After Losing 2 Players, a Coach and a Season, Men’s Basketball Hopes to Rebound

The GDS men’s varsity basketball team, including its then–head coach, during a game in the high school gym in December 2019. Photos by Reid Alexander.

Expectations were high for the 2019-2020 men’s varsity basketball season. During the summer of 2019, GDS hired a new head coach who would also serve as assistant athletic director. The coach, whose name senior administrators requested be excluded from this article, moved into a small room overlooking the gym next to the office of Athletic Director David Gillespie, who was new to his role as well. The GDS community hoped that the team’s talented roster—headlined by then-senior Montez McNeil ’20, -junior Jordan Rayford and -sophomore Jayden Rainey—would be able to finally make a splash in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAC). 

However, both Rainey and Rayford left GDS shortly before the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, leading to on-court struggles. That disappointing season was followed by the news in late summer of 2020 that their head coach had resigned, an unexpected and unexplained decision that put the team once again into a state of disarray. The ultimate setback, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, then prevented the team from competing in the 2020-2021 season. Now, even though the team won’t play any regular season games for months, it feels as ready as ever to compete.

At a pivotal moment during an unofficial summer league game in 2019, an incident occurred between Rainey and the new head coach, according to Marquis Bell, the assistant coach at the time. The head coach called a timeout to address the team’s lack of cohesion and togetherness, subbed Rainey out of the game and reprimanded him, Bell said. 

“That incident started off with that type of internal, mutual ‘I don’t really like you’–type relationship the coach had with Jay,” said junior Dylan Bronner, who played alongside Rainey. Rainey’s ball-dominant play style, which had been effective the previous year, “wasn’t gonna work with the new coach,” Bronner said. A verbal altercation between Rainey and his coach ensued.

Bronner believed the situation worsened when one of their teammates was given more on-court freedom while Rainey’s play style was being restricted. “The situation itself, obviously with one of the kids on our team hogging the ball and scoring and also missing a couple of times, that really got to Jay,” Bronner explained. “Jay flipped out and the coach was not rocking with that.”

Rainey told The Augur Bit that he left GDS because of the incident. 

“I didn’t feel like I could grow as a basketball player. It was sad for me because, I mean, GDS was home; GDS was my everything. That was my happiness. And he just took that out of me when he came in,” Rainey said of the head coach. “I felt he had a demeanor that wasn’t really welcoming to me.”

“100 percent I would have been at GDS today” had the altercation not happened, Rainey told the Bit. “I would’ve been a Hopper for life.”

The head coach in question declined to comment on his perspective on the incident. Gillespie declined a request for an interview about the disagreement, citing issues of confidentiality.

Bell confirmed that Rainey’s substitution in that summer league game was “definitely related” to his not adhering to the coach’s vision for team basketball, though Bell later clarified that he didn’t believe Rainey was disagreeing with that vision.

“There’s a—not saying he has an ego—but a presence that comes with ‘I’m the guy. What do you mean you’re taking me out?’” Bell said. “So there could have been some of that.” Nonetheless, Bell was adamant that the intensity of the interaction was low and was likely blown out of proportion by members of the GDS community who heard about it at the time. “It really wasn’t an incident at all,” Bell told the Bit. 

Even though Rainey said the incident had no on-court repercussions for him, he announced on Aug. 7, 2019, on Twitter that he would transfer to Bishop Walsh School in Cumberland, Maryland. In a statement attached to his post, he thanked the GDS coaching staff for “pushing me to be the best version of myself.”

Bronner sympathized with Rainey’s decision to leave GDS, acknowledging how important the coach–player relationship is. “That coach determines the future for the rest of your life,” he said. “That coach is the difference between you playing college basketball and you not playing college basketball.” 

Rainey’s announcement came one week after his teammate Rayford had revealed that he, too, would leave GDS for Bishop Walsh. Rainey said he thought Rayford may not have left GDS either had the summer league incident not occured. Rayford, however, clarified that he left in pursuit of “better competition” and remains on good terms with the head coach. 

