active and guide them — give them an alternative to being on the street.”
Today I watch as several Wildcats practice at American Way Middle School, where they play on their school’s team. (Others students play for Bellevue, White Station, and Colonial Middle.)
Sneakers squeak, elbows fly, defenders block, then a quick pass and the ball arcs skyward. Swoosh! All net.
“Kids come out of her program polished,” says American Way assistant basketball coach Rodney Jones. “They know where to be in relation to the ball.”
In the bleachers sits a sprinkling of fathers; a few determined to correct each missed opportunity, the rest content to let the coaches earn their keep. The boys race up and down the court, their eyes focused, intense.
“One thing that makes our team unique is that every kid has their dad. That’s why they play with such intensity,” says Brown. “Dads attend the games. That level of support goes a long, long way.”
Once the season ends, the kids will get a break before suiting up again as Memphis Wildcats to play league ball through the spring and summer months.
“I try not to pressure them at a young age,” says Lawson. “I don’t want to ruin their confidence.” Instead, much of Lawson’s coaching is about helping her players learn what they can achieve with teamwork. “We stress the importance of academics as well. If they’re not successful in the classroom, then they won’t be recruited.
“The parents want their kids to get better at basketball and all the kids want to get a college scholarship. Not too many parents in my neighborhood have $50,000 for college. If we can get it through athletics, we’ll do that,” she says.
Back on the court, the boys continue the day’s drills under the watchful guidance of their coaches. Each practice takes them one step closer to sharpening skills and working together as a team, one step closer to a future bright with promise.