J eff Holloway was almost cut from the Central basketball team. It was his senior year, and the Bearcat coaching staff had decided it would be best to let him go. Then-coach Mike Drews was apprehensive about keeping seniors who were not likely to receive much playing time, worried their attitudes would dwindle as the season continued and they weren’t seeing much of the court.
Holloway was one such player. Drews says Holloway was good enough to see plenty of minutes on a typical team, but this was no typical team. The roster in the 1993-94 season included future NBA player Bonzi Wells, among other stars, and the squad would finish the season 24-2.
Drews told his assistant coaches to send Holloway into his office, wanting to tell him the news face-to-face as the head coach. Yet Drews didn’t follow through on cutting Holloway.
Holloway’s basketball career would later take him to the NCAA Tournament, then into playing overseas before turning to coaching. But all of that was almost dealt a crushing blow in the form of Holloway not making the Bearcat roster.
As Drews reflected on that moment last week, Holloway had recently been named the head coach at Central, meaning it will now be Holloway’s job to make the difficult personnel decisions that were once Drews’ concern. Holloway has become the person tasked with looking into the eyes of Bearcats players, figuring out which ones have the attitudes suited for role players.
Drews made the walk to his office more than 20 years ago, preparing to cut Holloway, but he began to have a change of heart. He considered that Holloway hadn’t missed a day of the team’s summer program and second thoughts crept into his mind.
So Drews outlined his concerns to Holloway instead. He told him there were good players in front of him. He chose to ask his player if he would be able to maintain a positive attitude and work ethic despite limited reward in the form of playing time.
He offered Holloway a spot on the squad, contingent on his ability to work hard in practice, maintain a positive attitude, and contribute in whatever ways he could find.
“Jeff kind of gave me a smile, and he said ‘Coach, I can do all those things.’ ” Drews said. “I said, ‘Well, congratulations, you’ve made the team.’ “
Drews looks back positively on the decision, saying Holloway kept his word, providing the attributes that were asked of him in that meeting when the coach decided to keep him.
“He did help us that year,” Drews said. “He was a great practice player and he did get to play some. And when he was called upon in games, he came in and did a great job. That was a really good team, and obviously it worked out for him.”
Holloway would only learn of his coach’s original intentions years later. He felt he had done well in the early practices, and wondered why the coach wanted him in his office. When Drews asked if he was willing to be a role player, he remembers responding that he absolutely would be willing. He then went on his way, blissfully ignorant that he narrowly missed being cut.
Holloway reflects back on that day during an interview in Muncie Fieldhouse. The spot where he was shooting free throws and the office where the meeting occurred are both nearby. The coach’s office in Muncie Fieldhouse has become his own.
“I think I was at Arkansas State when I found out the real story behind that,” Holloway said. “We had made the NCAA Tournament in ’99, and (Drews) wrote me a letter congratulating me. But then he told me the story. And then I’m thinking, ‘Wow.’ That he said from the time I walked from here to that coach’s office, that he said a little prayer. And by the time I walked in there, he said I had worked so hard and he just asked me if I wanted to fill a role. And I said ‘Absolutely.’ Because again, the tradition here, to be a part of this, that’s all I wanted.”
Holloway was born in Chicago, the son of a Chicago-native father and a Muncie-native mother. He grew up in Chicago, though he would often visit family in Muncie. Eventually, in the early 1990s, he moved to Muncie for good. At the time, his basketball experience was limited.
Moving to such a basketball-rich area prompted Holloway to play the sport regularly. He remembers days when he and his friends would play at one park, only to see the game progress to another park later in the day. He got hooked.
So even though he hadn’t been a standout for the Bearcats, he wasn’t ready for his career on the hardwood to end. He went to Vincennes University and kept playing. That led to an opportunity at Spoon River College, a junior college in Canton, Ill. Arkansas State’s coaching staff saw him at a junior college tournament and took notice.
His tenure with the Indians (the school has since changed its nickname to the Red Wolves), brought him to the NCAA Tournament in 1999. He played in the Louisiana Superdome, his squad losing to a Utah team that included point guard Andre Miller, who remains in the NBA with the Washington Wizards, and coach Rick Majerus. The 1999 Indians remain the only Arkansas State team to ever make the NCAA Tournament.
Following his time in Jonesboro, Ark., Holloway then played overseas. Lithuania was among the stops, as was Uruguay. That South American country was Holloway’s last stop.
He eventually tired of the lifestyle, in which he would play a season, then wait for a phone call to find out which country he would play in the following season. When he chose to stop playing, he had an offer to play in Lebanon. He returned home, eventually landing as the coach at Union High School after a stint coaching the eighth-grade girls team at Wilson.
For much of his tenure at Union, Holloway was also the athletic director for the Rockets. His focus there was on building relationships, though he didn’t limit that to basketball players. He made an effort to get to know the students that wouldn’t pay dividends for him on the hardwood as well.
Given the small size of Union’s school, he was able to make those connections with more than just high-school students, getting acquainted with younger students as well.
So when news broke in Modoc that Holloway would be leaving, it was met with somewhat mixed reactions. Principal Allen Hayne said the older students tended to understand Holloway’s decision to coach his alma mater. The younger students didn’t have that same grasp of the situation.
“They were the ones having some of the issues, when he was seeing them,” Hayne said. “They were giving him hugs and stuff. And ‘Why do you have to go?’ and so-and-so. That’s him just in his non-basketball role.”
Those relationships are built by Holloway figuring out those children’s interests, then using them to find common ground. In one instance, Holloway discovered that an elementary student enjoyed running. So he would race him in the hallways, letting the student win. It allowed Holloway to forge a bond with the young Union student, and led the student to constantly ask the athletic director for a race.
That connection allows Holloway to check in on the student in his classes, making sure the young racer is not causing trouble for his teachers. He also realized the student started to listen to him, and if he did get in trouble (something that had sometimes been a problem in the past), he could communicate with him about the situation.
Holloway is happy to report that in his recent reports from that child’s classroom, he’s mostly been hearing good news.
“We had that in common, that racing,” Holloway said. “So every time he would see me, ‘Hey, you want to race today? Hey, you want to race? Hey you want to race?’ So it got to where I would let him beat me and then I’d give him a candy bar or something. Just, again, establishing relationships. I didn’t think I would need to or would want to with a second or third-grader, but it helped keep him on track.”
Holloway said he will use similar methods to connect with the students at Central, where he plans to teach a to-be-determined subject. Instead of being in a building with a small group of students of all ages, he will be working with a larger group of students of more concentrated ages. He doesn’t plan on doing much racing, though.
“Even in coaching, like I said, you’ve got to learn the kids,” Holloway said. “Because I had guys that you can get right in their face and yell at them, ‘You’re not working hard enough, you can do better.’ And they look right at you and say, ‘All right, Coach, I got you, I can do better.’ Another guy, the same thing and tears come to his eyes. A third one may just want to get defensive. You’ve got to learn what makes kids go and what you can do.”