BIRMINGHAM — Ralpheal Graves wouldn’t be Ralpheal Graves without the chip on his shoulder, and the Sacred Heart program he’s built into a state power feeds off it.
Seriously. The Cardinals have worn their talent and reputation well while winning four straight state championships and making five straight Final Fours.
And no, it wasn’t always easy. They survived overtime to win two of those championship games. They fought through a few postseason scares to win their latest say nothing of a classic Calhoun County final against Oxford this year.
The Class 1A world wants to beat Sacred Heart.
Let’s face it. Calhoun County rivals want to beat Sacred Heart.
All through the years that D.J. Heath, Kevion Nolan and Diante Wood flashed their Division I skills, their reputation preceded them. An us-against-the-world toughness got them through sometimes, and the Cardinals take their head coach’s personality to the court.
So the chip, matched with Id enough to coach top talent, helps make Graves successful.
It also produces can’t-help-it moments, like his postgame me veer after Sacred Heart beat Georgiana in overtime in Thursday’s state final.
“I wasn’t going to say this, but I’m going to say this,” Graves said, as a room full of reporters read what would come next in his grin. “Five straight years in the Final Four, right? Four state championships. Since I’ve been at Sacred Heart on this four-year period here, we’ve played over 60 Division I players. That’s the schedule we’ve played.
“Won four state championships. Last year, we signed two kids to Division I schools from a Class 1A school with 50 kids in the high school. We have a third one this year, and we’ve got kids going to junior college … and, selfish as it may sound, and I’ve never won coach of the year?”
Then he turned and looked toward Alabama High School Athletic Association spokesman Ron Ingram.
“What else do I have to do?” Graves said.
The Alabama Sports Writers Association picks coaches of the year for various classifications, but let’s address Graves’ point.
And don’t feel sorry for the kids. Wood, Quin Riggins and Murdock Simmons sat around Graves during his comments in the postgame news conference and didn’t bat an eye.
They love the man. Or love what he’s done for them, at least. Love how he makes them feel, maybe.
To them, he’s one of “us” in the us-against-the-world scenario. He is head of the us people.
“Man, Coach Ralph, he’s does more than anyone can explain,” Riggins said later. “He does stuff off the court, on the court, behind the scenes. He helps everyone. Players that are not even his, he helps them.”
So, let’s evaluate how the state’s top awards for coaching escape Graves.
The first argument is talent. He’s had plenty of it. Rival coaches have questioned how he gets it all at that private school with 50 kids, but it’s been there.
It’s also fair to say that Graves can coach talent. His teams play with structure, and we’ve watched his players develop. That his players respect him and play for the team shows on the court and comes across when they speak in public.
OK, so what gives then? What could it be that keeps Graves out of statewide awards?
That which helps Graves win might hurt him. Perhaps it’s the chip. Perhaps it’s words like “vultures” to describe the very people who choose such things.
If that’s the case, then of course it’s not fair.
It’s also human nature, just like wearing a chip might come naturally for a young man who sprouted through cracked concrete in west Anniston with a burning desire to prove something and — maybe, just maybe — help others who want the same.
Graves clarified his comments later Thursday. He said he doesn’t want to win coach of the year, especially after saying what he said. He wants to know why.
“Maybe it would help me be a better coach,” he said, “or it would help me coach my kids better.”
Then, he reached over the chip on his shoulder.
“If all the people there don’t pat me on the back, I’m going to pat myself, and I know that pisses them off,” he said. “It’s just a matter of, we have to get what we deserve at our school?”