By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Ezekiel Sabb grew up without an influential male role model in his life, no father or grandfather to help guide him through his teen years. That responsibility fell on the shoulders of his mother and his high school basketball coach, Wayne Nelson. Because Nelson has had such a positive influence on Sabb’s life, the decision to sit out his senior basketball season was an easy one, Ezekiel said. No coach Nelson, no Sabb. It’s as simple as that.
Nelson has been the head coach at Winslow High the past four years and led the Eagles into the state playoffs each year, including winning a South Jersey Group 3 championship in his first season on the bench after some other successful coaching stops, including as an assistant at St. Augustine Prep and head coach at Cedar Creek. But at the Nov. 10 Winslow Board of Education meeting, the board approved former coach Norman Ingram to take over the program. The season is set to begin in January after an original start date of Dec. 3 was pushed back due to the coronavirus.
In high school sports, coaches must be approved for their positions prior to each season. The Winslow Board decided to give the job back to Ingram, with no explanation why, coach Nelson said. Attempts to reach the Winslow Board of Education by Glory Days Magazine this week were unsuccessful.
“So many parents called in to that meeting, players and support from all over South Jersey that they just stopped taking phone calls. I was completely shocked, blindsided. From a success standpoint, I’ve never missed the playoffs as a head coach — I don’t think I’ve missed the playoffs, ever, as a high school coach. Even though we had a down year last year (5-20), it was a little strange due to injuries. We weren’t consistent in that regard, but we still made the playoffs, and we had some big, signature wins, like we always do here. I was definitely shocked, surprised, blindsided — all of the above,” said Nelson, a former star at Holy Spirit High who played professionally overseas for nearly a decade. “I immediately told my players what was going on. I’m transparent with them and I’m honest and upfront about everything in general, their life and what’s going on in school. So, I let them know immediately what was going on and I felt they had the right to know because we had been working since the spring to prepare for this upcoming season. So, I felt like they deserved to know what was going on.”
So beloved by his players is coach Nelson that several — if not all — have decided not to suit up for their high school team this year if Nelson is not their head coach. The two seniors, Sabb and Karson Collins, told Glory Days Magazine that they will not play for the school if Nelson is not the coach.
“It was a shock to us. Coach let us know they were planning on switching coaches, and we all did not like that idea. It was definitely a surprise and we didn’t know how to take it. I was angry. I didn’t feel like there was a reason to (make a change). I’m not going to play if (Nelson) isn’t coaching. I don’t think it’s good for us because of all the things coach Nelson has done for us. I’ve told that to the board, I’ve sent the superintendent emails about everything he’s done for me and my teammates. They’ve heard us at the board meeting, they’ve heard us on Facebook, now it’s just a matter of time to see what they will do,” Sabb said. “It’s a big choice, but I didn’t think it over much. I got to the point that I’ve had so much good given to me by coach Wayne and coach John, to strip that all away from me my senior year is unfair. And if (the board) doesn’t want him to be coach, they don’t need me, that’s how I feel about it.”
Dozens of Nelson’s supporters, and players and parents, called in to the Nov. 24 Board of Education meeting, and a petition that has nearly 1,500 signatures to get Nelson reinstated as head coach is swarming social media. Nelson said he hasn’t encouraged his players to sit out the season because of the coaching decision, and is surprised some of his players are willing to take it that far to prove their point.
“I definitely was surprised. I didn’t expect that. I knew they would be upset, they’re kids, but I was shocked that they decided to come together and say this might be an option for us, not to play, especially because of the type of year it’s going to be with COVID. It’s a short season and we don’t even know if there will be a season. I guess that played a part in their decision, but my seniors know that I’ll help them get to the next level any way I can if they choose to, so I don’t think that was a deciding factor,” Nelson said. “In this world in which we live today, with social media and kids feeling empowered, I think they felt like they have a voice, they want to be heard and this is the way to do it.”
