By Jeff Keeling
Eight-year-old Andrew Clawson wasn’t happy as he trudged to the sidelines in a Johnson City Parks and Rec basketball game. Eyes downcast, he began to walk past coach Michael Marion toward the bench.
“What’s the first rule?” Marion asked. Clawson stopped and looked up to the kind face atop Marion’s six-foot-five frame. “The team always comes first,” Clawson mumbled.
That exchange occurred in 1999, when Marion had been coaching Parks and Rec teams for more than a half-decade. It was a familiar refrain from Marion, one that had been repeated dozens if not hundreds of times to kid after kid – and one that’s been repeated hundreds of times since through Marion’s quarter century of involvement with local kids.
While that involvement will continue as Marion continues as executive director of Rise Up!, a program serving children and families with one-on-one mentoring, small groups and after school programs, Marion is hanging up his coaching whistle, at least temporarily. And Clawson? Well, he played on Marion-coached teams for 10 years and is now married, about to earn his bachelor’s degree, and still close with Marion.
“I looked at Coach as a second dad,” Clawson says. “He has been one of the most influential people I’ve ever encountered.”
Clawson won plenty of games playing for Marion – the coach has collected almost too many season and tournament championship trophies to count as he’s coached multiple boys and girls teams each year. But it isn’t x’s and o’s that really led teams from Rise Up! (and its predecessor, Boys to Men/Girlfriends) to win, Clawson says.
“He and his organization help you build character. I can still recite that creed (the Boys to Men Creed). It didn’t keep me out of trouble all the time, because kids make mistakes, but I could always go back to life lessons that coach taught us, and it has helped me to realize, ‘you can achieve, regardless of what life situation you’re in.
“Coach is a very strong supporter of that, and I think that’s why he’s very influential to everyone he’s ever come in contact with.”
It started on the court
Through basketball and later through other avenues, Marion and his organization helped instill the kind of values in Clawson that have helped him become a successful, responsible adult.
Boys To Men was birthed from the first team Marion coached. That group of boys from east Johnson City’s Stratton Elementary, a school that would close at the end of the year, needed more than a guy with a whistle teaching them to run plays.
“The very first kids in our program was the basketball team, because it was like, ‘I need to do more for these kids,’” Marion says. Most were from single-parent families. Their cues were coming from a culture that still permeates society today, one summed up in Jeffrey Marks’ book “A Season of Life,” Marion says.
“The book helped me understand that our culture – and cues picked up on the playground – teach a boy three things: He has to be good at ball. He has to be good at women. And he has to be good at getting stuff.”
Those objectives are not the makings of a man of integrity, Marion says. And 25 years ago, as he began investing his time in the Stratton team, “I discovered I could start speaking to boys through basketball. They just thought they were coming to basketball – I was teaching them life.”
Those values start with the two fundamentals Marion says help him – and numerous coaches who have been influenced by him – build not just good teams, but good people. “I start with the 6-year-olds, and teach them how to be on a team, and how to be coached. If I get those two mastered, then the rest of it’s easy.”
“The rest of it” includes another five basketball-related truisms that also spill over into life. On the court, Marion says, “it doesn’t matter much about the talent. If they get those five things, we do pretty well.”
The first, he says, is the one a young Andrew Clawson heard after being pulled from the court, certainly not for the only time: “The team comes first.”
“I teach that because your family should come first, your friends should come first, and if you’re on the bench you should be excited for your teammates when they do well,” Marion says.
Rules three through five have been instrumental in his teams’ successes through the years – successes that have been passed on as other Rise Up! leaders have coached teams of their own. They’re the three “alwayses,” and they consist of hustle, defense and rebounding.
Hustle, he says, is something kids can control. “And that comes to effort in life. You can always control how hard you try.”
As for defense and rebounding, Marion says he’s never been much on trying to get kids to learn and run plays on offense. He uses a 2-1-2 zone and relates how it works to kids by telling them to take care of their neighbor’s back door and back yard. Rebounding wise, he says, “what I learned a long time ago and most coaches don’t get is, most shots are missed. I anticipate everybody missing. What I cannot tolerate is having the team not be in position for a rebound, and our teams have probably been outrebounded over the years less than five times.
