In 1998, first year coach Mountain Brook basketball coach Mark Cornelius made the declaration to the Mountain Brook basketball boosters that Mountain Brook would win a state championship in basketball. He was almost laughed out of the building. But Cornelius got the Spartans close in 2001 with a Final Four Appearance led by one of the most talented and decorated players in Spartans basketball history, Bucky McMillan.
And McMillan made Cornelius's prophecy a reality in 2013, when the Spartans won their first state championship in program history. Bucky followed that up with another state title in 2014, and added to that with another blue trophy last Saturday Night at the Legacy Arena in B'ham. Three state titles in 5 years, the latest in Class 7A after 2 championships in Class 6A. Well done, Coach. McMillan just completed his 10th season, and has created a dynasty in Alabama basketball. It's come through a tremendous work ethic that permeates from him to his players, an unwavering belief, clutch play by some incredibly hard working, talented players who have come through the program in Bucky's 9 years, and an integrity that encapsulates the essence of the program.
Bucky's 2017 Spartans team just finished a 31-5 season with a 63-43 victory over the Auburn Tigers in the championship game. The sensational Trendon Watford led the team with 26 points and added 11 boards in a phenomenal performance. Just as spectacular was the play of junior guard Sean Elmore, who sank 5-of-8 trifectas and finished with 17. Always reliable senior Ben McCool finished with 10 points including 6-of-6 from the stripe. The Spartans shot 51% for the game, were 7-for-17 from 3, and were 12-of-16 from the line. And their stifling, full court defense led to 19 Tigers' turnovers. Elmore and super freshman Paulie Stramaglia led the team with 3 steals apiece.
It helps to have a 5-star player who everybody will be after this summer in Watford, but McMillan called it a complete effort by the entire team. As for Trendon, John Calipari has already been down to see him practice. Duke, Kansas, UNC, you name it, they all want Trendon, who averaged 23 points and 10 boards a game this season.. He is a legacy type player for a program, both in high school and college, and when he goes, the next level after that. And Bucky possibly has two more years with the 6'8" sophomore.
So it's all exceptional for the Mountain Brook High School basketball program. Bucky McMillan, the star player from Mountain Brook and Birmingham-Southern, where he was an all conference player and an academic All-American, has made this all possible.
I spoke with Bucky on Monday. Here is my conversation with the 33 year old star in high school basketball coaching.
DW: Has it been a whirlwind the past couple of days?
Bucky: We were celebrating till 6 AM (on Sunday) after the championship. Didn't sleep much. I'm as happy as I felt when we won the first one. This group of guys had never been down there before. Our first one was obviously great because we hadn't won it. Then again in 2014, a lot of guys had been there. And we didn't win it in 2015, but most of those guys were on the '14 team. We've been to 4 of the past 5 state championship games and no player on our team had currently been to the Final Four. They were 10th graders on the team then (and on the JV). So I'm really really happy for those guys, because it's a new experience, a new team. It was a big deal for those guys.
DW: You had a young group this year.
Bucky: We had 5 seniors this year, but the thing is this, our top 7 guys, who were leading us in minutes, you had 1 freshman, 3 sophomores, 2 juniors and 1 senior in Ben McCool. And then you have some seniors who played very important roles. With the way we play, a player may only get in for 3 minutes, but you're playing some type of role and every senior had some type of role that was important. But I don't know if we've ever had that many guys that young who have played for us. I think of the 7A schools, no other school had young guys that played that many minutes.
DW: Paulie Stramaglia was your freshman correct and wasn't Mario, his older brother, a heckuva player?
Bucky: Yes, Paulie was my freshman and Mario (his older brother is Mountain Brook's all time leading scorer. He was a really good player.
DW: Was he there before you were there?
Bucky: No he was there my first year, his first year on the varsity was as a 9th grader.
DW: Did he play anywhere in college?
