It was after 11 p.m. on Saturday night. Bankers Life Fieldhouse was almost cleared out after Ben Davis had capped a wild day of high school basketball with a 55-52 win over Fort Wayne North Side in the Class 4A state final.
As the smiling Ben Davis players filed out of the locker room and into the hallway to await the victorious walk to the bus, I ducked inside to congratulate veteran coach Mark James on his first state championship and hopefully get a few comments from him.
Just inside the doorway, assistant Ben Rhoades was holding the massive championship trophy. Assistants Kyle Ballard and Jordan Bragg were chatting and another assistant, Dave Arnold, remarked that this was the first time in 40 years (!) of coaching with James that the season had ended with a win.
Behind them, in the locker room, I noticed James. His cowboy boots, worn only for games, had been replaced by his sneakers. His stocking cap on. What do you do after winning your first state championship after 35 years as a head coach?
There was James, picking up tape and trash in the locker room and putting folding chairs away. I got the sense that he wouldn’t want it any other way.
James, 62, is about the most genuinely humble coach I’ve covered. He’ll go out of his way not to take credit for anything, instead promoting his players and assistant coaches. It was the same message in the locker room late Saturday after Ben Davis had capped a remarkable run that few saw coming in mid-January.
“The people I’m most happy for is my family,” James said of wife, Pam, and four adult children — Jessica, Derek, Nicole and Kyle. “They’ve put up with me being a coach for 40 years. All the time you spend being away from your own family, spending time with other people’s kids, until you’ve done that, it’s hard to explain. I’m most happy for them.”
I joked with James that he could no longer play up the underdog role — something he loves to do — now that Ben Davis is a state champion. But in many ways, this was a fitting team to win James his first state title. Junior Aaron Henry is a star in the making, but it was mostly a veteran group that achieved a higher level together than as individual pieces. Seniors like Datrion Harper, Josh Brewer, R.J. Turner, Jalen Newsom and Kyle Finch left a legacy.
“It wasn’t the most talented team I’ve had,” James said. “But it was the best team I’ve had, obviously. They were very resilient and played well together. They shared the ball and made plays when they had to. We were sort of nameless and faceless throughout the tournament. Sometimes you’re lucky. The ball bounced our way (Saturday) and that’s why we ended up winning.”
One quick personal story to share: I was coaching my son’s team earlier this season in a game at Ben Davis and we were losing by a lot. After the game, James — probably sensing my frustration — said, “It’s never as bad as you think it is and it’s never as good as you think it is.”
It was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. And a perfect quote from a man who was cleaning up the locker room an hour after winning his first state championship.
>> Amazing streak: Bill May, 83, attended his 70th consecutive state finals on Saturday. May and his wife, Carolyn, and sons, Paul and John, sat in in Section 19, Row 24. The Mays made an afternoon visit to St. Elmo Steak House between sessions.
May, a Hagerstown native, lived in Richmond much of his adult life before moving to Raleigh, N.C., in 2006. The Mays still make the trip to Indianapolis every year for the state finals, continuing a streak that Bill began in 1948. May was one of the few in attendance on Saturday who has now watched all four of Crispus Attucks’ state titles (1955, ’56, ’59 and 2017) in person.
“I first went to the state finals in 1946 when Anderson defeated Fort Wayne Central,” May said. “I’m still kicking myself for missing the 1947 finals. But I came the next year and have come ever since. I don’t want to miss one.”
May was a longtime official and worked the state finals in 1972, ’73 and ’74 when it was played at Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
“Basketball has always been important to me,” May said. “It was always such a big thing for me growing up and the state finals are the conclusion of it every year. That’s why I keep coming back.”
>> Attendance: Total attendance for the state finals was 24,944. That number was down from last year’s 26,447 total, though New Albany’s inclusion in last year’s Class 4A game likely made up most of that difference. This year’s total was higher than the 2015 two-session attendance of 22,595.
>> New blood: The sight of Oscar Robertson placing championship medals around the necks of the Class 3A champion Attucks’ players was an unforgettable state finals moment. How cool is that? Attucks’ title (first since 1959) as well as 4A Ben Davis (first since 1996), Frankton in 2A (first ever) and Tindley in A (first ever) made for some neat, new stories.
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.