By Gabriel Stovall
COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Whenever Charles Bivens took his North Clayton Middle School boys basketball team into opposing gyms for a game, he’d tell them to take a look up at the ceiling.
Then, when he would open up his own gym for North Clayton practices, he’d tell his guys to compare those mental snapshots of other gymnasium rafters to their own.
The difference? Multiple championship banners adorn the highest parts of the Tigers’ gym — strikingly more than what you’d find in a typical middle school.
Bivens said the sight is self explanatory.
“You see the banners in our middle school gym, and I feel like they kind of speak for themselves,” Bivens said. “When we come in and our students come in to a place we’re playing at, I ask my guys to look around, and then come in our gym and compare. It shows we have a winning tradition here. It means that when those kids put on that North Clayton jersey, it means something.”
North Clayton High point guard Jamarcus Sanders agreed.
“That’s how we do it at North Clayton,” Sanders said. “We win. From middle school up. It’s all we know here is winning.”
The middle school squad almost grabbed another County Championship banner last week, but fell short to Kendrick Middle in the title game, ending their season with a 15-3 mark. But there aren’t many programs throughout the Southern Crescent that take their middle school tradition of success across all sports more seriously.
Perhaps a perusal of some of the top-notch athletes that have come through the North Clayton (Middle and High School) programs point to the reason why.
Guys such as Morgan Burdette (Green Bay Packers), Kyle Love (Carolina Panthers), D.J. Shockley (Formerly, Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons) and Marcus Georges-Hunt (Georgia Tech) all came up through the ranks of the collective North Clayton system.
“It makes you feel good to see those names, because it shows you that somebody made it out,” Sanders said. “Those guys come from the same community, and it makes you push harder every day, because you know if they can do it you can too.”
And the middle school banners, according to Bivens, also signifies how tightly the middle and high schools want their athletic programs to intertwine. That means pushing his guys to continue on with long time North Clayton High boys coach Martisse Troup.
“We always try to encourage our guys to go to North Clayton High School and stay together,” Bivens said. “One of the best ways to breed a program is through unity, and the more they play together, the more they stay together and build that unity and chemistry as a team.
“So here at the middle school level, we try to start building those foundational skills and try to keep them together and send them over to the high school to continue to grow together.”
Right now, it’s paying off.
Going into Thursday night’s second round region tournament matchup with Blessed Trinity, the North Clayton high school boys are 16-9 overall and 8-2 in Region 4-AAA, Div. A. The Eagles’ success landed them a first round bye in this week’s tournament, and being powered by Sanders, 6-foot-8 junior center Ahsan Asadullah and senior forward Ali Hill — all North Clayton Middle School products — helps the internal recruiting process.
“It’s definitely important to be able to have a team stay together like that for like five or six years, and have the success we’re starting to have now,” Asadullah said. “Because, opposed to a team just getting together, we already know how we play together, and it just gets easier when we get on the court. It also shows those younger guys what can be done.”
Sanders echoed Asadullah’s sentiments.
“Coming from the middle school to high school, it’s just better because we have that chemistry,” Sanders said. “We know how to play. On the court, we know where certain persons are and because you’ve played with them for so long, you know what they can do and what they can’t do.”
Both Asadullah and Sanders said it’s been their season-long goal to show support to the middle schoolers which they hope will turn the younger guys toward the direction of following in the older guys’ footsteps.
“We try to encourage all of them to go to North Clayton,” Sanders said. “We wanna see the school continue to grow as a program.”
Asadullah said the same thing.
“We try to be good role models for the middle school guys, and remind them that we started where they were, and try to help them stay together and be like us when we came up,” he said.
And the soon-to-be ninth graders seem to be very receptive to their high school counterparts.
“It’s pretty cool because we get to go to their games, and they come and support us on our home games,” said Jacoby Coleman, an eighth grader who’s played at North Clayton Middle since his sixth grade year. “We have a good bond with the high school. It means a lot to have their support.”
It’ll be the high school boys team that will be looking for support Thursday night as the Eagles take on Blessed Trinity in the region tournament’s second round at 5:30 p.m. at Maynard Jackson. A win will lock North Clayton into the Class AAA state tournament.
And that will give guys like Asadullah and Sanders an extended opportunity to show their middle school proteges even more evidence about the benefits of sticking together.
“We feel like a state championship contender,” Sanders said. “We feel we’ve got the tools on the inside and the outside to be a threat. We’ve got Ahsan who can score inside and the shooters on the outside who can help him out.”
Assadulah also feels a deep run into the state tournament is definitely not out of the question — especially since the team had a bit of a revival earlier in the season.
“I think our turning point was when we went to the Chick-Fil-A tournament at Tucker,” Assadulah said. “Coach (Martisse Troup) wanted us to play as hard as we can and to just enjoy ourselves, and when we went there, it just showed us we can beat some of the best teams in the state.”
Regardless of whether or not the Eagles get the chance to continue showing that world-beater ability in this year’s postseason, Asadullah said he’s hoping what he and his high school teammates have accomplished so far will be enough to whet the appetites of the up-and-comers to continue pushing for elite status right in their own backyards.
Eighth graders like Coleman (a shooting guard), point guard Jermaine Latimore, power forward Xavier Valley and 6-foot-3 transfer Jamari Watkins — a guy Bivens calls “ a physical specimen who can play above the rim already” — could have the skills already to contribute immediately on the high school level.
“I hope those guys will come here to the high school and stay together,” Asadullah said. “They had a great season, and they play real good together. If they keep it coming, by the time they get to their senior year here, I believe they could be one of the best teams in the state.”