By Billy Watkins
He had suffered chest pains before but wrote them off as simple side effects of stress. They would bite for a few minutes and then subside.
This time, though, was different. On Dec. 11, Mark Alexander — the 55-year-old girls basketball coach at Hartfield Academy — had just returned home from Sunday morning service at First Baptist Church in Jackson. He calls it “the most peaceful time of my week, that hour in church.”
Suddenly, his chest “felt like I had a blowtorch inside me,” he says. “Both arms were hurting. My jaws locked up. I couldn’t talk. I had a hard time breathing.
“I hit the floor and lay there, pounding the floor with my fist for 10 or 15 minutes. I kept thinking, ‘Fight through it. It’ll pass.’ But I knew this was serious.
“I drove myself to the (emergency room) at St. Dominic (Hospital). Yeah, everybody is mad at me about that. And the pain did subside some. But as soon as I walked into the ER, it happened again.”
Doctors told him he would’ve died if he’d waited much longer to seek help. Alexander had 98 percent blockage. He underwent surgery to insert three stints in the clogged artery.
He was out of the hospital two days after surgery and missed only one game.
“(His doctors) told me not to do any running or heavy lifting, and try not to stress too much,” Alexander says. “I’m on medication and I’ll go back in a few weeks for a checkup. Everything seems good. I’m just thankful I went to the emergency room.”
Ten weeks after his brush with death, Alexander’s Hartfield girls are in the MAIS Overall Tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton. His Class 6A Lady Hawks, 26-6, play Friday at 3:30 p.m. against Class 5A state champion Brookhaven Academy, 39-3 and winner of 17 straight.
“We know what we’re up against,” Alexander says. “I’ve had other coaches telling me we got the toughest draw on either side of the bracket. But you’re not going to play a bad team this time of year. Everybody is good.
“Brookhaven has a great offense, great shooters and they run their stuff perfectly. But we’re capable. We thrive on defense and are pretty athletic. We just have to scratch and claw and hopefully turn our defense into offense.”
If Hartfield comes up short, it won’t be from lack of preparation. As he does for every game, Alexander distributed to his players a four-page scouting report on their opponent. It provides a summary of Brookhaven’s season, information on each player, team tendencies, matchups, and keys to victory. The teams have not met this season.
And this part of his job, the scheming and scouting and watching hours of video, is one of his favorites. He’s loved basketball all of his life.
He played at Forest Hill High School, served as a manager at Mississippi State for three seasons (1988 through 1991) under head coach Richard Williams, an X and O whiz.
“I learned so much under Coach Williams,” Alexander says. “Plus, I was the guy who let the opposing team in the gym for their game-day workout. I used to study what each coach did.
“And I watch basketball all the time. Going back to about 1978, I can tell you who won the college national championship and name a lot of the starters on those teams.”
After graduating from State, Alexander knew he wanted to become a coach or a sports writer. He’s done both.
He worked as a sports writer at The Clarion Ledger from 1994 to 2006.
Before and after that, Alexander coached at four different schools before landing the job at Hartfield.
At each stop, he helped make the programs better. At his first job, head coach at now-defunct Tennessee Temple in Chattanooga, he won nine more games that first year than it had the year before.
He led an eight-win improvement in his one season as head coach at Manchester Academy. Upon arrival at Starkville Academy, he produced the first winning season in five years and led he Vols to the deepest playoff run in nine seasons.
While at Starkville, he defeated MRA and legendary coach Richard Duease to end the Patriots’ 77-game MAIS winning streak.
In 2014, MRA hired him as head junior high coach and high school girls assistant. In eight seasons, his junior high teams won 80 percent of their games. In his final six seasons, he served as assistant to Duease.
Alexander’s first team included Josh Hubbard, the Ole Miss signee who recently became the leading scorer in Mississippi history.
“Coach A was my first real coach, and seventh grade was when I started getting really serious about basketball,” Hubbard says. “He’s definitely a player’s coach. His teams will always be prepared. He likes to have 10 or 12 plays against any defense an opponent will throw at you. It’s a lot of plays, but they’re not hard plays. And once you learn them, it’s a really fun way to play basketball.
“When I got to high school, Coach A was a great encouragement to me. He would pull me aside before some games and just tell me, ‘Look, we really need you tonight but you’re ready. Hit your shots.’
“He’s pretty low key, but he’s also a really good motivator. And he does a lot of that one on one. I can tell you that it’s a beautiful thing to hear encouragement from someone like Coach A, even sometimes when it’s tough love.”
That’s the part that fans don’t get to see. Alexander is not a screamer, and that can be misleading.
“I do think people misunderstand that part of me,” he says. “No, I’m not fiery. But I’m competitive. I hate losing.”
One night after a loss, long after the fans had gone home, he walked the court for two hours in the dark. “I made a poor decision during that game, and I just felt terrible that I didn’t give my players the best chance to win,” he recalls. “Stuff like that eats me up.”
Bryan Dendy, head of school and head football coach at Manchester, hired Alexander and “hated to lose him” after one season.
Dendy says Alexander’s personality is one of his greatest strengths.
“He does a great job of keeping his composure and staying even keeled,” Dendy says. “I think that’s one of the reasons he wins. He’s a humble guy who doesn’t really enjoy the spotlight. He just wants to coach.”
Alexander emphasizes that Hartfield expected to be in the Overall and gives credit to his predecessor, Benton Ingram, who went 89-21 in his three seasons as head coach. Ingram resigned to concentrate on his position as the school’s Student Life Director.
Plus, Alexander returned four starters from a team that went 28-7 and reached the Overall semifinals.
But he’s already started putting his stamp on the program. The Lady Hawks went 7-1 against public schools and lost by just seven points at Tupelo, one of the best teams in the state.
He struggles to explain how the heart attack changed his view on life.
“I’ve always had a strong faith and that’s helped,” he says. “I know God has opened all these doors for me. When you’re in a hospital bed, you have a lot of time to think. And you do start appreciating things a little more.
“I say this all the time. Coaching is not about me. It’s about the kids, the players.”
He mentioned Ma’Nia Womack, an Ole Miss softball signee who is the team’s leading scorer; 6-foot Nyla Hooten, who anchor’s the defense; and point guard Raegan Tucker, Alexander’s coach on the floor.
“The big picture of coaching is seeing the kids smiling and happy after a win,” he says. “That’s my gratification and reward. And it’s heartbreaking on those nights when you can’t get it done for them.”