Despite five straight state titles, Sharman White wants more
March 28, 2013
By FOSTER LANDER
Sharman White’s Miller Grove teams have won five straight state championships, but not because of a fancy gym or uniforms or players recruited from other counties and states.
The reason White is 207-42 in eight seasons at the Lithonia school is simple, really.
“They play hard as hell,” said James Hartry, the head boys basketball coach at Tucker High School. “They’ll damn sure fight all night long. When you think you have them, they have another gear to go to.”
Hartry would know better than just about anyone. His Tucker team fell to Miller Grove three times during the 2012-13 slate: in the regular season, in the Region 6-AAAAA Semifinals on Feb. 15, and again in the State Quarterfinals just 11 days later.
“As big of rivals as we are — no ifs, ands, or buts — Sharman runs a great program,” Hartry said. “If I wanted to pour salt on him I couldn’t, ‘cause I’d be lying. Right now, today, I’m still trying to figure out a way to beat his ass.”
Cabral Huff, the boys basketball coach at St. Francis School in Alpharetta, knows White from his time as a coach in the Atlanta Public Schools system and echoes Hartry’s sentiments. “It’s a mentality,” Huff said. “His kids understand that nothing below success will be acceptable. Energy and effort have to be there every day, no matter who’s watching.”
A quick rise
White says he grew up coaching other kids in his Decatur, Ga., neighborhood, and that coaching has always been part of his plans. After graduating with a Masters of Education from Georgia Southern University in 1995, White returned to Atlanta to coach at Bunche Middle School for six seasons.
Atlanta’s Carver High School, reeling after a three win season, hired White in 2001. White led the Panthers to within three games of the state title in his first season and to a state runner-up finish two years later.
Following the Panthers’ defeat in the 2004 AA state championship game at the hands of Randolph-Clay, White earned offers from eight schools within the Atlanta Public Schools, DeKalb and Gwinnett County systems.
The chance to start a basketball program at Miller Grove High School, which opened in Lithonia in 2004, intrigued White, and he jumped at the chance. Freshman point guard Mfon Udofia, who would go on to play four seasons for Georgia Tech, led Miller Grove to the 2006 AAAA state Sweet 16 — the school’s first varsity season.
In White’s eight seasons at the helm (and in eight seasons of the program’s existence), Miller Grove has reached six state Final Fours and won five state championships. They are the first team in Georgia state history to win five consecutive titles.
All in the details
Jerome Allen, the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania, witnessed firsthand White’s methods while recruiting Henry Brooks, now a sophomore forward for the Quakers.
“The guys who do it right, they’re not on an island by themselves,” Allen said. “They cover the details, and the details are what really matter.”
“He was always on top of us, and not just on the court,” Brooks said. “Every little thing, from going to class, to being respectful to your parents, it was all connected. A lot of people just see the basketball aspect.”
By the time White’s players move on to college, they’re leaps and bounds ahead of other freshmen. “When I first got to college, they were teaching basic principles and I was like, ‘wow, we did this in high school,’” Brooks said. “So I had the advantage when it came to the mental aspect.”
The school provides SAT tutoring to student-athletes, and one member of White’s staff monitors players’ academic progress and keeps up communication with teachers. White keeps a close eye to ensure that his players are going above and beyond just remaining eligible to play.
“Staying in contact builds a great rapport with teachers, players, and coaches, so we’re all on the same page,” White said. “We don’t have 12 Rhodes Scholars, but we have guys that are willing to do what we ask.”
White has built Miller Grove into a complete, consistent program instead of simply a basketball team. Playing for White comes with a certain set of expectations.
“There’s not a lot of grey area here — it’s black and white,” White said. “We want to be successful and want you to do things certain ways, ways that we’ve had success with. You can’t win championships if you don’t have championship people.”
Moving on to the college ranks?
White runs what amounts to a college program and says his eventual goal is to coach at the college level. He was a finalist for an assistant coaching position at the University of Memphis in 2011 but lost out to former NBA player Luke Walton, thanks in part to the NBA lockout forcing players out of work.
It’s not about increased visibility or higher pay at the college level for White; he’s attracted to the chance to get into people’s living rooms and recruit. “I can imagine what that feeling is like when a kid calls you to commit,” White said. “I’d be busting my head open to make sure that happens.”
He’s a presence on the AAU scene and speaks at Nike Basketball Clinics in all corners of the U.S. during the offseason. White believes he could recruit both Georgia and any area of the country effectively because of his connections and because of his ability to connect with players beyond the basketball court.
For much of White’s tenure at Miller Grove, he’s had rosters that would make some Division I schools jealous. His 2009-10 squad featured the 6-foot-8 Brooks and the 6-foot-9 duo of Tony Parker (now at UCLA) and Donte’ Williams (UGA).
Where White separates himself from other coaches is his knack for motivation, for pushing talented players to want more success.
“We obviously had the personnel, but Coach White helped us understand what we had and to further what we had,” Brooks said. “We could’ve breezed by a lot of teams without doing much of anything, but we took the extra step and that’s why we beat teams by 50 or 60.”
The first hour of most Miller Grove practices is reserved solely for defensive work. If drills aren’t getting done the right way, sprints await. “His kids know if he jumps on them, it’s because he wants them to be great, not because he doesn’t like them,” said Dan McDonald, a basketball recruiting analyst for Rivals and GAVarsity.com. “They get after it [in practice].”
Hands on, or hands off?
Because of the plethora of Division I talent playing for Miller Grove in recent years, college coaches, from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to Georgia’s Mark Fox, frequently attend workouts and games.
White takes a hands-off approach to his players’ recruiting process and only involves himself when needed. In some cases, players have parents familiar with the process and diligent in making a college decision. In other cases, kids need White as a guiding presence, sometimes in place of a father or male figure.
Hurricane Katrina forced Henry Brooks’ family to relocate in 2005 from New Orleans to the Atlanta area, where White later took Brooks under his wing.
“He was really one of Henry’s mentors,” Allen said. “He had Henry’s best interests at heart and helped me cultivate a relationship with him and his family … He cares about them as human beings.”
Because White pushes his players on and off the court, Miller Grove consistently churns out college-ready prospects, taking the guessing game out for college coaches.
“They know they’re getting toughness and not the bravado that ‘it’s all about me,’” Huff said. “They know they’re getting players who are about the name on the front of their jersey and not the back. They’re getting a student-athlete and not just a student.”
“With Sharman White you gotta walk the walk,” Hartry said. “They know how to win and can be coached.”
“I don’t come to work. I come to life.”
Despite possessing enough state championship rings to fill up one hand, White wants to reach the next level: Division I. He already dresses the part of a college coach, with a wardrobe that features black and grey suits with sharp ties, sweater vests, and perfectly shined shoes.
“I don’t feel like I’m in a hurry, but as we continue to be successful here, it makes me anxious to get to the next level,” White said. “I can’t make anyone give me a college job, and it’s somewhat of a risk to take a chance on a high school guy with no college experience, but I feel like I can recruit and coach anywhere.”
For now, he’s content right where he is, raising a 3-year-old daughter, Simani, and a 1-year-old son, Szion, with his wife, Jemeka.
“This is like a ministry for me,” White said. “I don’t come to work, I come to life.”