DALLAS — Ernest Smith was a force on the Memphis basketball circuit in the mid-1980s when he was a high-flying star at Whitehaven High.
Today, the former Memphis State standout is putting his coaching techniques to test as a coach of the Memphis Wildcats AAU 9-and-under team.
For Smith, who starred at small forward for the Tigers from 1988-92, coaching youths who boast lofty aspirations of transcending through the local basketball ranks much like he did nearly three decades ago is a challenge by which he envisioned long before his professional career ended.
Following his collegiate career under Memphis icon and legendary coach Larry Finch, Smith enjoyed a stellar career of international ball, having played in Switzerland, Mexico, and South America in the early-to-late 1990s.
Coaching, he contends, offer more challenges, especially for youths who are still developing their mechanics and fundamentals.
“We teach them the basic fundamentals, from layup drills, dribbling, shooting midrange junpers, practicing free throws, you name it,” said Smith, whose team is in Dallas this weekend for a national tournament.
Fortunately for Smith, his Wildcats, a Team Penny-sanctioned squad, has enjoyed success in recent years, in large part because it has seasoned coaches to help inspire his players on and off the court.
Jarvis Stephen, who coaches basketball at Hamilton Middle School, assumes a majority of the head coaching duties for the Wildcats. Like Smith, Stephen, who is in his second full season with the team, welcomes the challenges that come with training young athletes.
“Honestly, it’s more tough to coach these young kids because they’re at such a young age,” Stephen said. “But I’m more hands on. I’m able to build a better rapport with the parents because they trust our (coaching background).”
Former Raleigh-Egypt standout Steve Holloway also coaches the Wildcats 9-and-under squad. Like Smith and Stephen, he relishes the fact that this unit has rid itself of assuming the proverbial “superstar role” and has developed the habit of gelling as a team.
“One of the hardest parts about 9-and-under kids is discipline,” Holloway said. “Besides the (occasional) attitude problems, we’ve got to teach them to adjust and play as a team. That’s one of the hardest parts of coaching kids this age.”
With proper discipline, comes success on the court.
Last year, the Wildcats were as good advertised, finishing in the Top 10 nationally. Before emerging as a national standout, the Wildcats won a host a regular-season tournaments throughout the region and claimed the state crown in their age division.
“It was a lot easier (as the season progressed) because everybody developed a team concept,” said Smith, assessing last season. “They got better and they played up to our expectations.”
Smith and Co. expect more of the same No-I-In-Team concept this year for a Wildcat team that returned a majority of last year’s roster. After this weekend’s tournament here, the Wildcats have trips scheduled to New Orleans and Orlando, among other sites.
As the team lobbies for additional sponsors to aid with travel expenses, supplies, hotels, and other necessities, Smith said his primary objective is to help instill in his players that there’s more to playing basketball within the parameters of Memphis.
“We need all the sponsors we can get,” Smith said. “We try to keep our team as a group. We try to get charter buses so our team can be together. When we go to Orlando, we’re getting flight tickets because some of our kids have never flown.”