AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Many junior varsity basketball players have spent the first part of the summer attending a junior varsity basketball league. And while they’ve been improving their skills on the courts, the coaches and community leaders have been teaching the players about life as well.

Brad Means: The junior varsity basketball league. It’s been going on for the past couple of weeks in Augusta, the JVBL. And one of the leaders of that entire organization is Westside High School Coach Jerry Hunter, the head men’s basketball coach for the Patriots. Coach Hunter, welcome to “The Means Report.” Thanks for being here.

Jerry Hunter: Thanks for the invitation, Brad.

Brad Means: Listen, before I get to a single question about the JVBL, I have to just congratulate you on the state championship. That’s just awesome.

Jerry Hunter: Thanks.

Brad Means: You feel good?

Jerry Hunter: Yes, sir, yes, sir. But of course, we’re back to work now, so, you know.

Brad Means: Is it like, okay, I went to Alabama. Coach Saban, the football coach there, has the 24-hour rule where after a victory, you have 24 hours to celebrate. Then as you said, it’s back to work.

Jerry Hunter: Yes, sir.

Brad Means: Is that how you looked at it?

Jerry Hunter: Pretty much. We’re still waiting on the rings to come in, so after the ring ceremony, we’ll put the rings on the shelf and continue.

Brad Means: That was just incredible. I mean, you seem kind of laid back right now. Have you come down from that high? It was just a couple months ago.

Jerry Hunter: Yes, sir. You know, the summer is here now, so we got a chance to see a lot of mistakes. We took a few bumps on the chin, and so, no, we gotta get back to fine-point a few areas.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Jerry Hunter: So, you know, allow the kids to celebrate, but make sure they understand it’s not over.

Brad Means: It’s not over. Westside could be on a run here, and we’ll be cheering you all on for sure. Let me ask you about the younger kids, all right. So you take your varsity squad, get a state title back in March, and then you turn around, and you shift your focus to junior varsity-age players, rising ninth-graders, rising 10th-graders. And you start this program, Coach Hunter, that involve so many kids and so many high schools from our area. How did this idea come about? How did you say, “Hey, we need to do this?”

Jerry Hunter: Well, Coach Boddy and I, as well as Coach Bradley, we sat down one day, and we were speaking about the kids. The transition from middle school to high school, it’s a quick turnaround. It’s only two months. You get June and July. And the summer league that we have here kind of caters to the varsity kids. So we sat down, and we spoke with Mr. Bailey, our former athletic director, and he kind of gave us the green light to go ahead and do a pilot program. So we tried it as a pilot program. We fixed a few things. We sat down this time and spoke with Mr. McLintock. After we spoke with Mr. McLintock, he liked the idea, so we moved forward with it. And we just decided to make sure that we made it more than just about basketball. It’s about life skills as well.

Brad Means: Yeah, I wanna talk a little bit about that, but first let me ask you about the level of interest because I had the privilege of going to speak to the kids on y’all’s first Saturday together a couple of weeks ago. And I was blown away by how many kids are taking part. Give us a feel for the size of this thing.

Jerry Hunter: Well, we started out with like 12 teams, and then two other teams had previous commitments, so we’re at 10 teams now.

Brad Means: Wow.

Jerry Hunter: We reached out as far as Washington County there in town. Every Saturday Putnam is in town and I think Oglethorpe. And right now, it’s like you said, as far as speakers goes with you coming in, and then we have Reverend Goodman come in, Reverend Taylor comes in. And this week here, we have Dr. Amos coming in. So we’ve been up and moving. And then we had the skills clinic as well, so.

Brad Means: Yeah, let’s look at the basketball side of it, the skills clinic, and they play actual games. The schools play each other. How much help are you getting from the other coaches? Have they bought into this? Are they showing up on Saturday mornings?

Jerry Hunter: Yes, sir, yes, sir. They’re showing up, and of course, this year, we had a fee attached to it because we have to pay officials. So they’re coming in, they’re listening and paying attention. And the beautiful thing is they’re getting an opportunity to see their younger kids play because when the Georgia High School wrote, when they implemented their rules, you can’t play as a team or practice as a team again until October.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Jerry Hunter: So they get a chance to see the younger guys perform during the summer.

