Russell Marsalis’ basketball players and their parents and fans at his new school, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, will see his passion for the sport that was ignited by one of the winningest boys basketball coaches in Mississippi history.
Marsalis was a 5-foot-11 point guard for Central Hinds Academy in Raymond in the late 1990s when he got the itch to coach basketball. He saw how much his coach, the legendary Shelby Watts, cared for his players. Marsalis saw how much work Watts put into crafting plays to put his players in the best position possible to win. He felt Watts’ passion in the fire of his voice, his discipline, his tough love.
“After my dad, Coach Watts was probably the next most influential man in my life,” Marsalis said. “Coach Watts came from Forest Hill and we were all excited to have a coach of his caliber and with his reputation come coach us. He brought the same tenacity and fire that he coached his Forest Hill and Raymond teams with and we appreciated that. We wanted to be coached hard because that’s what we knew would lead to success. It was my senior year of high school that my desire to coach really grew. I loved how everyone respected Coach Watts not just because of how people admired him, but also how players wanted to play hard for him. He wasn’t a guy who would show a lot of positive emotion toward you for doing something right – because he expected it from you – but it was the little grin or occasional pat on the back meant a great deal to all of us. However he coached with a ton of emotion and used to keep a towel on his shoulder and would throw it up in the air or slam it down on the ground. I learned the discipline and focus that teams should have. I learned how hard you have to practice to be successful in games.”
When Watts, who passed away in 2015, was coaching Marsalis he was in the final decade of his successful 42-year career of coaching high school basketball, which started in 1965 at Raymond High and finished in 2007 at Central Hinds. He won 806 games and lost only 455 at Raymond, Forest Hill and Central Hinds and has the second most boys wins at Metro Jackson schools, second only to Madison-Ridgeland Academy’s Richard Duease, the winningest coach in Mississippi history.
Marsalis, a Hinds Community College and Southern Miss graduate, has been a head coach for 11 seasons, the first two at Velma Jackson – one of St. Andrew’s biggest rivals now – and the last nine at Richland. Marsalis was also an assistant at Ridgeland for three years.
He comes into a good situation at St. Andrew’s, taking over for Brian Cronin, who retired after leading the Saints to the Class 3A state title in two of the past three seasons. In addition, Marsalis inherits one of the best guards in the country in rising senior point guard Rashad Bolden, who averaged 25.9 points last season. Bolden’s dad, Randy, was an All-State guard for Watts at Forest Hill, and a two-time SWAC Player of the Year at Texas Southern. Randy, who finished in the Top 10 in the nation in scoring twice, was the SWAC Freshman of the Year and helped Texas Southern to the NCAA Tournament in 1995 where the Tigers almost shocked defending national champion Arkansas, losing 79-78. Randy is now the head coach at Jones County Junior College. Marsalis’ best player at Richland this past season, Isaiah Patrick, signed with JCJC this spring. Patrick, like Rashad Bolden, is a prolific scorer. Patrick, nephew of former Mississippi Player of the Year from Murrah and NBA champion Mo Williams, averaged 22 points per game for the past three seasons.
“I have always followed the St. Andrew’s program being close in proximity when I was at Ridgeland, being in the same district with them when I was at Velma Jackson and calling many of their semifinal and championship games doing color commentary for the MHSAA for the past five years,” Marsalis said. “I’ve always admired what Coach Cronin and his staff have done. I’ve gotten to know (St. Andrew’s athletic director) Coach (Dwayne) Cupples over the years and have always wanted to work for him and obviously the facility that they have is the best in the state (the 62,870-square foot Athletic and Recreation Center, which seats 1,200 and opened in 2017). Also, as I went through the interview process and got to talk with many of the different administrators and department heads I was overly impressed about the family atmosphere and the commitment they have made to athletics on top of an already prestigious academic reputation.
“It definitely makes my job easier having a guy like Rashad Bolden. His numbers through the playoffs last year were ridiculous. He does a tremendous job of getting to his spots for shots. He has such a quick release and long range on his jumper. He is so smart and gets to the free throw line a lot where he shoots at such a high clip. He doesn’t force many bad shots and makes his teammates better. He is very mature and doesn’t get rattled easily. It talked to him when I got the job and one of the first things he said to me was ‘let’s get you a ring coach.’ I was ready for the season to start right then when I heard that.”
“I have had some great conservations with Coach Marsalis and have heard good things about him,” Rashad Bolden said. “We (Bolden and Marsalis) are both excited and ready to get to work, so we can win another gold ball.”
“We are fortunate we have Russell,” St. Andrew’s athletic director Dwayne Cupples said. “I first got to know Russell when he coached at Velma Jackson 11 years ago. He is a great coach and a super person.”
“I’ve known Russell a long time and have always respected him not just as a coach, but as a person,” said Cronin, who retired after nine seasons at St. Andrew’s to enter private business. “He’s an incredible leader with a passion for coaching and it has always showed up in his body of work. I couldn’t be happier for SA and the basketball program. I have no doubt he will take it to another level and I will be rooting them on.”
Marsalis turned Velma Jackson into a winner. He doubled the win total in his first year and then went 24-7 and won the South State Class 3A state title in his second season. Marsalis guided Richland to a 21-7 record and lost to three-time defending Class 4A state champion Raymond in the second round of the playoffs this past season. It was the second most victories in school history.
In addition to Watts, Marsalis picked up coaching tips from former Southern Miss coach James Green, former Perry Central High coach Matt O’Keefe and Ridgeland High coach Roderick Davidson. While Marsalis was a student at Southern Miss, he worked under Green one season, then O’Keefe for two seasons. Marsalis was an assistant coach under Davidson for three seasons.
“Like Coach Watts, Coach Green taught me toughness and discipline,” Marsalis said. “Green’s practices were definitely not for the weak of stomach. I remember a few times we would get back from a road trip after a tough loss and go straight to the practice gym and guys would have to run.
“Coach O’Keefe was a great X’s and O’s guy and let me really get hands on and help with the JV team. I also learned a lot about game planning from Roderick. We watched a lot of game film together and he taught me a lot about maximizing our strengths and the other teams weaknesses.”