The last time I watched Phillip Washington run a practice, it was in the Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School gym during the 2015 Indiana high school basketball tournament. He was getting his team ready to face Cloverdale and Park Tudor in the 2A Regional Finals.
Now, on a cold snowy night in March of 2017, I watch as he puts grown men through many of the same drills with much of the same passion that he displayed during Attucks workouts. Washington is now coaching the semi-pro Indianapolis Blaze of the Central Basketball Association. He claps his hands, yells out instructions, and urges the players on as they scrimmage five-on-ten.
The drill works like this. Team A inbounds the ball against a press by Team B. If Team B steals and scores, they inbound against a pressing Team A. But if Team A gets the ball to midcourt, Team C starts guarding in the front court, trying to steal and score at the other end. Any team that makes a basket gets the ball back, and has to start all over against backcourt pressure.
Washington’s whistle is little more than a fashion accessory in this drill. Players wrestle for the ball out of bounds, crash into each other on drives to the basket, and bear-hug in the post. Finally, one team scores its sixth point and the coach orders the other ten players to the end line for “towel drills”, where they sprint to each line on the court and back. Not just endlines, free throw lines, midcourt; every line on the court, including those marked for volleyball.
Several players protest, claiming mistakes in scorekeeping. Washington answers them, but as they keep arguing he tells them “Enough. That’s it. Just stop.” He blows the whistle and the players, still grumbling, start running the lines.
“Everything we do is competitive and we play for a consequence,” Washington says. “Yesterday the new guys beat the guys from last year, and they were mad.”
Washington chuckles. “They were really mad. No conversation after practice, they just put on their clothes and left. Grown men, very angry.”
“But they respect the process. They know it helps keep them accountable.”
After the 2015 season, Washington was a candidate for the Anderson High School job, which would have been a jump to 4A as well as a triumphant return to his hometown. Another coach was selected, and Washington returned to Attucks. But early in the season, the IHSAA determined that Attucks had used ineligible players in summer league games and Washington was eventually removed as head coach. The following spring, Anderson High School re-opened the head coaching position and hired Washington, but before the season began he was charged with DUI only blocks from his home. The Anderson school board removed him as coach, though he still works there as a teacher.
When we spoke over the summer, Washington told me he thought he was finished with high school coaching. But now he’s not so sure.
“It’s a possibility,” he says. “I miss it. But I didn’t realize how much time I was taking away from my family….I miss the interaction with the kids and growing a team.”
CBA players pay a league fee to participate in the 8-game season, and they get a chance at exposure to scouts from the NBA D-League and International teams. According to the league, over sixty CBA players have signed professional contracts to play overseas or in the NBA since 2013. The league features teams from Baltimore, Bowling Green (KY), Ft. Wayne, Illinois, Nashville (TN) and Mississippi. The players aren’t paid, but get training dates with International pro teams, video highlight packages, and exposure to high level competition.
And the coaches get exposure as well. Due to the brevity and scheduling of the season, a CBA coach can work around college and high school coaching jobs.
“If this can open doors to a college coaching job, that’s my ultimate goal,” Washington says. “If it does, that’s the direction I’ll go.”
Whatever the outcome of the season, the team looks to be vintage Coach Washington. Active, loud, swarming defense. Quick shots. Constant communication on defense.
The Blaze roster includes the 2016 CBA scoring leader in Anthony White and former Butler University standout Chrishawn Hopkins. Washington also seems excited about the new additions to the team.
“Ja’Rob McCallum from Marion (HS) played for University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee,” he says. “He’s going to play a major role.
All of the drills and running during practice aren’t for show. At Attucks High School, Washington’s teams always played with a frantic desperation that was fun to watch and easy to root for.
“I want to play fast and be all over the floor,” he says.
The Blaze open the 2017 season at 6:00 PM on Friday, March 25 at the Broad Ripple High School gymnasium against the Mississippi Eagles.