JBA League

It’s Time for Former Chicago Ballers Head Coach Eddie Denard to get a Second Chance

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Mistakes. Everybody makes them. Regrets. Everyone has them. Second chances — not everyone gets them — or deserves them.

Former Chicago Ballers head coach, Eddie Denard should not only get a second chance, but he’s more than deserving of it. Putting things into perspective, Coach Denard is 26 years old. This was his first head coaching job after serving in various assistant roles for the past four years.

While he’s had experience both playing and coaching at the division one level, there is a huge difference in assisting, than being the head honcho. Coach Denard understood this, and tackled the challenge head on — and in impressive fashion.

I had the pleasure of watching all of the coaches operate during their training camp during practice as well as away from the court. While many of them were intriguing, I couldn’t help but gravitate towards this young, fiery, and passionate coach in Denard.

For those unfamiliar with his background, Coach Denard is from the westside of Chicago. He attended Foreman High School in Chicago where he starred on the varsity. He earned all-city and all-conference recognition in his sophomore and senior seasons as well. While that sounds fine and dandy, the reality of living on the Chicago’s westside streets is no fairy tale.

Coach Denard grew up in an area where you have to fight your way out to be successful. “There is a lot of wasted talent because it gets swallowed up by the streets,” said Coach Denard. “Due to gun violence, drugs, and gang banging — you really just have to try your best to stay out the way and focus on your craft.”

Focusing on one’s craft is exactly what Coach Denard did. He parlayed his strong play in high school into a basketball scholarship at the University of Illinois at Chicago. From there, he transferred a few times before finding a home at Chicago State where he would graduate, and begin his coaching tenure.

While studying under the tutelage of former Chicago State head coach, Tracy Dildy, Coach Denard honed his skills in player development, scouting, and recruiting. Those skills manifested in the transition to becoming head coach of the Chicago Ballers of the JBA League.

From the outset, Coach Denard and former Chicago State player, Kieran Woods, were on a mission to impart their Chicago roots into their team. I had the privilege of sitting in on one of their team meetings where Coach Denard expressed the mentality his team needed to play with. He had a message that resonated with each member, and it was simple. “Y’all gotta be dogs!” Coach Denard exclaimed. “Everybody from Chicago, if you ain’t no dog, you won’t make it!”

And as he spoke, all eyes and ears were at full attention focusing and listening to every word that came out of his mouth. I studied this man. I watched his body language and how he interacted with his players on a day-to-day basis. I watched how every single morning, his players came down — together — to eat breakfast — and they all sat with each other. Every morning.

Why is this important? For starters, this was the only team I observed do this. It was a part of his philosophy on the court, as well as off. He wanted his players to play as a unit and play for each other — together. When I asked him about this prior to the first game of the season, this is what he had to say,

“For us, we want to be looked at as brothers. We want to have each others back at all times. So when you see our team out, we’re always together…and we want to play that same way on the court. So when we’re on the court, we want to be as one, play family ball, share the ball, so everybody can eat.”

JBA League training camp with Chicago Ballers head coach Eddie Denard and Kieran Woods.

Chicago Ballers coaches Eddie Denard and Kieran Woods taking some time chill out after a long day of training camp practices. Photo by Brandon Williams

Now, the mistake.

July 12th, 2018. Ontario, California at Citizens Business Bank Arena. The Chicago Ballers, dealing with trying to avoid a two-game losing streak after suffering a heart-breaking defeat to New York in their last game — knew how important this game was. Their opponent, Seattle, just added a few new players and they were rolling. Rolling to the tune of being up over 25 points during the game at one point.

Chicago on the other hand, just could not get it going. Star player, Marquis ‘Kezo’ Brown, who did not play the previous game, was ineffective in his return. His lack of a contribution coupled with a Seattle team clicking on all cylinders only exacerbated the frustration for Coach Denard.

Granted, I was not at this game. It was the first and only time all season I was not in attendance. The camera angles did not show the mounting frustration brewing inside Coach Denard as Seattle continued to pile on, as Chicago’s season laid in the balance.

And then it happened.

