I got the chance to see a few of the many faces of Dan Maehlman Thursday.
For about four years of covering sports in the Southern Crescent area, I’ve seen the Jonesboro boys basketball coach go from heartbreak, to heart attack to heartwarming.
The most notable heartbreak came during the year of Eagle’s Landing’s run as state champions during the 2012-13 season. Coach Clay Crump’s last team was a juggernaut that year, but the Cardinals played them closer than anybody — including Columbia, the team the Golden Eagles beat in the Class AAAA finals.
I remember that one-point loss Jonesboro suffered to Eagle’s Landing at home during the regular season. The game was virtually decided on a goaltending call by a referee on what appeared to be a clear blocked shot by Jonesboro’s Duby Okeke.
Maehlman was livid. The moment wasn’t funny to him, or to Cardinal nation, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at his antics, and how his fury seemed to charge up the Jonesboro crowd. I can still remember how those fans booed so heartily, I could feel it in my chest.
That was the heartbreak.
Then, the heart attack. After I found out how passionate Maehlman is about his team and just about coaching basketball, and once I learned a few of his best animated sideline moves, I found myself guessing and envisioning his reactions to close games, even if I wasn’t there to see them.
Games like the loss to Statesboro the year before the championship run began. I remember seeing Statesboro play earlier in the season and when I saw that Maehlman’s team drew Statesboro in their state tournament bracket, I figured, “Easy win.”
Maehlman recalled the story Thursday night during his post-championship game talk with the team. He called Statesboro a team “that we probably should’ve beat.” He said he sat on the bus after that game “pissed.”
That made me smile, because I knew enough about him to guess how he must’ve responded throughout that game.
Near heart attack may have been the best way to describe it. The coach is just that intense.
But in the same story, the heartwarming side came out. It came out when he began to cast then-sophomore Austin Donaldson as a stringy-haired, gangly looking, 15 year-old prophet.
“I remember Austin Donaldson comes and sits next to me on the bus after that Statesboro loss, and he said, ‘Coach, we’re going to win the state championship next year.'”
From there, Maehlman went on to gush about how this team trumps all the others he’s ever had or been around. Not by way of talent. Not by way of athleticism — although I’m sure a case could be made for that too. But something much more substantial.
“You guys are the most unselfish group of high school young men I’ve ever been around in my life,” Maehlman said, still sniffing away the residue of his earlier tears.
But he goes on.
“I’ll remember these days forever,” he said. “Forever. Do you guys realize you just became the newest basketball dynasty, whatever that means, in Georgia? Did you ever think that would happen? I didn’t.”
Not because he didn’t have confidence in those guys, but as Maehlman told me earlier this week when I talked to him after his next-to-last practice, “We just don’t think about things like that.”
Believe it or not, both he and Donaldson, his now-senior point guard and Chattanooga signee said they didn’t care very much about winning another ring. They both cared about winning. But the ring was a secondary concern. Maybe even tertiary.
Priority No. 1? That name across their chests. I heard that phrase at least a dozen times this week. Maehlman said that even if his boys lost to Carrollton Thursday — and there were, indeed some anxious moments — he promised to shed tears, but not because his team lost.
And I thought it was just coachspeak until after Jonesboro defeated Carrollton, touching off a, well, let’s just call it an underwhelming celebration.
“The thing that’ll make me cry most,” he said, “is knowing that about five or six of these guys won’t be coming back here anymore. I mean, yeah, we won the game and that’s great. But that’s not what makes me cry. It’s going to take me a while to get used to not seeing those seniors anymore.”
More heartwarming stuff from Maehlman in that post game locker room: He said he loved those boys in Jonesboro red and black almost as much as his own wife, son and daughter.
He told them they weren’t just “like” family. They were family. He stuck up for his school, for the city of Jonesboro. For the county of Clayton.
Then there was a little bit of the chip-on-the-shoulder side.
“I think (winning back-to-back championships) is awesome, you know, for the community, and from where we’re from in the (south side of Atlanta)” he said. “I don’t know, for whatever reason, People in this state always seem to forget about the south.
“They think that high school sports is generated up north, basketball, football, whatever it is. You know, you go through this whole year No. 1 in the state and No. 8 in the country, and I don’t think Fox 5 showed up until just yesterday. But you know, we don’t worry about that. The kids know how much we appreciate them, our school appreciates them and they have great parents. But they didn’t need to hear all that. All of the accolades, and how great they were. All they wanted to do was step out on this floor and play for each other each night.”
But then, and if you know me beyond this sportswriting stuff, you knew it was coming, I even got the chance to see Maehlman’s spiritual side. And no, I’m not talking about when he jokingly referred to Donaldson as “Jesus” for his prediction two years ago.
Earlier Thursday morning I had the privilege to share the Gospel with Jonesboro’s Fellowship of Christian athletes group. As I shared from John 10:9-10 about how Jesus desires to give those who follow Him true and abundant life — life running over — I had no idea that Maehlman was sitting in the back of the Jonesboro gymnasium listening.
He told me he enjoyed the “passion” with which I spoke, further letting me know that dull, monotone speakers in church tend to put him to sleep. I was thrilled to not have fallen into that category, and I wanted to tell him that the passion he saw was just my way of channeling my “inner-Maehlman.”
He spoke a little more about his religious upbringing, and though it was a light-hearted conversation, he said he would come and visit our church one day.
Coach, I’m publicly holding you to it.
Can you imagine Maehlman’s basketball passion behind a Sunday morning pulpit? Oh my. Talk about a revival.
But I digress. It’s super refreshing for me to see a coach who coaches high-level players to achieve high-level status in one of this nation’s highest-priority sports while keeping a low, humble profile about it all.
Coach Maehlman, I applaud you for not just what you do, but how you do it. I’m sure there are many others who do the same. You say it’s all for the kids, but I’m sure your passion and heart’s gotta rub off on some of us adults, too.
Here’s hoping that more people, over time, will get to see more than just coach Maehlman’s game face.
Gabriel Stovall is the editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 or follow Southern Crescent Buzz @crescent_buzz. Got a story idea? Drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.