To tell Mike Jones when he was in high school that he would eventually be a coach -- even a good one -- would have been an insult. He was a player.
As a senior at DeMatha in 1991, Jones was the second-leading scorer on a team that went 30-0, one of two undefeated teams in school history (1977-78 was the other). Jones helped DeMatha win the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title, the City Title and the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament before leaving for Old Dominion on a scholarship. His mind was already deep into a professional playing career.
"We all thought we'd be playing pro basketball," said Jones, who is completing his fifth season as DeMatha's coach and was named All-Met Coach of the Year in 2004-05. "We thought we'd be playing 10, 15 years in the NBA. When you're a teenager, [coaching] is something you say you'll think about when you're 40."
Now in their early 30s, Jones and three other starters from that team have given up chasing their playing dreams and are coaching Washington area high school programs. Vaughn Jones (M.M. Washington), Duane Simpkins (Sidwell Friends), Joe Wootten (O'Connell) and Mike Jones each was on the sideline when his team began the postseason this week.
The Stags' 1990-91 team is a lesson in success and disappointment, an example for many talented young athletes tempted by the possibility of a career in sports who listen to these men each day in practices and games.
Each of the four from that team was talented enough to play at the next level. But the undefeated season showed them how to excel as a unit at the top tier of high school basketball.
"That team was so good because everyone knew how the game should be played," said Morgan Wootten, whose DeMatha teams won 1,274 games in 46 seasons. "They were like coaches on the floor. There was a total unselfishness about them, and that's why they were so successful, and it was why they went into the line of work they did."
They also learned there is no shame in not reaching what many perceive to be the sport's pinnacle -- an NBA career. Their basketball careers taught them how difficult it is to reach the NBA and how rewarding it can be to help the next generation of players strive for the same high school basketball perfection they enjoyed.
"These kids are all thinking the next step is the NBA," said Simpkins, the team's point guard, who played at Maryland before a professional career in four foreign countries and the U.S. Basketball League and American Basketball Association. "I was an All-Met, Parade All-American, McDonald's All-American. I'm going to the best [college] conference in the country.
"Next to the death of my mother, it's the toughest thing to come to grips with, knowing you can't ball anymore. You've got to get used to being an average Joe."
For players on a team that was anything but average, that was not a easy label to bear. The fact that injuries -- Mike Jones's ankle and Vaughn Jones's knee -- drove two of them from the game made it even tougher to accept. They both played professionally overseas, and Mike Jones tried out with two NBA teams.
Even though Morgan Wootten had told them to brace for the time "someone is going to take the ball away from you," they didn't want to face that day.
That moment came for Vaughn Jones in 1998, when he suffered a knee injury while playing for a team in Cyprus.
"That's when I said, 'Well, maybe I need to consider coaching,' " said Vaughn Jones, who assisted at several programs before taking over at M.M. Washington this season. "Maybe I can't do everything, and reality started to set it. Sometimes kids have trouble letting go. Sometimes you can't be anything more than a high school player, and that's okay. I saw my name in magazines, but time moves on for everyone."
It moves more slowly for some than for others. Simpkins split two two-year professional tours overseas with two seasons as an assistant at DeMatha and O'Connell. He admitted he had trouble giving up on his high school star status -- a perfect lesson for his future players.
"I was ranked the number two [high school] point guard in the country next to Jason Kidd," said Simpkins, who is in his second season coaching Sidwell Friends, which won the Mid-Atlantic Conference regular-season title, the school's first outright conference championship. "I was right there. That's how close it is. There are so many variables that you don't see that you have to consider.
"If you want to get an appreciation of how hard it is to be in the NBA, watch the reserves, and see a guy 6-9, 6-10, and how big they are and how they run like the wind. There's so much competition for everything, and I don't think they realize how much is out there."
For Joe Wootten, time moved a little faster. Even though coaching was in his blood, he didn't consider it a career when he played as a walk-on at Maryland. But after his freshman year, he was helping at his father's summer basketball camp when he was asked to help coach DeMatha's junior varsity summer league team.
"I didn't know I wanted to coach and teach in high school, but after that [summer], I knew that was it," said Joe Wootten, who became an assistant after graduation and took over at O'Connell in 1999.
What about the fifth starter? Was there something different about Ted Ellis? He was a first-team all-WCAC selection in 1991 and went on to play at Manhattan. Mike Jones was even able to help him get a tryout in the USBL.
"But I saw that this was going to be a five- or six-year plan to get going," Ellis said of a pro career. "I didn't want to do that. I had some other aspirations."
Ellis works as a cardiovascular technician in Waldorf. With two young children, Ellis said he is happy being away from basketball. But once they become teenagers?
"I know I'll get back into it," he said. "Coaching is something I'd love to do. It seems like we all have to."