“I could take any kid and teach him within a month to rebound and play defense.”
Marion loved coaching, he says, some seasons overseeing a half-dozen teams. The teams won a whole lot more than they lost, he says, and that was great in that he saw kids who often came from a “rejection world” making baskets, getting trophies and being praised and part of a happy whole.
Most of all, he says, the kids knew rule number five: “Coach Marion thinks I’m great.
“I would write cards to the kids at the end of each season praising them on how they did. For a lot of kids, they carry this memory forever. I’ll see these 30-year-olds today who will talk about their basketball days.”
Those who are talking are often doing so, like Clawson, as successful adults who have overcome some challenges in life.
“The kids who’ve done the best in our program are the ones who played ball,” Marion says. “The team, being together, it carries over into the rest of life. They’re used to being coached. They can learn. They can live.”
From Snake Hollow to Mentoring Man
Basketball and life intersect at a deep junction for Marion. He has vivid memories of a man named Dwight Snodgrass coming to Marion’s one-room school in Snake Hollow, Hancock County – Ramsey Elementary – when Marion was in eighth grade there.
“He’d run for superintendent and lost but he was tenured, so they couldn’t fire him,” Marion remembers. “They sent him to the worst job they could find, which was being the teacher at Ramsey Elementary.”
Ramsey, which went through eighth grade and actually closed after Marion’s eighth-grade year, had never had a basketball team, but Snodgrass had taught at a school that had a gym, “and he determined that we would have a basketball team, which was the coolest thing.”
So, a ways down a 13-mile valley, well outside of Sneedville, which itself is about as isolated as you can get in Tennessee, Dwight Snodgrass got someone to bulldoze out a dirt court. “We used lime to make the lines,” Marion remembers. “My grandpa got some locust poles for the baskets.”
The team had T-shirts for jerseys. Marion’s grandmother Elvie, who raised him for the most part into ninth grade, put a homemade number, 55, on the tall and then-chunky Marion’s “jersey.” “None of us had ever played, and we were horrible, but I learned to love the game,” Marion says.
The fledgling team had its moment of glory in the annual elementary tournament, a major fundraiser for the Hancock County rescue squad.
“We got to borrow some uniforms for the game, and I was fortunate to get number 55, and we won our very first game,” Marion says. “It was like a ‘Hoosiers’ moment. The whole crowd was behind us, because we were like the little school that never had jerseys. Of course, we got crushed the next game.”
But basketball, and Snodgrass – as an example of a guy doing something he didn’t have to do in order to influence kids – had cemented themselves in young Marion’s consciousness. “He was great,” Marion says of Snodgrass. “He just made the best of a bad situation, and he was a good teacher and a good basketball coach.”
That good year served Marion well when times got tougher, as they did almost immediately. His grandmother died his freshman year. He moved to Detroit for a year as a sophomore, then returned to Hancock County High six inches taller and 75 pounds lighter. He really wasn’t any great shakes as a basketball player, not even making the school team despite his height, but he kept playing, including intramurals and lots of pickup ball at East Tennessee State University.
Marion also remembered an exchange with Snodgrass that has stuck with him. Ramsey was playing Kyles Ford when, with a couple of minutes remaining in the first half, Marion decided to shoot a half-court shot, which somehow found the basket.
“I was coming off the court and I said, ‘Coach Snodgrass, I felt it – it was going in.’ He said, ‘it was a good thing it was going in, because if it wasn’t going in you were coming out.’ To this day, one of my principles of teaching kids is, only shoot shots you have a realistic chance of making.”
Marion has a new venture on the horizon, one he says will fill another of his passions and help Rise Up! to boot. It will take a lot of his time, but he expects to be back with a whistle in his hand someday. His grandson, Isaac, just turned two, and Marion is thrilled that he already loves to talk his “G” (Marion)about “babaw.”
“G will come out of retirement, and I’ll take a little group of five, six-year-olds, and I’ll run with them for the next 10 years or so.”
Like Clawson did, they’ll probably learn the creed: “I am a man in training. I have a choice in everything I think, say and do. My future is not determined by my past. I can achieve all my dreams with God through hard work and ignore those who try to drag me down. I am a Successful Wonderful Awesome Guy. I am a man in training.”