I think Michael Gerald will understand when I say it was hard for me to say, “congratulations.”
The longtime friend of the Eastside boys basketball program, and former head coach two times over, was recently tabbed for his official third tour of duty at the helm of Eastside boys hoops.
For all intents and purposes, that started last year as Gerald guided the Eagles through an emotionally up-and-down season that just missed a state tournament extension but also witnessed the loss of head basketball coach Brent Wren who passed away after battling stage four stomach cancer.
There aren’t many times when I find it hard to say congratulations to someone for being promoted, but this is, indeed, one of those times.
You see, it has nothing to do with Gerald himself. From as far as I could see, the coach filled in admirably in a tough situation that nobody, including himself, wanted. Some will look back on the season and argue that the team had the talent to go further than it did. Perhaps challenge for a region title or at least go a couple rounds deep into the Class AAAA state tournament. And if this had been any other year, that just may have happened.
But the 2018-19 season was definitely not just any other year.
Wren got his diagnosis just as thoughts were starting to drift away from football and softball alone to the action on the hardwood. This Eagles’ squad had a bunch of young, fast, talented athletes who loved to play in transition, could get streaky behind the arc at anytime and didn’t mind getting in your face defensively.
Not only that, they weren’t afraid of anyone, and they played like it.
Even with 10 losses, when you look back at the schedule, there weren’t a lot of teams that could say they dominated the Eagles — including state-ranked McDonough (formerly Henry County High) and Woodward Academy with its 5-star, 7-footer Walker Kessler who’s got offers and interest from just about every Power Five program you can think of.
In two games against Woodward, Eastside lost by just three and then a 12-point loss that was closer than the score indicated. Against a top-five ranked McDonough squad, the Eagles lost by a grand total of three points — one of those losses coming in overtime.
Eastside also gave Class AAAAAAA big brother Newton A couple of scares in the two contests they played last season — the latter a 74-65 loss where Eastside actually led late into the third quarter.
That said, you’d think beating a Druid Hills squad in the region tournament — a team it had already won against twice in the season — would’ve been an afterthought. However, any coach will tell you that it’s tough to win against the same team three times in a row, so there’s that.
But I remember when I talked with Gerald after the game, and then a couple of the Eastside players, there was this tangible sense of mixed emotions permeating the air. Obviously there was the pain and sting of losing to a team you knew wasn’t better than yours. But then a little finality of knowing this was the end of the road in what was pushed as a banner season for Eastside.
Then you felt a strange sense of relief from Gerald. Perhaps some ambivalence as he, no doubt, wanted to continue playing, but may have also been glad to get a break from what was probably the most difficult coaching season in his career.
Only Gerald himself and the players he coached know exactly how much went into keeping that season on track. I wasn’t in the huddles, team meetings or post game, post practice locker rooms, but I believe what he did was special and went way beyond wins and losses and Xs and Os. And I think that may be the reason why it probably felt natural for Gerald to slide into the head spot after the unfortunate loss of Wren.
This is a different kind of coaching hire. It’s the kind of hire that says it’s not the time to go for the splash like Newton did. It’s the kind that says it’s not the time to start preaching culture change. This is a healing hire. That’s not to insult Gerald’s skill as a straight up basketball coach. But it is to suggest that sometimes — especially in times like these — you may have to think about more than just wins and losses.
Maybe there will be a time when Eastside can look to make that kind of next-level hire. Or maybe Gerald’s third time will be the charm in terms of helping the Eagles’ program achieve some of the consistency as a state tournament regular and region championship contender that Wren envisioned.
Time will tell. But time will also heal. And from all accounts, the Eastside community is still reeling from the loss of Wren. Because of how deeply entrenched Wren was to the community — even beyond Eastside High — it’s not going to be an easy wound to heal.
Gerald is familiar to the program and to the players. He knows the Eastside culture. And for an Eastside world that was unexpectedly flipped upside down last month with the loss of a beloved coach, teacher and father figure, maybe the familiarity will be salve to a still-hurting community.
I wish Coach Gerald well in this new position. And that’s the best I can say, because I can only imagine how hard it must be for everyone involved — including Gerald himself — knowing that if Wren’s health would’ve allowed, there likely wouldn’t be any need to even be writing this column today or sharing this news.
In many ways, Gerald’s appointment is a stark and solemn reminder of what this community lost — of what this community has to somehow replace. Except there are some people you can’t replace. Wren was one of them. His impact transcended basketball wins and losses, and so too will his void.
Interestingly, when I received word of Gerald’s promotion, I scrounged for a few photos of the coach from this past season. I stumbled across one from the previous year when Wren was still pacing the sidelines. Gerald, a tall man, towered over him, looking on as Wren gave instruction to his players.
Ironically now, it’s Wren’s larger than life presence that will now look down on Gerald and the program that occupied Wren’s heart. I know, regardless of who was tabbed to take Wren’s place, the departed coach will want the best for the Eastside program, and hopefully the rest of Eastside and Newton County will root for that as well.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.