Ron Link was all set to retire. It was 2007 and he had just finished his seventh season at Cedar Shoals, where he won four region championships and went all the way to the final four in 2003.
Link had done nearly all there is to do in coaching. On Jan. 10, 2006, he recorded his 500th career victory when his Cedar Shoals boys team defeated Habersham Central. In 1989, Link coached Lakeside-DeKalb to the Class AAA state championship game, losing to Marist. He’s coached 17 NBA players as coach of the Atlanta team in the “Boston Shootout”, a prestigious national tournament. He’s been named coach of the year by numerous organizations and has been to the state playoffs 19 times.
He had coached for 38 years after taking his first job at Southwest Atlanta (now Mays) and leading the girls to an 18-6 record after they went 1-22 the year before. He’d had enough.
He could get to work on his third book, titled Behind Bars, a collection of stories by officials and coaches all over the country. He could give more motivational speeches. He could continue his summer basketball camp called Missing Link.
In what could have been his last game, Link’s Clarke Central team absorbed a 78-64 loss to Stone Mountain in the Class AAAA state playoffs.
However, two days later, the phone rang. It was Dr. Buhl Cummings of Athens Christian.
“Coach, we want the first shot at you,” said Cummings.
“I’m through answering bells and I’m through grading papers,” replied Link.
“Just to coach,” said Cummings.
That, and the chance turn around a losing program, intrigued Link, who promptly took the job.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, [the basketball program was] on the bottom and I wanted to bring them back,” said Link.
HISTORY OF SUCCESS
When Link was hired at South Gwinnett, he was told by the principal that it was a football school, so he shouldn’t expect to win. In response, Link bought key chains for all the kids and the principal that said “Expect to win.”
“And we won immediately."
In his first season at Athens Christian, the Eagles finished 11-11 after only winning a combined five games the two seasons before.
Link attributes his success in building winning programs to more than just drawing up the right plays.
“Everybody wants to talk about X’s and O’s, but you’ve got to get kids to first believe in you, believe in your system," Link said. "Then they start to believe in themselves, and it’s like a snowball going down a hill.”
Senior forward Tyson Beacham was part of the team that won only five games in two seasons and has had three different coaches in his time at Athens Christian.
“Coach Link built confidence,” said Beacham. “He put the confidence in us that we didn’t have in ourselves. We had to believe in ourselves through his system.”
For the 2007-08 season, the Eagles had two more reasons to feel confident, one from the Bahamas and the other from Germany.
Raymond Higgs moved from the Bahamas to Florida for his junior year to attend Sagemont High School.
“It was a better opportunity for me,” Higgs said.
Higgs played basketball for Sagemont and averaged 14 points off the bench for his team, which lost by one point in the Class AA state championship game. He decided to leave Sagemont after only one season because the school didn’t have a track team.
Last summer, Higgs took first place at the Olympic trials in the Bahamas in the high jump, narrowly missing a chance to represent his country in the event at the Beijing Olympics. His personal best is 7 feet, 3 inches, and he’s been offered track scholarships from schools all over the country. Right now he says he’s leaning towards signing with Arkansas.
Higgs found Athens Christian through a fellow Bahamian, Neil Carroll, who ran track at Athens Christian from 1994-98 for Tim Cummings, who is still at the school. A recommendation from Higgs’ principal at his school in the Bahamas further encouraged him to make the move. Higgs now lives with Cummings as part of an exchange program.
FROM EUROPE TO ATHENS, GA
David Mann’s journey to Athens Christian wasn’t as straight and narrow.
Born in Ethiopia, Mann moved to Germany at four months old when he was adopted out of a children’s home.
He began playing basketball on a club team at age 11. Before coming to Athens Christian, Mann played on the same club team that Dirk Nowitzki once played for.
“Sometimes we’d see him in the gym during the summer,” said Mann.
Mann got the idea to come to America from Paul Hallgrimson, a director for a student exchange program with the U.S. Hallgrimson is also the father of one of Mann’s former German club teammates, Markus Hallgrimson. Mann was easily convinced.
“I always wanted to come over here to get familiar with the culture and learn the language better,” he said.
Mann signed up for the exchange program having no idea where he would end up.
“I didn’t pick the school. It was all random.”
Mann, a junior, is enrolled at Athens Christian for one year as part of the program. Next year he will go back to Germany where he will graduate from high school and continue to play on his club team.
With Higgs, Mann and a talented group with another year under Link, the Eagles finished the 2008-09 regular season 22-2. They defeated Athens Academy for the first time in school history on Jan. 16 and again on Feb. 7. They finished a perfect 19-0 in Region 8-A and defeated Athens Academy for a third time to win the region tournament.
On Wednesday, the Eagles defeated North Cobb Christian, 77-68, to reach the quarterfinals. Higgs contributed with 19 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Mann led the Eagles with 32 points, going 11-for-12 from the free throw line.
Mann was extremely grateful after the game.
“I really enjoy being here,” he said after the big win. “I’ve got to thank the Lord for sending me to this school with this team and this great coach.”
Link is enjoying himself as well.
“I’m extremely proud. If anybody ever deserves [success], we do. They are super young guys. I’ve been there and done that. I’d like to see them experience it and now they are.”
The Eagles will try and prolong the experience against Greenforest Christian (26-4) today at Marietta High School in the sectionals.
Wiley can be reached at email@example.com.