“When I found it, I said we have to do whatever we can do to get him to stay. I didn’t know if it was a set thing, like if it was for sure going to happen, or if we had time to work on this. So we got together, started talking. I’m a transfer from Georgia (two years ago) and last year was my first year of playing basketball, and for him not to be my coach for my senior year just doesn’t feel right,” Collins said. “I don’t know about everybody else but I know for sure I’m not going to play if he’s not the coach. If there are players who still want to play, I’m not going to have a grudge against them. He’s my first coach and he’s helped me do things I didn’t think I could do. He’s family and we’re there for each other. That’s why we call ourselves ‘The Brotherhood.'”
Nelson and assistant coach John Jernigan preach more than just basketball success at practices and during games. Their philosophy is that basketball is just a part of life, and can be a vehicle to promote opportunities. That’s why they stay in touch with alumni and encourage former players to come back and talk to the current team. Being a team is about more than just winning basketball games, Nelson said.
“The culture that we’ve built here, we call it ‘The Brotherhood.’ I’ve had the opportunity to work the Duke (University) camps the past couple of years and I got a chance to be around what was built by Coach K, and that has had a big influence on me. I want something similar in my program where you create this tight bond, this family feeling — it’s almost like a network. The older guys who are in college come back and give advice, and the plan is as they get older and start to create opportunity, they might be able to give a younger guy an opportunity. That’s what ‘The Brotherhood’ is based on, Nelson said. “Some of these kids don’t have fathers, older brothers, or other male figures in their lives and I become that figure, so my role has always been bigger than just basketball. It’s about life, and that’s what I teach these kids.”
“It’s about more than just basketball here,” Sabb added, “it’s about the brotherhood. Past players stay in touch with (coach Nelson) all the time. My sophomore year, we had two seniors who went on to play college basketball and they’re here all the time trying to help us out. Coach Wayne has done everything he can for us.”
Standing up for what’s right
Nelson said he has begun the process of taking legal action, and the players are taking action in the best way they know how, i.e. sitting out the season in protest. Nelson said he believes he has to fight for his job to set an example to his players that you have to stand up for what you believe in, and he said his tenure as head coach at Winslow was unjustly terminated by the Board of Education.
“At this point, I’m seeing what my options are from (a lawsuit) perspective. I felt things weren’t handled the right way. We’ve attended both board meetings since the decision, and at the most recent one the players called in and told the board members they weren’t going to play. The kids started a petition, and the love and support I’ve gotten from throughout South Jersey with close to 1,500 signatures in a week’s time, I’m grateful and thankful that people will go out of their way to speak up. This whole thing came out of nowhere,” Nelson said. “You try to build a program — my first gig was under (St. Augustine Prep coach Paul) Rodio, he gave me my first high school coaching job, and being around a guy like that who has been coaching for 30-plus years, that’s what I want. I don’t want to be one of these guys who is bouncing around. I want to build and build, so this was eye-opening, shocking, blindsided — you name it.”
“For me, right now, it’s about standing up and fighting for what’s right, regardless of the outcome,” he continued. “There’s a right way to do things and there is a wrong way to do things. For me, fighting for my kids and showing them that throughout life you’re going to be dealt some obstacles and sometimes you’re going to have to go against the grain to prove a point, but you fight for what you believe in. For them to (replace me) at such a late point, when the season was due to start Dec. 3, to make a change like this is detrimental to the players because they’ve been working so hard. It’s not good for them. That’s why I’m fighting for what is right and what I believe in. To this day, I still haven’t been told why. I don’t think they have a why.”
Sabb said he has no reservations about his decision to sit out the season if Nelson is not brought back as head coach.
“My mom asked me if I was sure about my decision and I said yes because I want coach Wayne to be the coach at Winslow High School for the next however many years, but especially for my senior year,” he said. “So, I’m going to stand up for what I want and what I feel like I need. It’s an easy option for me, if he’s not here, I’m not playing. There’s a countless list of things he’s done for us and he’s one of the main male figures in my life. I don’t have a father around or a granddad around, so my basketball coaches have really helped me mature and be tougher, and I never really had that around. That’s why I feel like it’s important to have them around in my life. I can’t think of enough good things to say, so I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want coach Nelson around.”
Collins put it even more succinctly: “This is a family. If you take him away, that’s splitting up family. He’s the heart and soul of everything we have here.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays