Basketball coach takes kids to championship

His was first charter school to play in the Atlanta Public Schools league.

No one was too surprised when the Centennial Academy Charter School basketball team lost a couple games at the start of the season. Everyone was shocked, however, when the team won the Atlanta Public Schools Middle School Basketball Championship.

“We only had one returning player from the previous year. The rest were all new,” said Coach Michael Willis, 51. “It was our first year playing in the Atlanta Public Schools basketball league. We were up against tough teams from schools over double our size. Schools with tons of talent. Not to mention, those schools have gyms and we don’t. We have the space to build but need the funding to make it a reality.”

Centennial, once Centennial Place Elementary, was chartered in 2014. The school, which currently has an extensive wait list, has the highest homeless population of any school in Atlanta. They serve three homeless shelters, but also have students who live in million-dollar homes. The school encourages kids with the message that excellence can be achieved no matter the circumstance.

Willis did much of his recruiting for the basketball team while greeting students at the school in the mornings. He’d spot tall kids, or kids he knew played flag football, and encouraged them to try basketball. Once his team was in place, logistics became the bigger issue.

“Not having a gym of our own complicates things,” said Willis, of Atlanta. “It’s very difficult to instruct a team, especially a bunch of kids who are new to the sport, when you don’t have space. The Arthur M. Blank Youth YMCA is located next door. They have a small gym with a half court that we used for most of our practices. It was absolutely better than nothing, but later in the season we also practiced on the Boys & Girls Club’s full court.”

Centennial’s Associate Head of School Julian Siah saw the hurdles Willis had to leap. He rallied behind the coach and did all he could to support his efforts.

“Coach Willis is a man of value, a man of his word, very persistent,” said Siah. “He is firm about the scholars following a code of conduct on and off the court. He gives the team all he has and we wanted to be sure the team didn’t miss out on anything for lack of resources. We coordinated rental fees for the gyms, bus rentals for team transportation, new basketballs — whatever Coach needed for them to succeed.”

The team practiced mornings and afternoons a few days a week, then had two games each week. Many of those games were nail-biters. In their game against Sutton Middle School, Centennial was down by 15 at halftime and came back to win 41-39. In the championship game against Bunche Middle School on Feb. 9, Centennial was down by three points at halftime. They won 43-33, making history both for their victory and for being the first charter school to play in the Atlanta Public Schools league.

“We often came up short in the first half, then I don’t know what kind of speech Coach Willis would give, but the boys would come back and dominate the second half,” said Travita Scott, mother of Michael Scott, who played guard. “Coach Willis built them from the ground up. He taught them how to trust the process. He took a team with little basketball skill and turned them into champions.”

Though Willis has coached basketball for 35 years, this is his first ever championship as a coach. Originally from Roanoke, Virginia, he played basketball at Virginia State University, then served as an assistant coach at his alma mater before moving on to other teams. He moved to Atlanta in 2017 to be near his adult daughter and was hired at Centennial in July 2019. In addition to being the boys’ basketball coach, Willis serves as the school’s athletic director. Now he can add award-winning coach to his list of accolades.

Willis was named the Atlanta Hawks’ Junior NBA Coach of the Year. He beat over 60 other coaches in the area and will be presented with his award during a Hawks game this upcoming season. He was also named the All-Star Coach of the West by Next Generation Sports and Atlanta Public Schools Boys’ Middle School Coach of the Year.

“I have played basketball all my life and I love giving back to the kids,” said Willis. “I’ve seen coaches do it wrong, for self-gratification, and I always knew what kind of coach I wanted to be. I want to be sure my team knows success is not just getting a four-year basketball scholarship, but taking all the good they’ve learned off and on the court, and applying it wherever they go. It’s about succeeding at life.”