Fun fact: the first Alabama high school basketball tournament championship was played this very week in 1921—101 years ago! In February, 1921, twenty-seven teams from across the state made their way to Birmingham to compete for the prize. After a hard-fought tournament, Birmingham’s Central High—now known as Phillips Academy—were crowned champions.
The games took place at the Birmingham Athletic Club, then located downtown on 5th Avenue North and 20th Street. Today, the gym is gone — replaced by the Regions Center, one of Alabama’s tallest skyscrapers, made famous by its annual Christmas light display.
This year, the championship will be held a few blocks away from its original site, at the Legacy Arena, which just completed a $125M facelift last year. Between February 28 and March 5, 56 boys’ and girls’ high school teams will journey to the Legacy Arena to play 42 games in the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) Basketball State Finals.
Football-Dominated State? There’s Still Room for Basketball
No one can argue, Alabama is football crazy. Period.
But when it comes down to high school basketball over the past 100 years, our state has had some of the most talented coaches and players in the nation on display, along with a plethora of passionate fans from communities all across the state.
The AHSAA’s member high schools have produced NBA Hall of Famers Charles Barkley, Artis Gilmore, Ben Wallace and countless legendary coaches like Parker High School’s Cap Brown or Larry Sinyard of Lauderdale County HIgh School in Rogersville. .
“Because our state is so football-dominated, I think we lose perspective on how good basketball in our state actually is,” AHSAA Director of Basketball Jamie Lee told Bham Now before this year’s State Finals in The Magic City.
“We have some tremendous basketball coaches on the high-school level coaching both boys and girls. I would put our teams up against anybody in the country. I’m so proud of our coaches and players in the state. I think we do a great job.”
Lee is also excited that the state’s best high school teams get an opportunity to play in an NCAA Tournament-caliber venue. Because of the recent upgrades made to the BJCC, the City of Birmingham is hosting the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament for Division I Men’s Basketball in 2023 and the Division I Women’s Basketball Southern Regional in 2025.
“We’re gonna be able to create a championship experience for the kids,” he added. “It is going to be phenomenal.”
Basketball is Life
These days, one of the most popular television shows is Ted Lasso — a sitcom about an American football coach (tackle football!) learning how to manage an English Premier League Football team. One of the show’s most colorful characters is named Dani Rojas, who loves to exclaim “Football is Life!”
If given the opportunity, you can imagine numerous towns, neighborhoods and high schools throughout Alabama declaring — ”Basketball is Life!”
Two communities where “basketball is life” are Decatur in Morgan County near the Tennessee border and Andalusia, nestled in Covington County not far from the Florida state line.
One Gym, Two Coaches
How important is basketball in Morgan County? The local Junior High gym in Decatur is named after two AHSAA Hall of Fame coaches, Earl Morris and Mike Smith. That may not seem unusual until you learn that Morris coached boys’ teams, while Smith coached the girls. Both coached state championship-caliber teams year in and year out.
How many gyms in Alabama, let alone in the US, honor both boys’ and girls’ basketball coaches?
Our guess? Not many.
Beginning in 1949
In an interview with Coach Morris, he described how he started playing high school basketball in Morgan County at Union Hill High School in 1949. As a player, his school won the state championship in 1950. Only six years later, Morris was coaching a small “village” high school in the county called Austinville. He promptly won state championships back to back to back from 1957-59. For 30+ years, he coached at Decatur High School and Brewer High School, winning 535 games, including another state title for Decatur in 1970.
“I’ve done it all,” said Coach Morris. “I coached for 30 years, and for the past 18 years, while retired, I’ve volunteered at the AHSAA State Finals. I was even a basketball official for three years. I’ve loved it all.”
Title IX Led to a Hall of Fame Career
Coach Smith credits Title IX for getting him into coaching both basketball and volleyball for Decatur High School.
“I was just a teacher in the 70s when the principal got word that he had to start girls’ sports programs,” said Smith. “At the time the school only offered tennis. He calls me in and says, you owe me a favor. You’re gonna coach women’s basketball and volleyball. I didn’t know anything about volleyball, but was OK with basketball. I took the job and thoroughly enjoyed it. And it all happened because of Title IX.”
From 1976 to 2005 he won 624 girls’ basketball games and five state titles, all with Decatur High School.
Between 1990 and 1992, Smith had the pleasure to coach Yolanda Watkins, arguably one of the best girls’ high school basketball players in Alabama history. During those years, Decatur High School won three straight state championships and “Yo-Yo” was named National Player of the Year.
She did special things that contributed to women’s sports here in Alabama,” Smith explained. “I never thought I’d ever see a day when they would turn people away at the door for a regular-season game, but that happened when we were playing Butler, one of our big rivals. They turned 200 people away who came to watch her. And after our game, people got up and left before the boys’ game.”
A Town, Special Coach and NBA Superstar
For 50 years, Andalusia High School Coach Richard Robertson won over 750 games and numerous championships.
Some may say his greatest accomplishment was not on the basketball court, but the role he played in helping Alabama move through the difficult time of integration as the Alabama High School Athletic Association and its Black counterpart—the Alabama Interscholastic Athletic Association—merged in 1968-69.
Because of his efforts, in 2016, Robertson received the National Federation of High School (NFHS) Coaches’ Citation.
“Well, all I have ever known has been sports and my love for Andalusia,” said Robertson about his community. “The basketball teams were boys of all races and economic status, and my philosophy has always been ‘Teamwork’ and everyone is treated the same with playing time being based on hard work, ability, and dedication. The community of Andalusia was one big family when it came to basketball, and winning games brought out more love and honor for everyone because we were such a small town.”
Robertson also coached 7-time NBA champion and Andalusia native Robert Horry.
When asked about what it was like coaching the star player, he humbly said:
“I am proud of him and honored that he used his opportunity in basketball. However, not to discount his achievements, but I am just as honored to have coached all the other student-athletes who played basketball while I coached at AHS. Every player was seen and treated as the same — like they were my sons — because I wanted each of them to succeed, not only in basketball but in life.”
Celebrate the Next Century of Alabama High School Basketball at the State Finals
Be a part of Alabama high school basketball history. AHSAA Basketball State Finals is the first tourney in the newly renovated Legacy Arena. You can buy tickets online or do what many fans do — walk up and purchase a ticket at the box office.
The first semi-final game begins on Monday, February 28 at 9 a.m. The last championship match tips off Saturday, March 5, at 5:45 p.m. All games will be live-streamed over the NFHS Network, shown on the AHSAA TV Network and broadcast live over the AHSAA Radio Network.