Brad Means: So when y’all do get through teaching the skills, and you do actually blow the whistle and start the game, is it a full-length basketball game? Is it abbreviated?

Jerry Hunter: Well, yes, it’s abbreviated. It’s a summer league format, which all team camps do. So it’s pretty much the same rules except we will allow an instructional time-out.

Brad Means: All right, so let’s talk about the life skills part of it, which I think is just a wonderful component. And as we mentioned, Coach Bradley, who is a coach at Richmond Academy, where my children went, he and Coach Nobles were great. My oldest son played varsity for the Musketeers. And I had a chance to talk to the kids about the TV business, about communication. What else are they learning? And well, I’ll ask you the follow-up question in a minute, but what else have they learned about this summer? You mentioned pastors have come in?

Jerry Hunter: Yes, sir, yes, sir. Well, we basically kind of centered around prevention education for athletes. So when you’re talking about life skills, like you just mentioned communication, a lot of kids at times find it hard to communicate. So we wanna make sure they understand problem-solving skills. We wanna make sure they understand attaching the right emotions to situations because normally that’s what controls the behavior. Basketball is a up-and-down sport, as well as other sports. But life can pretty much put you in some situations, too. You have to make some very, very quick decisions. So life after the sports, that’s important, mental performance, but the most important thing is that they’re having fun and they’re learning.

Brad Means: Coach, are these kids listening? I go out to schools every week and give the Golden Apple Award, so I’ve seen kids of all ages. Sometimes it’s tough to keep their attention. How are y’all reaching and connecting with them?

Jerry Hunter: Well, just like Nick Saban has that rule.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Jerry Hunter: You know, there’s a rule, and the rule is attention span rule, each coach having a different attention span rule. So each coach has in a different, Mine is 15 to 25 seconds, and then I need to see you try it for at least 45 seconds. So I give you an opportunity to make mistakes because we learn from our mistakes. So as far as getting their attention, that can be kind of tough at times, but as a teacher, you have to understand learning styles. So you have to adapt to your team’s learning style as well.

Brad Means: Do you have the opportunity to see any future stars, anybody so far in the program where you’ve said, “They might help me win another state title one day?”

Jerry Hunter: Oh yes, yes, this JVBL has helped a lot. I mean, we have a few kids that’s transitioning in now that hadn’t played one high school minute yet, but we took ’em on a team camp last week with us to Atlanta. So it’s like, it’s funny, ’cause we got like four or five guys that we had on the floor at one time, and they’re rising ninth graders. They don’t understand the process, but we understand the process. They were kind of afraid a little bit, which comes with it, right? But we look at ’em and say, “Hey man, you’re getting a head start on other ninth graders.”

Brad Means: Let me ask you about the value of these skills that you’re teaching, the life skills and the basketball skills. How do you think that might help these kids when they leave the gym and go back to school or go back into the world?

Jerry Hunter: Yes, well, a lot of times when it comes to basketball, you hear player development, and that’s important when it comes to skillset. But you very rarely hear youth development. So when you get an opportunity to see a kid understand the importance of being a teammate, when you push the idea to them, like we continually say, it’s not, and we make sure we understand we tell ’em this, it’s not the players. It’s the team that makes the difference, okay. It’s not the team with the best players. It’s the player that’s on the best team. And like I said before, that’s why we had our success this year. We call something STB, share the ball. So a lot of times, we’ll say STT, share your thoughts. So if one teammate has a problem with another one, share your thoughts. Let’s have a candid conversation. And then just remember, it’s how you say what you’re saying. And then we tell the teammate it’s how you receive what he’s saying.

Brad Means: When you say STT, do the kids open up? Are they kind of scared or embarrassed, or will they start talking?

Jerry Hunter: Nah, it’s a friendly, fun atmosphere.

Brad Means: Yeah?