Bucky: He played at East Tennessee State and transferred to West Florida, and this year was his last year. He got married last June, so he wrapped it up there. He's going to do something with his dad's real estate stuff. I think they're going to expand it and do something out in Las Vegas. That's where his wife is from and I think he'll definitely move out there this summer is what I'm hearing.
DW: You said you had Ben McCool who played quite a bit. Who were your other seniors?
Bucky: Jack Brewster. His brother, Will, played for me and won state championships in 2013 and 2014. Jackson Lightfoot, Sam Colvin and Jeb Brown were the other three.
DW: Are any state titles more important than the other, or how does that compute with you?
Bucky: You can't say one is more important. But the thing that computes with me the most is guys getting to have that experience. And like I said, it was great for those seniors in 2014, and we won it 2013, and a lot of them were on that team were juniors and they had been there twice. Then in 2015 (when Mountain Brook made the state championship game losing to Hoover), even though we didn't win it, they got to play in the last game on the last day, the guys from 2014 team. So there were no players on this team that have been to that environment. It just made me so happy for them that they got to experience that. To win it all with completely new guys, it's a good thing for your program.
We won it in 2013 over Sparkman, in 2014 we beat Blount, in 2015 we lost to Hoover (in the title game, and last year we got knocked out in Jacksonville at the buzzer to Gadsden City. This year we beat Gadsden by one point (1st game at Jax Regional) and this run is so similar to our 2013 run. It seemed like our first team in Jacksonville would find a way to win even though we weren't making a lot of shots. Just kind of gritted one out and won by a point, and that's exactly what we did in 2013. We beat Clay in a really close, gritty game, and we played one of our best games of the year vs Huffman in this year's regional semifinal and that's exactly what happened in 2013 when we beat (R.E.) Lee to advance to the final game. The first game in the Final Four (this year), we played McGill (Toolen, Mobile) and it was a defensive game. We held them to 21% shooting from the field, but we had some nervous turnovers. In 2013 we played Blount. And we played Sparkman in the championship game in 2013 and had one of our best games of the year and that's exactly what happened this year when we played one of our best fourth quarters against Auburn. It was a great way to end your season with maybe your best quarter. And all 13 players were used in that game throughout the game. I think this team doesn't get enough credit because everybody says, 'Well, you've got a good 10th grader (Trendon),' and I don't think he gets enough credit. You got Trendon Watford, who's an incredible player, he's awesome, and he can't even drive. Trendon was going to Mountain Brook Junior High last year. Paulie Stramaglia goes to Mountain Brook Junior High. And our other players don't get enough credit because they contributed in a great way with their roles.
DW: What makes Trendon so special?
Bucky: The thing that I just love is Trendon is just Trendon. He doesn't want to be somebody else. He's always himself and he's very comfortable with who he is, and he's a complete team player. At the first round of the regionals, he had a dislocated finger and he went 6-for-20 from the free throw line. it's the worst I've ever seen him shoot the basketball. It was not one of his best games because he was playing hurt. But I've never seen him so happy because our team advanced. He's happy when the team does well and it doesn't matter if he plays well or not. He never takes a bad shot. Trendon can score 40 points a game. He scored 26 in that last game and I've seen him score 20 and he never forces a bad shot, he always passes to the open man and he gets the ball where it needs to be. He just plays basketball. And if the team wins by 20 and he scores 25 and the players around him played well, he's happy. It's just how so unselfish he is and how high character he is. It's just a joy to see a 5 star player that way.
DW: Was his dislocated finger against Gadsden City in Jacksonville?
Bucky, Yeah, he dislocated it in the area championship before and he had it all taped up, and it really affected his shooting. And his free throw shooting was really affected. He went with it. The good thing about it was that after the first round game (in the regional) we had a 6 day period before the next game against Huffman in the final, and it got stiffer, but much better.
DW: Sean Elmore sure made a contribution on Saturday.
