The Wilkinsburg High School boys basketball team is in first place in Section 4-A, but that’s not the most important item on coach Eugene Wilson’s agenda.
Having a winning team is only a small part of what Wilson is trying to accomplish at his alma mater in his first year as head coach.
“One of the goals was to understand what we can accomplish,” Wilson said. “Wilkinsburg is going through some positive changes. There are a lot of positives going on in our community and our high school. We are trying to change the reaction to our name. There is always negative press with us.
“Sports are a way of bringing a positive light to the community and we want to show the kids the right direction.”
But when it comes to his athletes, Wilson makes sure they know that basketball comes second to academics. He even went the route of the movie “Coach Carter” and set a minimum grade point average of 2.5 in order for his players to suit up.
“Our athletes are students first,” Wilson said. “They need to maintain their good grades and can’t slack off just because of basketball season. It is about teaching these young men to do something with their lives outside of Wilkinsburg.
“We try to ‘keep it real’ with them. They are not going to buy in if they don’t see that we are buying in. We want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to go to college.”
In order to make sure his young men would stay on the right track, he knew it was crucial to sit down with all of them and their parents before the season to map out his plan.
“When parents are involved in the kids’ academics, the percentage of success is raised,” Wilson said. “There was a little apprehension at first. They didn’t know what to expect.
“Once they saw that we were serious about not only basketball but their future and what they wanted to do in life, they were all in. I had a meet-and-greet with all the parents and mapped out the expectations of the players and parents and the coaching staff.”
Through 12 games this year, Wilson is a little surprised with how well his players have bought into his system. The Tigers are 6-6 overall, but 3-1 in section play, but that’s not what has Wilson enthused.
“I am surprised with how well they are buying into it,” Wilson said. “I am a little bit shocked. When I took over this position, I made sure to have a certain staff that had experience with urban youth, that knows how to deal with youth and basketball and to help these young men in life. It isn’t just about basketball, it is about life.”
His message to his team off the court has helped them perform at a high level on the court, even with three starters in Desmond Stolich, Montay Clancy and Rafiq Simpson who are virtual novices at organized basketball.
“We have three guys in our starting five who are playing basketball for the first time,” Wilson said. “That shows their level of dedication and hard work. They do a great job of manning that back line and bringing toughness to our team.”
A big part of their development is the leadership of 6-foot-1 senior D’Shawn Adair and 6-0 junior guard Isaiah Pete. Adair, a swing player, is averaging 18.2 points per game and Pete is bringing in around 17 ppg. but it is their communication with their teammates that is impressing Wilson the most.
“Both of those individuals have come such a long way when you talk about maturity and mindset,” Wilson said. “We still have a lot more to do but they are growing with each and every game.”
As for goals on the court, Wilson expects his young men to compete for a section title.
“Strictly basketball goals — we wanted to be a strong force in our section,” Wilson said. “We played some tough schools to start the year. Vincentian beat Wilkinsburg by 50 last year and we only lost to them by 16 at the beginning of the year.
“We are suppose to have a less talented team this year than last year. Our team was able to endure and experience some hardships and learn from that.”
The team is also learning to be closer together with all the traveling they will be doing this year. The Tigers have only six home games on their schedule.
Wilson, who played for the Tigers in 1994 and then again in 1996-97, always knew he wanted to be a coach at Wilkinsburg and is glad he can come in and make a difference.
“I wanted to coach at Wilkinsburg when I was a junior at Wilkinsburg but I wanted to fulfill my playing days out,” said Wilson, who finished his basketball career at Pitt-Johnstown.
“When I wanted to coach, I wanted to make sure this was my first stop. It was beneficial having an alumnus as the head coach. I can be on the same page and relate to some of the players. I changed the mentality of the players. Made them more team-oriented. I am helping them with how they approach the game.”