Jerry Hunter: Once you get over that hump, a lot of times, a lot of things are going through kids’ minds, at-home situations. We’ve had kids come in the office, sit down crying, okay. And then the crazy part about it is that, and this is not crazy to say abnormal, but the thing about it is that they share their thoughts. And then here I am sharing my thoughts. I had this happen just yesterday. A kid told me that he was having some family problems, So I said, “Okay, well let me share some of the things I’ve had.” My baby son passed away. My youngest son passed away two years ago.

Brad Means: Coach, I’m so sorry.

Jerry Hunter: Okay, so when I shared that with him, and I told him, I said, “That was the moment, that’s the weakest I’ve ever been in my life. But that’s when I found out I was strong.”

Brad Means: Did you have any idea, and again, dear goodness, I’m so sorry about your sweet son. I didn’t know that, and I’m sorry. Did you have any idea that you were going to be a second dad or a second caregiver or that you were gonna be something more than just the guy that called the plays? Because you are.

Jerry Hunter: Yes, it’s kind of been with me a long time in life as far as having that niche for kids. And I tell a lot of coaches now that we have to evolve at certain times or we’re gonna revolve. But at the same time, we gotta remember we’re teachers first. A lot of times now the game is over-taught. I mean over-coached.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Jerry Hunter: And under-taught. And then while you’re in the midst of teaching somebody something, you have their attention. We wanna coach ’em at something that they may not know how to do. So you gotta take time to teach it sometimes.

Brad Means: What are your hopes? Just a couple more questions. What are your hopes for these young men when you see them down the road? ‘Cause that’s the cool thing about being a mentor, a teacher, a coach, is you get to watch them as they grow. How do you wanna ’em to turn out?

Jerry Hunter: I want ’em to be productive young men, okay, functional citizens, okay, and the most important thing, take the time to help somebody and remember who helped you. Coach Ron Spry has been instrumental in my life. I played for him at Paine. Coach Boddy played for him as well. He’s a mentor to Coach Bradley. And then now with our staff, we’ve got Coach Robinson, Shilo Robinson, Ethan Taylor, and then Coach Boddy has Chaz Clark. So it’s like now we’re seeing a replica of what we’ve been taught through these young men.

Brad Means: Oh yeah, I mean the coaching tree covers all of this part of Georgia, really.

Jerry Hunter: Yes sir.

Brad Means: The coaches and the people who learned under them are everywhere. Let me get one more quick question in for all the frustrated basketball parents out there, and you know who you are-

Jerry Hunter: That’s fine.

Brad Means: Who yell at you from the bleachers and who wonder about playing time and things like that. Coach, for some teams, for a lot of teams, isn’t success on the court kind of cyclical? For instance, you won a state title, and I hope you win one next year. But if you have five starters who aren’t as good as the five who just took the trophy, don’t we have to be patient and go, “This may be an off year?”

Jerry Hunter: The key is this. Remember, and as society, it’s kind of geared towards, we’re based on outcomes.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Jerry Hunter: So we’re outcome-driven. And when you’re outcome-driven, you just wanna know what the score is, who won. But we have to become more process-driven. We have to take our time and understand that there is a process. We’ve been at Westside for three years. Okay, we didn’t win the state the first year or second year. We won it our third year. Now, that’s a quick turnaround. The kids bought in, and that was a special group. But sometimes the process take a little longer. When I was at Laney, I took over the men’s head basketball job, we won it my second year. You just gotta have that special group, and once you have that special group, and you teach ’em to understand distractions, if they can recognize the distraction, it’s up to them whether or not they wanna be distracted. Okay, it’s normally when you don’t recognize the distraction that you’re being distracted.

Brad Means: You are an incredibly positive force in our community and in our young people’s lives, Coach Hunter, and I really appreciate you being here today. Thank you for sharing your story and the story of this awesome league that you’re in charge of.

Jerry Hunter: Thanks for the invitation.

Brad Means: We appreciate you. Coach Jerry Hunter, watch him. Watch the Patriots this coming season and cheer for your favorite basketball team. He wants everybody to succeed.

Jerry Hunter: Exactly.