Note: This story ran in the March 11, 2011 edition of The News & Observer.
The two men looked at each other, each wondering how to answer the question. Scott McInnes, Millbrook’s boys basketball coach, wanted assistant coach Christopher Davis to tell the story, the one about how Millbrook turned its season around.
The pair heard the question throughout Monday’s news conference for Saturday night’s 4-A state championship game. It went like this: Just how did they take a 2-6 Wildcats team in December and turn it into a winner?
“I’ll let him take this one, “ McInnes said. “Chris is the master psychologist.”
Davis says McInnes put the onus back on the players, which is true. But Davis also knows it’s the way McInnes has done it that has been truly masterful.
To Davis, McInnes, in his 11th year and with the most wins in school history, is having his best season. Davis has been his assistant for the past 10, and although Millbrook has had more talented teams, he knows McInnes’ personality continues to influence others to be better – which is partly why he won’t leave McInnes for a head coaching job.
“He really loves what he does, and we love coaching with each other, “ Davis said. “He makes it fun because he gives all his coaches a voice and he’ll listen.”
The same goes for players. And for anyone else who has invested in Millbrook basketball. To understand McInnes is a study into psychology.
Relating to everyone
McInnes needed to take a short walk Tuesday from the gym to the football field to oversee the boys lacrosse game.
McInnes, who graduated from Millbrook in 1987, is also the school’s athletic director. He saunters, with his eyes looking at everyone around him. The trip should be five minutes. It took him 25.
He said hello to a few students. Then he spent time with one of his JV players, making sure he was doing well in class. By the time he reached the track surrounding the field, he had to stop. Eli McInnes, 5, cried to his father because his identical twin sister, Tegan, left him for a few minutes to go to the restroom.
“She didn’t wait for me, “ Eli said.
“Why?” asked Scott McInnes, who went to one knee to speak to his son face-to-face.
“I don’t know, to go to the bathroom.”
“She’s coming back, right?”
“Then you don’t have to cry, right? I’m right here. Everything’s OK, OK?”
When Tegan came back, McInnes dealt with the situation: Tegan apologized, and Eli learned about patience.
And once the kids started playing on their scooters, McInnes was back to waving like a politician to everyone who congratulates him for taking the Wildcats (22-9) to their first-ever title game.
During the walk, it becomes obvious McInnes can hold a conversation with anyone – young, old, man or woman – whether it deals with basketball or not. When he reaches his wife Jenni, who is working the ticket window, he turns the conversation to his players.
“The kids have to believe, and you have to sell it, “ he said. “This week’s been a whirlwind. I’m all over the place, and I’m just trying to stay focused on these kids in giving them everything I have.”
He says this because he knows the Wildcats – although not at the start – have given him all they have.
Guard Marcus Johnson is one of those players. He met McInnes on the second day of school after moving with his father from Greenbelt, Md.
Johnson loves basketball and was excited to try out for the team. McInnes was intrigued with Johnson’s speed and ability to handle the ball. There was just one problem: Johnson’s grades were too low.
“Ever since I met him, we’ve had this strong bond,” Johnson said of McInnes. “He said, ‘If you come and you work hard, I will give you all that I have.’”
The message sounded like it came from every other coach Johnson knew, yet McInnes didn’t leave him. English and math were Johnson’s biggest hurdles in the first semester. McInnes kept Johnson on the team and followed his progress. Soon Johnson had one of the best days in his life when he told McInnes two words: honor roll.
“I can’t thank Coach enough for changing my life the way he did, “ Johnson said. “To be a teacher, parent and still put in all the time for this amazes me.”
With Johnson eligible, McInnes tested him again – this time on the court.
In the midst of the losing streak, Millbrook’s full-court defense wasn’t effective. Johnson wanted to be a scorer, but in his second game McInnes told him to guard the Cap-Eight’s best player in Wakefield’s Xavier Saddler-Mee.
McInnes needed Johnson’s speed to be a defender, not blow by one.
“Every kid wants to score 20, and that can’t be the case, “ McInnes said. “I say if God gave you the ability to play defense, then do that.”
Millbrook lost to Wakefield that night, but with Johnson on the court, the Wildcats were going to start building winning streaks. And in Millbrook’s two Eastern Regional wins, Johnson helped create 37 turnovers.
“Coach drilled defense into me, “ he said. “Now I love it.”
After Millbrook advanced to the state title game this past Saturday, Johnson watched the Duke-North Carolina game that night. The second half started, and it hit Johnson: He was going to be playing on the same court in the Dean Smith Center. Besides the excitement, all Johnson could think about was the coach who led him there.
A caring coach
Megan Jones, a senior, has known McInnes for nine years. She has been his statistician and manager the past four.
Jones has ridden buses with the team to almost every game, and although she hears most of McInnes’ speeches during timeouts, she’s still trying to figure out how he has done it this season, how he has been able to get forward RaShawn Vaughan to rebound or how he has made guard Shi’Chee Moore a better passer.
“I think he didn’t let his frustration get in the way of coaching,” Jones said.
Jones also wondered how McInnes found the way to be the person he needed to be to fit each moment at hand. Her best guess is that he cares most about people staying together. It’s the only way she thinks Millbrook could have come this far.
What’s McInnes’ best moment? Jones said it was the short speech he gave on the bus before the Wildcats left Fayetteville on Saturday.
After winning the regional, McInnes noticed Kinston’s bus pull into the parking lot at the Crown Coliseum. And in that instant, McInnes asked to borrow something from Kinston coach Wells Gulledge: his 2009-10 2-A state championship ring.
McInnes brought the ring – with its monstrous green emerald in the center – onto the bus for everyone to see.
“This is what it looks like, guys, “ he told them. “How bad do you want it?”