Bucky: He's been one of our best players all year long. I mentioned this to everybody, Sean is the most competitive player on our team, and that's what makes him so different. When I think about the best competitors who played for Mountain Brook and had the greatest success, they've been the greatest competitors. I always tell our players, I'm not going to always play our best basketball players, but I'm always going to play our best competitors. The guy that refuses to lose. And through our history, those guys are Patrick Keim, Jack Kline, Alex Peters, and I can just go on and on about these guys that just couldn't stand to lose. To add to that list, I'll be talking about Sean Elmore, who's just a junior, but I'll be talking about him for 10 or 15 years because every practice, every drill, his team always wins. Every time we scrimmage, his team always wins. It's that Michael Jordan thing where every time he comes to practice, he makes sure everybody knows that you can't beat him. His intensity is on another level because he takes no days off. And I'll tell you this, on game day, my players like having him on their side.
DW: So Keim, Kline and Peters were your other great competitors?
Bucky: There were so many guys on that '13 team who were great competitors. I'd say Keim and Kline are the ones that come to mind because Keim went on to play at Auburn and Kline is at UAH playing. Patrick (Keim) was captain of the 2013 and 2014 teams, and Klein was on the team in 2014 and was the captain of the 2015 and 2016 teams. So I tell people we won our first one with Patrick as captain of the team and then he showed Jack Kline the way. And Sean Elmore was transitioned by Jack last year, when he was a sophomore on the team. The guys that are coming up now, Sean will do that. That's the great part of our program. Not just our team, but the program. We have a culture to it. When the players graduate, they're still always a part of our program and it carries on. Our program starts in the first grade and it carries on to make sure all players are part of our culture. It's great to do what we've done, but nothing makes me happier to look up in the Civic Center and see 10,000 people there. That's a culture.
DW: You have a program where everybody has bought in.
Bucky: I tell our guys in May for tryouts, that this is not for everybody, this is for guys that want to do something extraordinary. Guys who want to put extra time in, they want to practice over the holidays, belong to something greater than themselves. You may not get to play a lot of minutes, but that's what this is for. And if you don't want to do this, it doesn't mean you're not a nice guy, it doesn't mean you're not a good person, it doesn't mean you can't do great things in other areas. But I've told this group this year, the guys that go on, they're all high achievers.
DW: Will Trendon be able to stick around Mountain Brook for two more years?
Bucky: That's kind of like asking a highly talented kid when he goes to college, if he's going to finish all 4 years of college without going to the NBA. I will say this, I've known Trendon since he was 5 years old. The people that he's been around at our school and the high achievers that he's around every day, and I know I'm so biased to our school, but it is so unique in and of itself. We have the best teachers, the best administrators, we have great coaches in our program, great people surrounding our program. So for there to be something out there appealing, it would have to be so special that everybody would understand because he's a very special player who everybody is after.
DW: What about Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, are they all coming after him?
Bucky: Oh yeah, everybody is on him. He can go to any school he wants. John Calipari was there in October watching him practice.
DW: Does he like Indiana, I know his brother went there? Christian, now playing in the D League of the NBA after a stellar college career at IU and prior to that a stellar career at Shades Valley.
Bucky: He likes them all. He'll be one of these guys who goes through the whole process and he won't be committing early. He's one of these guys who game will translate to the next level. He's like a 6'8" guy who takes people outside and he has the skills of a point guard. You can always rely on skills, you can't always rely on size.
DW: So he's a good 3 point shooter as well?
Bucky: He's really good. Nearly 40 percent from 3.
note: Trendon is a 67% shooter from the free throw line.
DW: What did you think of John Calipari?
Bucky: He's one of the most personable guys you'd ever want to meet. He makes you feel like you're the most important person in the room and it's all genuine. He gets shots taken at him because he's the best. But you ask DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, who played for him and are standouts in the NBA (Bledsoe with the Phoenix Suns and cousins with the New Orleans Pelicans), and they'll tell you they didn't always like it, but they couldn't appreciate him more. He's a super guy.
DW: What about this team returning? Looks like you'll have a lot of talent.
