Eddie Martin had several reasons for leaving Norcross’ boys basketball program two years ago and coming to Greater Atlanta Christian, but seeking a better shot at a state championship was not one of them.
Martin had won three straight in Class AAAAA at Norcross, the first school to accomplish that feat in the highest classification since the 1930s. Superstar players such as Jodie Meeks, Gani Lawal and Al-Farouq Aminu had come along to make Norcross the nationally known program that it remains.
That’s why it came as a surprise that Martin left the big time for a Class AA private school. But Martin has acted quickly. GAC is already ranked No. 1 under its second-year head coach.
"To be honest, I hadn’t been following GAC basketball when the job situation came around because I was in AAAAA,’’ Martin said. “I started doing some investigating and anticipated we’d be pretty good, but I’d say I was a little bit surprised [at reaching the Class AA semifinals last year]. This year, I knew what we had. I expected us to be a pretty good basketball team.’’
This year’s team is 20-1, its only loss a 55-51 decision to Melrose of Memphis, a school that is ranked No. 15 nationally by USA Today. One of GAC’s victories came against Centennial, the No. 3 team in AAAAA.
A computer poll conducted by MaxPreps.com puts GAC at No. 2 overall in the state behind Milton. Martin’s old school, Norcross, is third.
“We try not to look at the polls, but I’m glad because I think we deserve it,’’ said GAC senior guard Beaux Hebert. “It’s really been fun. It’s a dream because it’s our senior year. If you look at how we play together, we can be pretty tough to stop.’’
Martin came to GAC for more practical reasons.
After 30 years in the public schools, he was eligible to retire. He had attended GAC’s on-campus church for more than 20 years and knew many GAC administrators. It’s also nice to play in what is probably state’s most impressive high school basketball arena, the new $17-million Long Forum that accommodates 3,500 fans in chair-backed seats.
The team is impressive, too. Four starters returned from last year’s Final Four team and leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon (21 points per game) transferred from Woodward Academy to make GAC the team to beat.
GAC lacks the wealth of blue-chip prospects that Martin coached at Norcross.
Brogdon, a 6-foot-4 junior wing, is a Division I-A recruit, but senior Trent Wiedeman (14 points, nine rebounds per game) is the only one of four seniors who will play basketball in college. He has signed with the College of Charleston.
GAC is more like Martin’s teams at Brookwood, where he coached for 20 years before coming to Norcross in 2001. Brookwood never got past the state semifinals under Martin but was known as an overachiever that played aggressive man-to-man defense.
‘’He’s real big on defense,’’ said Elliott Long, a senior post player. “That’s what the majority of practice is. He always says you can have an off-night shooting, but you can’t have an off-night on defense.’’
Martin says his coaching style hasn’t changed that much, but there have been tweaks to fit the talent.
"Over at Norcross, we probably pressed a whole lot more than we did at Brookwood, maybe more than we ever will here,’’ Martin said. “We had better athletes and more quickness. But it’s the same base philosophy. At Brookwood, there was more help-side defense instead of getting up in your face. Here, it’s a combination.’’
For Martin, a state title could punctuate one of the state’s best coaching careers. But it took him more than 20 years to win the first one, so he’s got another perspective on that.
“You always wonder if it’s ever going to happen,’’ Martin said. “I know in a lot of people’s minds that winning a state title validates a career. But a lot more goes into determining success. You also want to touch lives and be a role model. I’ve been fortunate to have a chance to experience both.’’