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Mitchell & the road to state

Mithcell 600Mitchell High School put a big time whippin' on Meigs County, decisively affixing its stamp on the TSSAA Division 1 Class A Boys Basketball State Championship with a 56-27 thump'n.

On Saturday (March 29th), two weeks after the Tigers captured the Southwest Memphis school's first state basketball title, a community celebration will unfold. A parade and a string of speakers – community leaders, previous coaches, former players – will add energy to an experience that already has so many feeling like they are floating on air.

Coach Faragi Phillips engineered the title in his third year at Mitchell.

TrophyShine"They've had some very good teams down here. They've been in a position to win championships before but they had a little lull time, where the program wasn't so good," he said.

So his objective was to re-establish a winning tradition.

DSC 0674"The first person I reached out to was the gym's namesake, Andre Turner," the "Little General" point guard who played at Mitchell before helping then-Memphis State University climb the NCAA mountain to the Final Four in 1985.

DSC 0651"I talked with 'Dre. I did know him. I said man I'm hired at your alma mater and I would love for you to be a part of my staff to help get this thing turned around. He obliged without second thought."

If you think winning was the first thing that came to Phillips' mind at that point, you would be wrong.

DSC 0659"I watched film on the team from the last few years, watch how they played, watched how they carried themselves. The thing that most struck me was the fact that I wanted to build some integrity and character into these young men. Have them to know that through sports you can do anything that you set your mind to. That carried over to the basketball court."

How does he explain integrity?

"For example, with the bunch I had my first year, showing them the importance of having responsibility, doing what you say you are going to do, holding each other accountable, being responsible for your own actions at the same time for the good of the hole team."

In short, there would be no success if each part did not do its part, he said.

"If I tell you something as a coach, then guess what, I'm gonna be a man of my word. At the same time, I'm gonna expect for you to be a young man of your word. By these values we can become a pretty good team."

Such an approach does not always immediately reflect in wins. In Mitchell's case, fortunes turned around the first year as the Tigers played for the state championship, coming up short. Last year, they lost in the quarterfinals to the team that won the title.

The faith factor

Phillips openly and repeatedly gives thanks to "his Lord and Savior," saying that is his one great advantage as coach.

"I've been blessed enough for the last 7 years to play for a state championship six out of seven years. That's from middle school up to now. And it's been by the grace of God. "

Bible study is mandatory on Thursdays and on two Sundays each month the team attends church together.

"It gets difficult some time because of the fact that you get tired, you get burned out a little bit. But you have to stick to what has gotten you to this point and I have been hugely and humbly blessed. I don't take that for granted at all. ...

"My relationship with my Lord and Savior has been tremendous on who I am as a person, who I am as a coach to these young men and the example that I am for them that allows them to know that 'he is just like me.'"

The community element

The successful run to the state championship has shot a jolt of can-do pride into the community.

"A lot of our community, a lot of our alumni, our fan base had become accustomed to going to state whether it was football, basketball. ...But it had gotten to the point that (people were thinking), 'We're going to go up here, we're going to show up and we're going to lose again. We'll make it to the state championship game but won't get over the hump.'"

In the locker room before the championship game, there was a "magical moment" when the coach and his team realized that they could make history, he said.

"We wanted to do it for ourselves obviously, but we wanted to do it for our community, for our alumni that had been with us from years past and had come up that road several times and saw us not get it done."

Roots & beyond

Phillips, 38, is a self-described country boy from Mississippi. His wife is from Memphis. They dated in college, moved to Memphis, had a child and "I never looked back. Memphis has been home to me since 1999."

He credits mentors Dr. Terrence Brown and Norman Shipp for getting him on the coaching road and in the case of Shipp, passing along things – such as handling young people – that Phillips still uses today as a coach.

In the rear view mirror is a string of successes at Lanier and Ridgeway that now are joined by Mitchell's state title.

What's next?

"Next year," he said matter-of-factly. "Obviously there has been some interest in terms of me doing some other things, but man, let me tell you, I am happy where I am. I'm supported here and presently I don't see anything else changing."

Relating to players

His son Kylan, a 16-year-old junior, is on the team. Phillips keeps up with him and the rest of the players, staying alert to what they are doing on social media. Coaching, he said, is evolving.

"The thing you cannot underestimate is the importance of social media to their lives. Do I understand why? Absolutely not, but to them it's important, so you have to kind of give and take with that.

"Taking it from them is unfair because their focus won't be there. I'm telling you from experience. But at the same time, you have to monitor it and if it gets out of hand you have to address it."

The bottom line, he said, is not about him or wins and losses.

"If I can win and save lives, if I can win and give kids hope about a future through basketball, then I've won a championship."

Still, there were deep-valley moments during the title run, including a point where he had to dismiss a player that he had known for years.

"Did I want to do it at the time? Absolutely not? Do I feel bad about it now? Sure. ...I think he has gone on to do great things ... and I wish him and his mom and dad nothing but the best. ...

"That was a low, but it speaks volumes about out kids, our team, our mindset because he was one of our better players. But they kept on pushing, and 27 games later we haven't loss. "

As Phillips carved out time for a television interview, two police officers approached. They are assigned to a crime watch program that brings them in contact with Mitchell High School.

"I am so excited for these young men and what they bring to the school and this community," said Officer Anthony Billingsley. "I watched it (the title game) on TV and I am so proud of them.

"You see so much negativity about our young black males in the community, but this is awesome. The coach, the school, the principal, hats off them, and the community for rallying and standing behind these young men."

Antwone Garrett, a senior power forward and center, is among those young men that had Billingsley and his partner beaming. Garrett, who doubles as senior class president, was raised by a great-grandmother, who has lived in the Mitchell area all her life.

"It (winning the title) is very special because I have had grandfathers come through this school, cousins, aunts," said Garrett, 17. "They all played sports. We finally got it down."

College is on the horizon for Garrett and he is not "leaning toward basketball. I play tennis as well. I probably see myself in the future playing tennis."

Garrett has fresh memories of the day of the title game.

"For me, there were tears the whole day – before the game, during warm-ups, but when that ball tipped it was all business," he said.

The tears, he said, were from "just knowing that it was possibly my last basketball game, and with this group of fellas. We are as one. We have a strong brotherhood."

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