With 1:34 remaining in the game, Chicago trailing 109-95, Seattle’s Anthony Carmon is at the free throw line prepared to shoot two. He steps up for the first shot, swish. Daps up Je’Rell Springer and Julius Mischke and proceeds to shoot the second. He misses. Springer grabs the rebound over Montrell Dixon, whose effort on boxing out Springer was lackluster at best. Springer secures the board, dribbles to the top of the key, beats Harrison Rieger off the dribble where he is met by Dixson. As he approaches Dixson, he attacks fearlessly and beats him to the basket using a euro step move for the easy layup. Timeout Chicago.

The powder keg eventually exploded as Coach Denard, who had a previous basketball relationship with Dixson, tried to fire him up after his uninspired play was too much for him to ignore. He met him on the court with a push to his chest, but what ensued afterwards, was what changed the fortune of Coach Denard and his JBA League stint.

Now, as much as I like Coach Denard, what he did was inexcusable. However, to know the man is to understand what he embodies. Going back to that team meeting where he discussed toughness, that is the only thing Coach Denard understands — and demands from each of his players. You have to be a dog. You have to be willing to be your brother’s keeper at all times on the basketball court. For Dixson, a player who has NBA ability, playing less than his potential was not acceptable for Coach Denard.

Was his actions right? No. And he’ll tell you that himself. Should his actions prevent him from ever coaching again? Absolutely not. He had a lapse in judgment and that was it. A young coach who’s still learning how to manage personalities of players from different backgrounds.

Coach Denard loves his players and during the Chicago Ballers’ second home game (Denard was no longer the head coach), he showed up — on his own account — and asked LaVar if he could read a statement to the hometown fans. Here’s an excerpt from what he read that night:

“First off, I would like to give a huge sincere apology to Montrell and the Dixon family. That incident was not who I am as person, as a coach, as a son, as a brother, or as a father. In the game of basketball, when you see someone with so much potential, you just want to bring out the best in that person, and try to motivate that person so he can be what you know he can be. But I was wrong!

I did not conduct myself as a professional or as a coach. That is something I will better myself as I continue my next journey in coaching studying the greats such as Dean Smith and Coach K — coaches who were able to get their message across by speaking mildly. I love these Chicago Ballers and we grew into a family in our short period of time together…Thank you and God bless everyone. Go JBA, and go Chicago Ballers.”

Coach Eddie Denard instructing his Chicago Ballers team at Wintrust Arena

Eddie Denard constantly preached toughness to his young Chicago Ballers team.

Martin Luther King Jr. was famously quoted saying, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Coach Denard could have easily run away and faded into the abyss, never to be heard from again. He could have bashed Montrell Dixson, LaVar Ball, the JBA League, made excuses, etc. for the situation — but he didn’t. He faced it head on and accepted full responsibility. He continued to support the players he helped mold and shape into tough young men in a short amount of time by flying to various cities after his coaching duties with the Chicago Ballers.

If you really want to know the impact Coach Denard had on his players, here are two quotes from two prominent Chicago Ballers:

“Coach Denard as a coach gave me a lot to build on as a player both mentally and when playing the game. He always tried to get the best out of us in practice, making it competitive so we could all get better. Coach Denard was a team-first guy that wanted all of his players to succeed in this league now as well as our future endeavors. As a person, Coach Denard was fun to be around. He tried to incorporate team bonding outside of practice so we could mold as a team better. All in all, I thought it was a great experience having him around.” ~ Harrison Rieger

“I got mad love for Eddie Denard. I’ve said it before, he’s the reason I got into the JBA. A real intense coach who has the right motives. He took care of us like no other coaches in the league. A coach that will tell you the truth and push you to become better because of it. I played my heart out for him every time I hit the court, and he expected nothing less — we all did. Simply because that is what he did for us every day. [He] put his full heart and effort into everything to make sure the players were good.” ~ Deon Lyle

Coach Denard is human. Made of flesh and blood like all of us. He literally poured his blood, sweat, and tears into this job and it was clear to anyone who was around him. He made a mistake. A mistake that will ultimately make him an even better man –and coach — than he already is.

Brandon Williams is the Editor in Chief for Fresh Sports TalkYou can follow him on Twitter @TalkinWithFresh, or “Like” him on Facebook.

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