The two transfers left a massive void for the team to fill, serving as a rude awakening to start the 2019-2020 season. However, they also allowed younger players, who were forced to take on much larger roles than expected, to develop their skills and leadership. For example, Bronner said he had to be able to play anything from “the 3 to the 1,” or go from playing on the wings with less frequent possession of the ball to having the ball constantly in his hands. 

Montez McNeil goes up to shoot a layup during a game against Sidwell Friends School in February 2020. 

The team finished 4-14 in the 2019-2020 season. They hoped that a fresh start the next season, along with offseason continuity, would finally steer them in the right direction. Instead, the team was forced to transition to yet another head coach amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Aug. 23, 2020, Gillespie wrote in an email to basketball families that the head coach at the center of Rainey’s decision to leave had resigned for “personal reasons” and would be replaced by Bell. (Meanwhile, Rainey transferred to Sandy Spring Friends School for his junior year.)

Junior Nico McClure, who is new to GDS this school year, said he had been attracted to the school last spring in part because he had a connection with the head coach. Referring to GDS coaches whom he met before starting at the school, McClure said, “It was clear that they were invested in me and I really appreciated that.” But by the time McClure arrived at GDS, the head coach with whom he’d interacted was gone.

It was the third head coaching transition in two years, as the varsity team had undergone one the year prior to the assistant athletic director’s arrival. Bronner reflected that losing the head coach after just one season was “definitely hard for a lot of kids on the team.” According to Bronner, the coach’s exit “was a big deal. Everyone was like, ‘Oh God.’”

The team took the news in stride and began to rally behind Bell in preparation for the upcoming season, which was surrounded by uncertainty because of COVID-19. 

Near the end of the summer, Gillespie shared GDS’ plans for athletics this school year, including conditioning periods for each season in the first semester and competitive seasons in the second. Bell and the players took the opportunity to “sharpen their knives,” as Bell put it, until they were able to compete. Bell facilitated Zoom training sessions to keep the team engaged and motivated remotely.

“GDS basketball in the past has been kind of a rodeo in terms of expectations versus reality,” Bronner said. “Marquis has definitely done a great job of stepping up. He got us organized and in sync pretty quickly.”

Bell had coached Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball since he was 14 years old, is a trainer for Rhythm Dribble and has spent time coaching basketball at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. 

He and multiple of his players each told the Bit in early December that they had been looking forward to using the 2020-2021 season as a foundation upon which to build GDS basketball by attracting talent to the school and leaving future players a better program. 

But the team’s hopes were officially squashed on Dec. 11, 2020, when Gillespie informed the high school community that the MAC would not hold competitions for winter sports due to an order from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Still, Bell hoped his players would maintain a positive mindset and work diligently to improve their conditioning so the team could use it to its advantage in the future. His goals for them included “20, 20, 20s,” a series of 20 20-meter sprints timed to 20 seconds, each designed to mimic the start-and-stop nature of basketball. For endurance, Bell’s goal is to have all his players be able to run two miles in under 16 minutes. Bell’s formula is simple: Outwork the competition. 

He wants to “build the program from both directions” by developing and recruiting talent. According to Bronner, who said his experience with basketball at the GDS middle school was a “loaf,” Bell doesn’t want players in the lower level programs to be “messing around.” 

Bell wants to instill his work ethic and create a more holistic thread throughout the programs. He plans to implement training sessions for lower/middle school players to hone their skills in preparation for high school. In addition, Bell wants to establish a coaching philosophy with set plays and training schemes consistent throughout GDS basketball, with added complexity for higher levels.

In the wake of controversy and coaching instability, Bell’s ambitious vision is to transform the basketball program’s reputation inside and outside the GDS sphere. 

For Bell, the most important aspect of transforming GDS basketball’s culture is winning: “I don’t wanna mince words. I don’t want to compete for the playoff.” He added, referring to winning a MAC banner, “I want to compete for the chip.” 

Seth Riker contributed reporting.