LANSING -- Everett Coach Desmond Ferguson never had the goal of coaching high school basketball. He said any high school coaching job in the nation could have been offered to him, and he would have said no.
After being a basketball standout at Everett and the University of Detroit, Ferguson spent 11 years playing professional basketball, including a stint with the Portland Trailblazers . Ferguson also became a businessman in 2002, when he founded Moneyball sportswear.
Ferguson retired from basketball in 2011, and could have returned home and focused on business ventures. And then the job, at his alma mater at Everett, came and Ferguson couldn’t say no.
The brand of basketball being played at Everett wasn’t living up to its tradition, and Ferguson decided to be part of restoring the legacy.
“Historically, in my opinion, Everett is the basketball school in the city,” Ferguson said. “Seeing the program down and not being respected in the city, me being an alumni, I just felt strongly about it.”
Everett has been a storied program since Earvin “Magic” Johnson led the school to its first basketball state championship in 1977. The program has produced five NBA players: Johnson, Ferguson, Goran Suton and twins Carl and Charles Thomas.
After Suton led Everett to its last State Championship in 2004, the Vikings were hit by hard times. The team was hurt by departing seniors, ineffectiveness and lack of growth from younger players.
From 2007-11, the team’s record was 10-72, and Johnny Jones was considering retirement after 32 years as the Vikings coach.
Ferguson said he called Jones to see if the retirement talk was real. He remembered Jones discussing retiring since when Ferguson was in high school.
Once Jones confirmed retirement was a possibility, he asked Ferguson to be an assistant for a year and then take over as head coach.
“It definitely wasn’t planned,” Ferguson said. “I take pride in being a Viking and being successful. The goal in mind was to try and get [Everett] back to respectability.”
Ferguson joined Jones’ staff for the 2011-12 season and watched Everett stumble to a 5-16 overall record and 2-12 in conference play.
“It was bad being an assistant coach and seeing how it was,” Ferguson said. “The vibe and energy was bad and that’s not Everett basketball.”
So when Ferguson became Everett’s head coach for 2012-13 season, he devised a three-year plan.
Ferguson’s team consisted mostly of freshmen, sophomores and football players. Ferguson realized a turnaround wouldn’t happen overnight, and that the team would take some lumps early on.
But the plan was, by the time those sophomores were seniors, they would be the foundation of the team. In order to do that, Ferguson needed an experienced coaching staff. Ferguson brought in Everett alumni Mike Johnson and Dale Beard.
“These guys know Everett history,” Ferguson said. “They know what winning basketball is. The kids can feed off of that experience.”
“When Desmond took over for Coach Jones, he gave me a call,” Beard said. “He just spoke about making this a family atmosphere with former Everett players. No school in this area has an entire coaching staff of alumni’s.”
Ferguson’s first season as coach began with the team losing nine of its first 10 games. The team was overmatched and suffered a 5-15 season. The 2013-14 season saw Everett lose five of its first six games in route to a 4-13 season.
“It was very difficult, just coming from a pro level,” Ferguson said. “You’ve got certain expectations and are accustomed to playing at a certain level. You’ve got to go in teach mode.”
The silver lining of the second season was that the team stayed mostly competitive, losing four games by 3 points or less.
“It was a challenge and that’s what I liked most [from the first two years],” Ferguson said. “It gave me back that competitiveness that I was missing from playing professional basketball.”
While the losing was tough, Ferguson said he did not stray from his plan and kept molding his team. This season represents the final part of Ferguson’s three-year plan. And currently, it’s proving to be right on schedule.
The team has raced out to a 12-2 overall record, Everett stands 8-1 in conference, one game behind first-place Grand Ledge. The Vikings have beaten opponents by an average of 10.7 points per game. Everett’s only losses have come to Kalamazoo Central and Grand Ledge by a combined nine points.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Everett Athletic Director W.J. Davis said. “He is such a hard worker and a leader. What makes him so successful is his open, honest approach on and off the court.”
Ferguson said hard work has transformed the team from 4-13 to 12-2. When he first arrived, players needed to learn basic basketball fundamentals. Next, they worked on developing a stifling defense. Finally, Ferguson said the kids needed time to mature their games.
“What I knew at the high school level, these kids didn’t know,” Ferguson said. “We had to go back to the beginning and start from there. The team has grown through experience.”
Another reason for the team’s success is Oak Hill Academy transfer Trevor Manuel. The 6-foot-9 senior has been dominant for the Vikings. He averages 26 points and 12 rebounds per game, is a Mr. Basketball candidate and has signed to play for Oregon..
“He can score in a multitude of ways and is a great defender,” Beard said. “He’s been huge for us this season. Another plus is he works hard in practice which makes other guys better.”
Davis said the addition of an All-State talent has helped, but isn’t the sole reason for Everett’s improvement.
“[Ferguson’s] focus has been on development,” Davis said. “These boys just needed time to get better and this season they have gelled and come together.”
“We are in a battle, we aren’t high fiving and praising,” Ferguson said. “We expect to be good, we’ve put in the work for it to pay off. We’re not satisfied, we want to improve every day and that’s the game plan.”
While Ferguson is re-establishing a winning culture on the court, he is also trying to instill life lessons off the court. He uses basketball as a way to reach inner city kids. Over the summer, he hosts youth basketball camps where he voices his message of hard work and accountability.
“He brings credibility,” Davis said. “He plants seeds in the community. When he starred at U of D, I used to take troubled youths to see him play. He would talk to them and let them see life outside the inner city.”
Ferguson said basketball is a way to connect, but his message is about life outside of the gym.
“You’re only going to be able to play sports so long, then what’s next? Ferguson said. “Get an education and create money for you and your family. You can’t be successful without working hard.”
Ferguson’s goal wasn’t to become a high school coach, but his love and loyalty for the program pushed him to return to Everett. Now, he said his focus is on sharing the life lessons Jones installed in him into the current team.
“The winning and losing stuff is cool,” Ferguson said. “More so knowing I cared about the kids, [and leave a legacy of] helping young boys become men.”