By Joseph W. Gex, II
Humans are a creature of habit and despise change as much as the rest of the living world. However, a change of pace does the overwhelming majority of us all a great deal of good within our personal and professional lives.
And, in the coaching profession, it seems that change is always a good thing.
Kelton Thompson, a former St. Stanislaus standout player and coach and former head coach at Bay High, has found a new home as an assistant coach for the country of Jordan and their national team.
Thompson recently had the opportunity of sharing some of his experience coaching in a foreign country and the landscape of international basketball.
Thompson has been a recognizable face in Hancock County for more than 25 years now.
He started at St. Stanislaus College as a sixth grade boarder from the Folsom area. As a young student in an unfamiliar city, he caught on with former SSC head coach and current Southeastern Louisiana University head coach Jay Ladner and his fledgling program. It would be a move that helped define Thompson's future.
Thompson talked about Ladner and others that helped influence his coaching, "Obviously, Jay Ladner has had a huge impact on my life and basketball career. I have been fortunate to play for him, coach with him and coach against him. He has shaped my approach to the game and if it was not for him, I would not be in this profession. Dave Kenson, a former SSC and Bay High coach has impacted my mental approach to the game probably more than anyone. I learned the 'process' under Ladner and learned the importance of it under Kenson. Finally, Debbie Triplett influenced me with her work ethic and consistency. Watching how she approached each day was a lesson in and of itself. It directly correlated to her success and state championships. I feel she has not received the credit she deserves as one of the best coaches, regardless of sport, in Mississippi."
Thompson played four years under Ladner at SSC and was the point guard on his first state tournament team in 1996. Thompson later played for William Carey University where he earned a BS in Finance in 2000 and his MBA in 2003.
Following his education, he returned to coach under Ladner at SSC from 2001-06 when he was named head coach at Bay High. He served in that capacity until 2012.
Thompson averaged 20 wins a season in seven years at Bay High. He led the Tigers to the 2010 Class 4A state championship against his mentor and return trip to the Class 4A Final Four in 2012.
After that, he was the associate men's head coach at Jones County Junior College 2012-13, head women's coach at JCJC 2013, head boys coach at Pearl River Central High School 2016, and head boys coach at Picayune Memorial High School 2016-18.
He was named Class 4A Coach of the Year in 2010, Division 8-4A Coach of the Year 2009-10 and 2012 and Division 8-5A in 2017. He was selected at South Mississippi Coach of the a year by The Sun Herald in 2010. He served as head coach of the South squad in the Mississippi North/South All-Star game in 2012 and head coach of the South Mississippi All-Star game in 2012 and 2017.
Thompson and his teammates from 1996 were inducted in the SSC Great Wall of Rocks in 2008.
Thompson had been out of coaching when he received a call from Joey Stiebing who was named the head coach of the Jordan National Team. Thompson had met Stiebing who served as an assistant coach for Ladner at SELA. Stiebing had been looking for another assistant coach for his staff in Jordan.
Thompson thought about the offer and took the leap to coach internationally and head to a completely new area of the world and prepare for the change of a lifetime.
Thompson added, "Basketball is a simple game. There are a lot of similarities throughout the levels. I have always had a passion for high school coaching because one can get involved in so many aspects such as family, academics, etc. You watch them grow up. Now, I am working with grown men in their early 20's to mid-30's and their families. So, this is really about just the game. And, the biggest difference is the shot clock. It makes you create good shots out of the primary and secondary breaks. But, when you boil it down, it still takes the same aspects to win as it does at the high school level - great effort, toughness, and play defense."
While it may seem like a dream to coach at that level, it does not come without its difficulties, especially internationally. Remember soccer is the number one sport, globally, and that remains true in Jordan.
Thompson continued, "The game is promoted in a different way in the United States. Here there is exposure for the game at a great level. In Jordan, the children are not exposed to the game like they are here. Now, the Jordan Basketball Federation has plans to further promote the sport. The excitement surrounding our qualifying for the World Cup should only help that process."
If flying across the world to coach the game on an international level with more rules and regulations on the game wasn't enough, there were other changes that Thompson had to deal with from an emotional level. The main one was he had to readjust to being an assistant coach. He added, "I was used to being the head coach. I had only been assistant twice and both times were under Ladner. My role is different as an assistant and I had to adjust to that coach Stiebing is an easy person to work with and has made the process easier. He has allowed me to have input in just about every phase so that has kept me engaged."
The shot clock, the change to assistant coach, a new area of the world are all monumental changes for any coach at any level. But how about the changes with coaching the athletes themselves. These are grown men with somewhat of a language barrier in an international game with quicker sets. It all flashes so quick so the response has to be even quicker.
Thompson related, "Where I have coached, we were always not biggest or fastest. A lot of that is the same with Jordan. Some countries just grow them bigger, stronger and quicker. We have to adjust to that. The intangibles become very important. In Jordan, their knowledge of the game gas been very impressive and their acceptance to being coached."
He added, "But, the biggest aspect I have had to adjust to is the way we guard ball screens. At all levels, you have to be able to switch but sometimes you can't switch with certain matchups. Learning the ins and outs of hedging screens and other tactics to defend ball screens is crucial."
Thompson stated that game preparation is not any different. Coaches have to scout and break down film so that they can put the best version of themselves on the floor. When they are able to do that and control what they can control good things usually happen.
Thompson has been in Jordan coaching in international tournaments for the last three months or so. He is getting ready to head back in April to prepare for the World Cup. So, what is the next step for Jordan under Thompson's watch?
He stated, "We have to be sure that we are efficient in the use of our preparation time leading up to the World Cup. We have a lot of room for improvement in every phase of the game. We are in Pool G with France, Germany and the Dominican Republic. Those are all quality teams that have the possibility of adding NBA talent like Karl Anthony Towns, Al Horford and Rudy Gobert to their rosters. The Olympics are next summer and the results from the World Cup yield automatic qualifiers for the Olympics. Most countries will try to bring all their talent."
What is next for Thompson after his time with Jordan. He ended, "I have really given up on trying to figure that out. My life, in general, and definitely this profession has taken me places I never thought I would be. And, each time it was the right spot for me whether I knew it at that time or not. I have been so blessed to have been around so many great people and players in my career, including here in Jordan. I am just going to focus on this World Cup and the Jordan National Team and we will see what doors open at the end. Wherever I end up at that time, it will be where I am supposed to be."
Kelton Thompson has grown from the young boy who arrived in Bay St. Louis in 1989. He grew up to have an impact as a player for the Rock-a-chaws and helped coach them to new heights under Jay Ladner. He took Bay High to places a boys team in any sport had never been before. His other stops have yielded amazing results, as well. I have watched the young boy grow up as an extension of our family being best friends with my younger brother, Correy. He has grown from every stop he has made since he came into my life way, way back when I served as his prefect in the dormitory. When it comes to Thompson and basketball, all is right in the world. And, that is simply a warning to the other teams in the World Cup. Now, I am just waiting for tip-off.