Boys’ basketball: Rival coaches’ bond is bigger than the game


National Christian Academy Coach Trevor Brown is shown during a game against Paul VI in 2000. (Michael Temchine/For The Washington Post)
February 17, 2014

Trevor Brown and his 12th-ranked National Christian team had just lost to Capital Beltway rival Clinton Christian, marking their third straight loss in the last five days. But in the hours after the Jan. 28 defeat, Brown found himself sitting across a restaurant table, smiling and laughing with first-year Clinton Christian Coach Christian Cole as they celebrated the birthday of Cole’s mother.

As much as both men dislike losing, their bond built over the last 15 years — from the death of Cole’s father to the start of his coaching career — supersedes the outcome of any game, including Tuesday’s rematch at No. 9 Clinton Christian.

“Kids like Chris are why I’m still coaching at National,” Brown said. “I’ve had offers to coach at colleges and other places, but to see a kid like Chris go through something like losing his father, go through some hard times and then get back up and graduate from high school and college, that’s my reward.”

Brown jokes that by the time he met Cole in 1999, he had already grown tired of hearing about the 13-year-old through the family of one of his daughter’s basketball teammates. Back then, Cole had built a reputation as one of the top point guards for his age, leading many to anticipate his arrival from Germany with his military family.

A month before Cole moved in June, his father, also named Christian, came to set up things for his family and soon met Brown. The two quickly grew close, attending high school games on a regular basis as Brown scouted the area as an AAU coach.

Host B.J. Koubaroulis runs through the top plays from the week of basketball in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

They also began searching for a school for Cole. National powers including Gonzaga, DeMatha and St. Anthony (N.J.) worked to reel in the stocky guard, who had become the youngest player to ever make and play in the all-star game at the Five-Star Basketball Camp.

Ultimately, Cole chose Montrose Christian, then coached by current Georgetown assistant Kevin Sutton. But in August 1999, just days before Cole was to begin seventh grade, his father died from colon cancer. Cole’s shock was elevated by how the cancer had overcome his father so quickly following a May diagnosis.

“He was really big into basketball and had touched so many people in this area in such a short time,” Cole said. “After that, I was always angry, fighting on a regular basis and doing bad in school.”

Brown accepted the job as coach at National Christian in 2000. As Cole continued to spiral out of control and Sutton departed to coach elsewhere, Brown suggested to Cole’s mother that she move Cole to National Christian, where Brown could better keep his promise to watch out for Cole.

“He had broken his ankle at Montrose and had surgery, and after that, along with his emotional problems, he picked up a whole lot of weight,” Brown said. “Him and his younger sister had spent a lot of time with their dad, so it had a big effect on them emotionally.”

With his weight soaring to 275 pounds and his grades sinking, Cole came to National Christian for his ninth grade year. Outside of his junior varsity games and practices as a freshman, Cole spent much of his time at Brown’s house, talking about basketball and life.

“One of the big things I told him was that he wasn’t the only one who had ever lost a parent,” Brown said. “There were a couple other students at National who had gone through the same thing, so they all were able to lean on each other some. The other thing was to remind him how much his dad wanted him to succeed in life. One way to honor his dad was to do well enough in school and basketball so he could earn a scholarship to play in college.”

Cole took the challenge to heart, improving his game to become one of the Eagles’ standout players on a team that at one time featured four future NBA draft picks, including Kevin Durant from 2002-04. Brown also pushed Cole to manage his weight, telling him before one tournament that if he wasn’t under 200 pounds, he wouldn’t make the trip with the team. At the time, the pass-first guard affectionately known as “Fat Cat” weighed in around 205. But about a week later, Cole boarded the bus at 198, focused and motivated to help lead the Eagles.

Brown “helped me a lot dealing with the emotional side of losing my dad and getting back on track,” Cole said. “He showed me that it’s not necessarily about moving on and forgetting my father, but learning how to cope without him here physically while living by everything he had taught me.”

As a senior, Cole averaged 15.6 points and 7.7 assists and committed to Hartford University, where he played one season before transferring to New Mexico State. After graduating, Cole joined Brown’s staff at National Christian last season and continued building his CATT Legacies training program, where he has helped players like North Carolina freshman Nate Britt (Gonzaga) and O’Connell guard Melo Trimble.

Last summer, Brown and Cole became friendly rivals after Cole accepted the coaching position at Clinton Christian. With both teams running the same offense in their first matchup, each coach put his strategic wisdom to the test before Clinton Christian held on for a 60-56 win.

As Brown prepares National Christian for Tuesday’s rematch, with both teams fighting for seeding in next week’s Capital Beltway playoffs, the same guidance that marks his practices will likely be echoed by Cole.

“He taught me about the grind of the game and life,” Cole said. “You see his teams on the court, no matter the competition they are always hanging around. Even when we were up on them by a lot, they came back and made it a game. That never-quit attitude was something I got from my dad, but [Brown] helped me grind it out after I lost my dad and realize that things are never as bad as they seem.”

Brandon Parker is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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