Bucky: We do. This year we were an underdog. Some people forget that this run we're on is not the norm. We won in 2013, 2014 and then we lost the championship game, and people were like, "why didn't we win it." But that the average age of this team was 16 years old and people still thought we were going to do it. We don't have expectations. We come in and our 3 goals are, we want to be the hardest working and hardest playing team, we want to be the most unselfish team we can be and nobody care who gets the credit. And the third thing is that our team plays with confidence, we're fearless. After we've done that and somebody beats us, we'll shake their hand and say good luck. A sign of a true champion is champions win championships. It was great to see those guys celebrate.
DW: You had a great crowd out there supporting your team in the title game. Talk about that.
Bucky: It was awesome. I got so many texts, so many people were so happy. The players don't know their impact on so many people. Nobody could have imagined Mountain Brook, back in 1998 when Mark Cornelius said we were going to win a state championship, that we'd win 3 state championships in 5 years, go to 4 of the last 5 state championship games, and be ranked in the top 25 in the country at one time. And it's such an inspiration to people to see this was possible.
DW, Finally, Bucky, what about your future? I know you're pretty happy right now and don't want to think about it. But do you want to get in the college game?
Bucky: I really don't know what I want to do. I would never say I'm not going to college. But here's my general philosophy on this, if I went to college I wouldn't be content unless I was at a school that could win the whole thing. That's a long journey. A really long journey. Let's say I go on that journey, and it's a 30-35 year journey, I could come back and say I did it. But it's not like here. In college you have I12 guys on your roster. I have 2,000 starting in kindergarten. And if I go through my life and do that, where did my life go? I worked for 100,000 kids, I'll know I've had an impact that would carry on. Whereas, I don't know if that can be said for coaching in college. Maybe I got a lot of fame and recognition, and sure it impacted some, but the impact you can have for kids for 10-14 years is probably greater than the impact you can have for 1 to 4 years. So for me to make that jump, it would have to be such a special opportunity where I felt my impact would be tremendous.
DW: Would it be from Mountain Brook to Alabama, Auburn, would that be the leap, or would you have to go the assistant route? How would you handle that?
Bucky: I've had some opportunities to go be an assistant. To go in a manner where the journey would be much shorter, taking a good head job or being a high level assistant, you would need to be in a position where your journey would be short. That would be what I would want. But they're are not many people who felt they've lived a more fulfilling commitment than that of high school coaches.
DW: So do you see yourself as the Mountain Brook coach for the forseeable future?
Bucky: I'll say this, if I am the coach of Mountain Brook for a long time, I can never see myself saying I would ever regret being the coach at Mountain Brook.
Prediction for Valspar Championship on PGA Tour
Innisbrook Resort, Copperhead Course, Tampa, 7,340 yards, par 71
Last year's winner: Charl Schwartzel
Last week: Dustin Johnson put on a clinic winning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Dustin hit a superb clutch approach shot out of the sand with a highly difficult stance on 18 and two putted to win by a shot. Dustin is certainly on fire.
My man Walt Pittman picked Dustin last week and at Riviera in the Genesis Open before that. Great work, Walt. Bama Golf and I got Jordan Spieth right at Pebble and Walt and I got it right at Riviera in the Genesis Open with Dustin.
Brownie, Spike and G- Logic are still researching and developing to get over the top, but they're all three highly knowledgable and good players. They'll get it done soon.
Key holes: The Snake Pit, Holes 16, 17 and 18.
TV: Thursday-Friday, Golf Channel, 2-5 PM CT/3-6 PM ET; Saturday-Sunday, GC, 12-2 PM CT/1-3 PM ET. NBC, 2-5 PM CT/3-6 PM ET.
I'm going with the hero from the 2016 Ryder Cup. He was in an epic playoff duel with Jordan 2 years where both hit clutch shot after clutch shot, until Spieth finally canned a 24 footer to win it in the playoff. He's totally clutch. I like him a lot this week.