Bama Boys: Coaches share bond deeper than basketball

Eighteen years ago, Starr’s Mill head coach Charlemagne Gibbons was just looking for a helping hand. After an impressive basketball career as player, Gibbons was searching for an opportunity to stay connected to the game he loved.

Then, he received a phone call.

On the other line, was a good friend that wanted Gibbons to check out his basketball team at Stanhope Elmore High School in Alabama. The team was preparing for the upcoming season and Gibbons was asked to work out some players.

Gibbons agreed. A couple days later, he walked into the gym and was handed a clipboard and a whistle. As he ran through individual drills, he was intrigued by a slender, young athlete named Jon-Michael Nickerson.

“He was a damn good basketball player,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons rode Nickerson in workouts and one-on-one drills. He helped develop Nickerson’s game and taught him how to be more aggressive on the court. During Nickerson’s senior season, he averaged 27 points per game. The duo developed a close friendship that still stands to this day.

“He began the process for me to actually learn the game,” Nickerson said. “Before him, I was just an athlete out there playing on instincts. He taught us concepts and was with us one-on-one after practice.”

On November 30, both men met on the hardwood again, only this time it was as opposing coaches as Starr’s Mill hosted Nickerson’s Sandy Creek Patriots. The Patriots ended up getting a 66-57 victory, but the game represented more than just a box score. It signaled a milestone in the journey of two friends.

“It’s kind of sentimental, and I am getting old,” Gibbons joked. “It all goes as some of the same things.”

The coaches reuniting on the court almost didn’t happen. Gibbons wasn’t sure if he was going to get into full-time coaching, and Nickerson was focused on a professional baseball career.

During Nickerson’s senior season at Stanhope, something clicked in both of their minds. Gibbons enjoyed being an assistant coach and developing young talent. He helped run defensive concepts and fell in love with coaching. He believes Stanhope’s success served as the linchpin to elevate his coaching career.

“They worked so hard and fought,” Gibbons said. “We made a run and it was the first time we got to the Final Four and the state championship game in school history. As a coach, I found something and I found my niche.”

Gibbons went on to lead several teams to state playoff appearances. He also won a state championship with Morgan County High School.

Nickerson was also impacted by that shared season. After going to the state title game, he went on to be drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 16th round of the 2003 MLB Draft. He played three seasons before retiring to return to his love of hoops.

After four seasons playing basketball at Kennesaw State, Nickerson sought advice from Gibbons before deciding to grab a clipboard himself.

“We have stayed in touch over the years,” Nickerson said. “Coaches have a very close circle that you call true friends, and he is in that tight circle.”

Gibbons thought it was a good idea. He told him to follow his heart and it ultimately led Nickerson to earn a couple stints as an NCAA assistant.  He also ushered Excel Christian Academy (GA) to the Elite Eight before arriving at Sandy Creek.

“It’s good that you can have someone with a state championship to get feedback from,” Nickerson said.

Last season, his first with Sandy Creek, Nickerson guided the Patriots to the Final Four in the Class AAAA state playoffs. This year, he got the chance to coach opposite his good friend as Starr’s Mill hired Gibbons over the summer.

Now, the duo is closer than ever. Their families spend quality time together, hang out at barbecues, and attend family functions. At each event, you can find both friends somewhere catching up.

“We talk two or three times a week,” Nickerson said. “He will call me and I will call him.”

With both coaches guiding successful programs, it’s a good chance they will be on opposite sidelines in the future. The action is sure to be fierce as both men are competitors on the court.

Gibbons anticipates their coaching battles will be all love. This is because the two Bama boys are family.

“It’s great when you see a young guy do the things asked of him,” Gibbons said. “I would let my son go play for him any day of the week.”

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