MACON, Ga. — Dan Maehlman tried, but he couldn’t hold it back.
The spring of emotions characterized by tears broke through the dams of resiliency, resolve and championship focus Thursday night in a cramped locker room in Macon Coliseum.
And all it took to trigger the waterfall was one mentioning of his mom and dad who passed away within months of each other during the season.
Perhaps that’s why a lot of the pain felt from Jonesboro’s 58-52 loss to Liberty County in the Class AAAA championship game had nothing to do with not getting another ring to show off to friends and family.
It had nothing to do with not being able to put another trophy on the mantle back at Jonesboro High School.
It wasn’t even as much about not sending off the seniors with one last “W.”
But when Jonesboro’s junior stud MJ Walker, and many of his teammates, fell to their knees and began to weep, it was for something bigger than just a game. And when you hear just what that “something” is, it truly crystallizes how deep relationships run over at 7728 Mount Zion Blvd.
“It just hurts so bad to lose this game because of (Maehlman),” Walker said. “And that’s really, for me, that’s why I wanted to win. I wanted to win for him. He was going through so much. I just wanted us to be able to give it back to him this season. That’s really where most of my tears came from.
“He deserved it. He deserved to win tonight.”
When it came to expressing heartbreak over the last game of the season, Walker and many of his teammates beat Maehlman to the punch. For Maehlman, it didn’t happen until toward the very end of his postgame address when he managed to get out the phrase, “my mom and dad,” and nothing more, before his tear ducts began to swell.
After a few moments of recomposure, he capsulized the 2015-16 campaign by saluting the bond he built with his team during one of his toughest seasons as a coach, a man and a son.
“It’s not about wins and losses,” Maehlman said to the sniffling, sobbing locker room. “But it’s about the relationships I have with you guys. That relationship is much more important than going home with that little silver trophy.”
Oh, sure. It’s understandable why some of us may be tempted to brush such talk aside as mere losing team “coachspeak.” It makes sense, since we’re the ones who sometimes glamorize the trophies and the rings and the records and the “three-peats.” We’re the ones who idolize those things to newsworthy status. We’re the ones who give such tangibles a bigger-than-life persona.
It’s our emphasis — dare I say, at times, overemphasis — on these things that tempts someone to give a little eye-roll when coaches say things like “it’s bigger than the game.”
But for Maehlman, it is. And here’s how I know: His first championship back in 2014, he said the same thing. And last year when he led the Cardinals to a second straight title? Yep. You guessed it. Same words.
When you can authentically express gratitude for life in the midst of mountaintop highs and valley lows, that gratitude is real. And that, more than how to beat the pick and roll or how to break an aggressive full court press, is what Maehlman ultimately wants to model for his athletes.
As his team dejectedly walked back to the locker room while the Liberty County party ensued, some of the players came close to allowing the frustration of the moment to bubble over. Maehlman nipped it in the bud quickly.
“Get it together, guys,” he shouted. “You win with class, you lose with class. Figure it out.”
The lesson in classy losing began while the Cardinals were still on the floor, though. It happened while Liberty County gathered at mid-court to do what Jonesboro had done the past two seasons — celebrate.
While Liberty was getting its trophy and being announced as state champs, Maehlman beckoned for several of his players who had started heading off the court toward the locker room to come back to the Jonesboro bench and remain through the trophy presentation.
Then, as cheers went up for the new No.1, Maehlman began to clap vehemently for the team that just dethroned his. He did it until it became reluctantly contagious, as his Cardinals followed suit.
Back in the locker room, he told his team how proud he was of them — particularly the seniors. He expressed hope that the pain of the loss would rekindle a fire in the bellies of those who will return next season.
And then — perhaps after sensing he’d done all he could to console his boys — he finally succumbed to the nagging nudge that kept poking at his heart.
“I think I took it a little better than I thought I would,” Maehlman said after the locker room episode had ended. “I tried not to think about it as much tonight. I felt like (my parents) would look down on us tonight and pull us through anything. That’s what I was thinking. And it’s not that they weren’t trying, and not that our kids weren’t trying.”
Then he paused, as if to refocus.
“You know, I wouldn’t have been able to get through what I went through this year without these guys,” he continued. “And I’m talking about 14, 15, 16, 17 year old kids, texting you and calling you and saying crazy stuff that most high school kids wouldn’t even think of. There’s no way any other high school coach in the country has a better relationship than we have.”
What this group of teenagers did for their coach is bigger than MJ’s most impressive dunk or Eric Lovett’s most timely three-pointer or Zerrick Cooper’s most aggressive rebound or Jamari Smith’s most belligerent blocked shot.
I recall the way I found out about Maehlman losing his dad. It was when I saw a tweet on Twitter from MJ saying, “My coach really needs us to pray right now.”
Walker said the support they tried to give Maehlman was natural and reflexive.
“All throughout his trials we just told him to keep God first,” Walker said. “And we let him know, regardless of whether we win or are losing, that we’ve got his back. We wanted to make sure he was straight before anything else. We knew it had to be hard losing both of his parents in such a short time span.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we should love sports, and — in an era that tries its best to morph the high school game into the money-and-fame driven big time college and professional ranks — strive to keep the games as pure as possible on this high school level.
On Thursday night, Maehlman told his team about the lessons the game of basketball could teach them. I wonder, though, if when he first stepped onto the court as a coach over a decade ago, he realized how much he would begin to learn and grow from a bunch of gym shoe wearing teenage tutors.
“When I was younger, I used to be in this — it used to be all about the wins and the losses,” Maehlman said. “But that’s changed over the years. It’s about the kids. The coaches. The relationships. The whole thing of losing my parents gives me a totally different perspective on life. It’s great to win state, but these kids are healthy. They’re gonna go to college, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
“I wouldn’t coach another group of kids in the state.”
And I’m positive these kids wouldn’t want another high school coach in this country.
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. You can also follow thecrescentbuzz.com on Twitter @crescent_buzz.