By Torsheta Jackson

RIDGELAND – The St. Andrews basketball team walks slowly out of the locker room. Rashad Bolden is the last one to reach the court. He walks to the bench and places a towel under the first chair then heads back to join his team for the runout. After the team completes their series of drills, Bolden takes a ball and heads outside the arc. He starts on the left side swishing a number of three pointers before making several drives to the basket with various moves. He repeats on the right side of the basket and then again in the middle. With 4 minutes, 30 seconds left in the warmup, he pauses to join the Jefferson Davis team captain at center court for the pregame meeting. It is brief and he returns to the free throw line. Minutes later, the warning buzzer sounds. Bolden jogs over to the bench, uses his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face before removing it and stands quietly for the national anthem. 

Thirty-two minutes and 36 points later, the Saints had solidified their fourth trip to the Big House in as many years. Credit a large part of that to Bolden.

“He is focused in” 

Watching him, you immediately recognize a maturity and wisdom about the sport that seems above his years. Much of it is due to the fact that he has been around basketball nearly his entire life. His father is Jones County Junior College head coach Randy Bolden. Randy was a standout guard for Forest Hill High School earning a scholarship to Texas Southern University. During his four years there, he amassed more than 2,000 career points and was named SWAC player of the year both during his freshman and senior years. In 1995, he led the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament where the team almost defeated Arkansas, the defending national champion. After graduation, he played professional basketball from 1998-2002 in Iceland, Brazil and Canada before returning home. 

Once back in the states, Randy began a storied coaching career. After stints at Provine and Pearl, he settled in as the head boys basketball coach at Meridian High School. It was in that gym that Rashad found his love of basketball. At age 5, he was spending his afternoons watching practices, listening intently in the locker rooms as the players accepted instruction, and watching games from his seat on the end of the bench. 

“He was our ball boy. He would always be on the bench soaking in everything I’d say to my players,” Randy said. “On the ride home, he would always quote things that I had said to them. It stuck with him. I knew then at an early age that he had a love for the game.”

It was the perfect place to learn. In his nine years at Meridian, Randy led the Wildcats to a 227-55 record, back-to-back south state crowns in 2010 and 2011 and the 2011 MHSAA 6A state championship. 

His son was on the bench for that win. Watching his dad and team hoist the championship trophy is a moment that he remembers distinctly. 

When Rashad began playing basketball, his father took the responsibility for his training. Randy’s coaching responsibilities, the time became invaluable to the pair. 

“We have a really tight relationship,” Randy said. “I am the only one who has ever trained him or worked him out. We use that time to bond and get a chance to talk.”

However, there was never any pressure for Rashad to be like his father.

“I remember when I was young I asked him why I didn’t have the same name as him, why I wasn’t a junior,” Rashad said. “He told me that he wanted me to create my own legacy.”

Rashad has had little problem doing that. Last season, he was selected to the first team of the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard All Metro Jackson and the Mississippi Association of Coaches North/South All-Star game. The two-time Clarion Ledger Dandy Dozen already owns two state championship rings. Now in his final year, he hopes to bring the gold ball back to Saint Andrew’s one last time. 

“Rashad is just built differently,” said first-year St. Andrew’s head coach Russell Marsalis.  “He is focused in.”

That laser focus was on display Saturday night.

Jefferson Davis had no intention of letting the standout guard have his way. They tried to deny him the ball, they doubled him, at one point they even tripled him. None of it worked. Rashad would hug the sideline pushing the ball up the floor past two defenders or push the ball up the middle and execute a perfectly aimed bounce pass through the double team. On more than one occasion, he took his man one on one and left him lying on the court. Once he crossed the half-court line, he would command the offense telling his teammates when they were out of place or pointing to an opening in the defense. 

Marsalis says that Rashad’s basketball IQ makes him stand out. 

“I give him a lot of leeway, probably more than any player I’ve ever had,” Marsalis said. “And that’s just because of his DNA and how he is made up. He knows what every position on the floor is supposed to be doing. He has such a good feel for the game.”

Rashad doesn’t do it alone. He captains a cast of characters that each bring their own particular threat. Juniors Javion Johnson and Jake Dowdell are both Mississippi North/South All-Star Selections. The pair average a combined 21 points and 8 rebounds per game. Seniors Larry Day and Micheal John Davis round out the starting five and lead the team defensively. Newcomer Corren Redd also provides valuable minutes and points off the bench.

“My role is to be the vocal leader on and off the court,” Rashad said. “Just to push guys to be their best and to (remind) them that we have a target on our back every time we hit the floor. St. Andrew’s has become a dynasty at this point. We aren’t the underdog.”

Photo by Robert Smith

Rashad credits the trust that his new head coach has placed in the Saints as part of their success. Marsalis took over the program this season after Brian Cronin left to pursue other interests. He retained the team’s assistant coaches, Micheal Timmer, Ontario Harper and JeMario Rugley understanding that their knowledge of the players and program was invaluable. Having the trio on the sidelines has been major.

“With our assistant coaches, I feel that having a new coach (didn’t) change our dynamic,” Rashad said. “We have enough guys who are experienced in going into the playoffs and winning a state championship.”

Anyone watching their quarterfinal performance would agree. The team performed like a well-oiled machine. Johnson snagged rebounds. Redd sunk an impressive fadeaway three. Davis turned deflections into assists. At the half, Bolden held 23 of his team’s 42 points. They led by 18. 

“The biggest thing is that these guys have been there. These seniors were freshmen on the 2018 team that won the state championship,” Marsalis added. “Now they’ve won two state championships and made it to the Coliseum three times in a row. They know how to win. The moment is not too big for them.”

“It was something to see”

During the break, a Jefferson Davis fan in the bleachers recounts watching Rashad score double digits as a middle schooler. “It was something to see,” he tells the couple behind him. “He was just old enough to play and he was playing on the high school team.”

Rashad never played middle school basketball. As a 7th grader, he played for Meridian’s 9th-grade squad. He has been a starter for the Saints since he arrived in the 8th grade. As a freshman, he helped lead the Saints to their first state title making six consecutive free throws in the final quarter of the championship game. Last season, he averaged 25.9 points en route to the 3A State Championship. Once there, he put on a 25-point performance outscoring the entire Velma Jackson team in the first half. He played the entire championship game without a single turnover.

He displayed that same tenacity Saturday night. With 3:32 left on the clock, Rashad picked up his fourth foul – a charge. Jaguar fans applauded the fact that he would now come out of the game. That did not happen. Rashad not only remained on the floor, but he played the last minutes with the same intensity as he had played the first. He drove to the goal scoring on the next two trips down the floor.

“He has such a competitive drive and that was one of the things that made me have the type of career I had as a basketball player,” said Randy. “I loved to compete. That is the thing about Rashad. He is so competitive. He loves to compete and win. I think that is the unique thing about him that makes him a special player.”

The game ends with the ball in Rashad’s hands. The Saints state of the art scoreboard displays player’s numbers along with their points and fouls. By Rashad’s number, the board reads 36. He glances over to his dad. Randy remains in the seat where he has sat almost completely silent the entire night. Amidst the roaring applause of the crowd, Rashad smiles and jogs calmly off to the locker room. He has been here before.

Rashad and St. Andrew’s next game is Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in the Class 3A semifinals against Senatobia. If the Saints win, they will play Saturday at 3 p.m. for the championship.