David Sanders’ basketball life is coming full circle.
He was part of a Jackson summer league team that won a championship at Ole Miss during his junior high days. And as part of the “Provine Posse,” along with Justin Reed and Aaron Harper, he was a 6-3 guard on the 2000-01 Rebel team that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and finished the season ranked 9th nationally.
Now, in his seventh season as head boys coach at Callaway High School in Jackson, he takes his Chargers to The Pavilion at Ole Miss to face Center Hill for the 5A state championship Friday night.
He will have with him Daeshun Ruffin, the dazzling 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior point guard who is averaging 27 points per game and is being courted by numerous big-time college programs.
“I’m not gonna lie, I’m still a little jealous that I didn’t get to play in The Pavilion,” Sanders says with a laugh. “I loved the old Tad Pad, but The Pavilion is special. Man, I walked all the way to the top of that thing — and even the seats up there are great.
“It’s kinda crazy going back to Oxford for the championship game, but I think it’s fitting. I see a lot of the same things in our team that we had in that 2001 season — players that accept their roles, who play hard and well together. Win or lose, I’m so proud of the way this team has played. Lord willing, we can finish the job.”
Callaway, 24-5 and ranked No. 1 in the state, has outscored four playoff opponents by an average of 23 points per game. Its last loss came Jan. 20 against Houston High of Germantown — the No. 1 team in Tennessee.
But Sanders knows a victory over fifth-ranked Center Hill, located in Olive Branch, won’t come easy.
“They’re well coached and disciplined,” says Sanders, who took over for the highly-respected Wayne Brent before the 2015-16 season when Brent was hired at Jackson State,. “They have a championship pedigree (winning the state title in 2019). We know this will be a tough game.
“But I like the way we’ve approached things. Our kids are always competing. Just (Wednesday) in practice, Jordan Brister (a 5-foot-5 senior guard) called out one of our biggest guys. (Brister) said, ‘He ain’t getting anything on me today.’
“Competition makes everyone better, and it’s been like that all year it seems like. The important thing is to shake hands when it’s over and remember you’re on the same team.”
Says Clinton Johnson, Jr., Jackson Public Schools athletics director: “Coach Sanders filled some big shoes when Coach Brent left. But he’s been able to keep that program alive and relevant in Mississippi and across the country.
“He’s had some good players, but he’s done a great job of developing them. He definitely gets the most out of his players.”
It’s no secret that Callaway’s fate is largely in the hands of Ruffin, rated one of the top point guards in the nation. His quickness, instincts and scoring ability are far ahead of his years.
“Tell you a funny story,” Sanders says. “A good friend of mine was at a tournament in Atlanta, and his godson was on the same team as Daeshun, who was going into sixth grade at the time. My friend called and said, ‘You’ve got to see this kid. He’s unbelievable. He could play high school ball right now.
“I was like, ‘Man, get off the phone. Ain’t no sixth-grader capable of playing high school ball.’
“But then a couple of years later, Coach Brent calls me. His son was on the same summer team with Daeshun. He said, ‘This kid could help you at Callaway right now.’
“Finally, I went over and saw Daeshun play as an eighth-grader. I watched him for about 45 seconds and said, ‘Yep, he could play for me right now.’ He was so far ahead of everybody else his age, he was hitting guys in the face with passes.
“He is so quick, I think it’s impossible for anyone — high school to college — to guard him. Teams have tried everything against him and they all say the same thing I just said.”
Sanders, 39, says God brought the two of them together “because I know what he’s going through now — and what he’s about to go through. I’ve seen it all.”
Sanders was the 1998 Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year. He helped Provine, coached by Brent, win a state title. He scored 36 points in the championship game.
And Sanders coached Malik Newman, who led Callaway to four straight state titles (2012-15). Brent was the coach for the first two, Sanders for the third and fourth.
Newman was rated the No. 3 player in the country and named a McDonald’s All-American his senior year. His recruitment was a circus, but Sanders kept things sane.
“I think Daeshun and his family already appreciate the guidance Coach Sanders has been able to give them – and that appreciation will grow during Daeshun’s senior year,” Johnson says. “He will be able to advise and guide them through a lot of things.”
Says Sanders: “It’s not just the recruiting stuff and all the media attention. It’s basketball stuff. This season there have been days when I knew Daeshun didn’t give me all he had at practice. But I stopped to remember that the night before he had been double- and triple-teamed in our game. The guy was tired. As a coach, you have to recognize those kinds of things.”
Ruffin’s recruitment took its first wacky turn in June when he committed to Auburn during a visit. He decommitted 10 days later.
“Me and his mom were like ‘huh?’ when we heard he had committed,” Sanders says. “You know, (Auburn coach) Bruce Pearl could sell an Eskimo a fan. Daeshun just got caught up in the moment. He needs to take his time and make sure of his decision.”
Sanders is sure he will feel the presence Friday night of his former Provine teammate and Ole Miss roommate, Justin Reed.
Reed died in October 2017 of Angiosarcoma, a blood cancer. He played three seasons in the NBA, with the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Sanders encouraged Reed to try coaching.
“He kept saying he didn’t know how to coach, and I kept telling him ‘Just pour what you learned as a player into these young men’s hearts,’ ” Sanders says. “I got him to come to one of our practices and work with (6-foot-8) Deonte Spencer, who is at Hinds Community College now.
“I don’t know what he said to Deonte, but in 30 minutes Justin had him doing things I’d tried three years to get him to do. He would’ve been a natural coach.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t tell a Justin Reed story. I think about him all the time.
“And that’s what I try to get across to my players. It’s important to win but don’t forget to enjoy the journey. It’s the friends you make, the relationships you build like I built with Justin that will stay with you the rest of your life.”