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The Roots of Oak Hill: Inside Steve Smith’s unique coaching perspective

By Evan Wheaton
@EvanWheaton

The average viewer of college basketball and the NBA sees one thing.

The players.

What many don’t see is the people that are on the court. The personalities and mentalities that comprise the playmakers.

Oak Hill Academy boys basketball head coach Steve Smith has the unique perspective of knowing some of the biggest names of the game on a personal level, players such as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, who passed through Oak Hill under his tutelage.

Being able to watch those that have passed through his program excel far beyond the high school level is a pleasure for Smith.

“Very seldom is there a night in the college basketball season where I can’t sit at home and watch one of my former players play,” Smith said. “Very seldom is there a night where I can’t watch one of our former players play in the NBA.”

Being ranked the No. 3 basketball program of the decade by USA Today in 2017, as well as being a factory for Division I college athletes, Oak Hill sees many of its players continuing their playing careers on TV.

When Smith turns on the TV or attends games, he’s able to see the further development of his kids.

“That’s the fun part of my job,” Smith said. “I get to follow those guys when they leave and we have jerseys on the wall of various players. I can’t put every player that went Division I and played (in) the NBA on the wall because our gym’s not that big.”

After starting his tenure at Oak Hill in 1983, Smith has led the program to nine national high school championship titles.

The players that come out of Mouth of Wilson, Va. keep in touch with their former head coach. Described as a “family fraternity,” matchups on the college and professional levels between Oak Hill alumni are well known amongst each other.

After games, players will let Smith know through text messages that they played against someone that was perhaps five or six years removed from them.

It’s because of this bond that Smith is heavily involved with his players after they walk out of his gym for the final time.

“I root for Oak Hill players. I don’t really root for teams,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s a conflict when they play each other. Like I said, that’s one of the things I enjoy most.”

It’s no secret to the players of Oak Hill what bountiful opportunities they have with such a highly acclaimed program. Often times Smith must keep his kids grounded.

“We talk about it. First (in) team meetings, then after that too, and I try to tell them that it’s a privilege to play here. It’s not a right, it’s a privilege,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of kids that want to play basketball at Oak Hill – you’re one of the lucky 12 that are here this year.”

With every year comes a different roster, a different team. Like any coach, Smith has certainly adapted to each and every new team identity over his three decades with the program.

What hasn’t changed, however, is his approach.

“I just try to be myself with my guys and that hasn’t changed through the years,” Smith said. “My person is what it is. I’m not a big yeller-screamer type, so, I mean, I’ll get on guys at practice and at meetings when that has to happen.”

Knowing that he’s quite possibly coaching the NBA’s biggest stars of tomorrow, Smith handles his duties like any other coach. Every player is different, and every player is handled in their own unique way within the system.

“I don’t give them special treatment, but you have to handle certain kids different ways; their personalities are all different,” Smith said. “Some kids you have to put your arm around them all the time. Other kids, you can get on them hard and you learn that from being around them and coaching as long as I have.”

Smith’s coaching philosophy transcends that of producing elite basketball players.

“I’ve had multiple players, not tooting my horn, they go, ‘Coach, you are like my second father,’ or they didn’t have a father, and they go, ‘Coach, you are like my dad.’ That’s a little different than just being a coach,” Smith said.

The family fraternity is the secret to success.

The bonds created between coach and players alike at Oak Hill, as well as the connection between alumni who might not have even played with one another at all, are what keeps Smith’s coaching approach so strong.

Aside from developing his players in the gym, Smith helps to create better versions of themselves for life outside the sport.

“You want to motivate your players to do well on and off the court,” Smith said. “It’s a trust thing, they have to trust you, you have to trust them. They have to know you care about them.”

When Smith sees Oak Hill alumni playing on bigger stages of the game and keeps up the communication after they’re long graduated from high school, he’s doing just that.

Because he knows the people on the court.

Photos courtesy of Oak Hill Academy

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