HOLD THAT TIGER: Memphis U’s Coach Builds With H-Town Ties

As mentioned in prior posts, I’ve dialed back signifigantly in my sports writing career due to work obligations. However, below is my latest feature for VYPE Magazine profiling Memphis head coach Josh Pastner. He was a phenomenal interview and is doing great things at Memphis.

HOLD THAT TIGER: Memphis U’s Coach Builds With H-Town Ties
by Austin Staton

Basketball is a way of life for the University of Memphis head coach Josh Pastner. At the age of 36, the Kingwood, Texas-native has spent time under the tutelage of perhaps the greatest minds in the game of basketball and has quickly become one of the elite young coaches at the collegiate level.

Josh Pastner

Josh Pastner grew up in Kingwood, Texas, and currently is the head basketball coach at the University of Memphis.

For Pastner, he has spent the last 18 seasons at the NCAA Division I level as a player, staff member, assistant coach and head coach while guiding teams to 12 conference championships during the span.

“I loved the game of basketball growing up and I recognized that my playing days would eventually come to an end,” says Pastner, who has posted a 106-34 record as the Memphis coach. “I knew the adrenaline rush of coaching and I really focused all of my energy towards that at a young age and was very fortunate to be at the University of Arizona and then at Memphis before becoming the school’s head coach.”

While learning the intricacies of the game under the likes of Lute Olson, John Calipari and Kingwood’s Royce Huseman, Pastner says that much of the credit to his coaching success came from his days as a coach for the Houston Hoops AAU program.

“Without that experience as an AAU coach, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn,” says Pastner, who has coached nearly 25 NBA Draft selections as an NCAA head or assistant coach and AAU head coach. “I was recruiting, making travel plans and managing personalities so the program is something that has helped shape me today.”

But for Pastner, his connection to Houston Hoops runs much deeper than the coaching experience – his father Hal founded the program while he was in grade school.

“It just evolved and it gave us a great connection and an opportunity to spend time together in different areas,” he says. “I’ve cherished that time and my father is my best friend. I’m able to bounce things off of him and he is able to give me a good perspective on things with both the game of basketball and life.”

As a young coach coming off back-to-back regular season conference championships and three-straight berths to the NCAA tournament, Pastner focuses his efforts on creating positive energy and a positive atmosphere for his players while setting the standard for a high-level of excellence.

The 2013-14 edition of his Memphis Tigers are one the three favorites in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference and boast a preseason Top 15 ranking in the Associated Press basketball poll.

Despite the success and expectations that Pastner has experienced, he’s still humble to his beginnings and recognizes his past when looking towards his future.

“Not in one second in my wildest dreams did I talk about being the head coach at Memphis … and it happened at 31 years of age,” he says. “When I got the job, I felt that my experiences coaching AAU basketball prepared me to be the head coach.

“That experience is because of Houston basketball. There are so many great coaches on the high school and AAU level and there are so many great players in Houston – it’s a hotbed and one of the great basketball cities in all of the United States of America.”

Breaking barriers, one obstacle at a time

Since beginning work at BP, I’ve been able to keep writing with VYPE Magazine on occasion. In the September issue of VYPE, I profiled a unique student-athlete from Cy-Creek. Payton Brown, a senior libero who is profoundly deaf. Her story is remarkable and she has quickly become my favorite student-athlete to profile. Read it below:

Breaking barriers, one obstacle at a time
by Austin Staton

Obstacles in life can either make or break an individual.

For Cy-Creek senior Payton Brown, she doesn’t see obstacles; she sees walls that are meant to be crashed through.

As a 5-foot-3 libero, Payton is just like any other student-athlete — she is a fierce competitor and brings an abundance of energy and excitement to the floor during matches. She is an honor roll student, a member of the National Honor Society and is an active member of Cy-Fair Christian Church.

But her story is atypical — she is profoundly deaf.

A LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT

Born to Chuck and Kristen Brown on Nov. 13, 1995, Payton was hospitalized just 10 days into her young life with a 101 degree fever that required immediate medical attention.

During a three-day stay in the hospital, Payton was given a spinal tap out of fear that she had contracted bacterial meningitis. One of the side effects was that the treatment involved antibiotics that were ototoxic and it caused damage to the hair cells inside Payton’s cochlea — the auditory portion of the inner ear — which would render her profoundly deaf.

 “I was numb,” recalls Payton’s father, Chuck, when recounting her diagnosis. “It was shocking because everything was fine when she went into the hospital, but she came out deaf.”

After consulting with The Center for Hearing and Speech (CHS), when Payton was still an infant, her parents began to explore the possibilities of teaching Payton verbal communication.

“We were told by the CHS that the hardest thing that Payton will have to do in her life is learn to speak,” says Kristen, who left her position as an advertising account manager for the Houston Chronicle in order to work with Payton as a defacto speech therapist. “I thought if that was a possibility, we’ll try it.”

At the age of 30 months and following in-depth research, it was decided that Payton would undergo life-changing surgery to implant an electronic device that would provide a sense of sound through a cochlear implant.

Following the surgery, Payton underwent daily speech therapy with a target to begin reading prior to Kindergarten — a goal in which she met without hesitation.

“Every accomplishment in her life, even the smallest thing, is so different from other children,” Kristen explains. “In Kindergarten they begin learning 35 sight words that they are required to know by Christmas — Payton said them by the first week of school. To me, when she did that, I knew that things were going to be ok.”

THE CHALLENGES

“It was definitely a challenge growing up,” says Payton. “People would make fun of me and tell me that I couldn’t hear. Some people can still be rude about my situation but I just look past it because it doesn’t matter. I definitely use that to fuel my motivation because I want to prove that deaf people can do the same things that hearing people can do.”

For Payton, her current circumstances have been defined by her courage when faced with difficult situations. In setting out to prove people wrong about the stereotypes contrived with the deaf culture, Payton began to compete competitively in national club volleyball in 2007, alongside her school program at Northland Christian.

Cy-Creek senior Payton Brown

Cy-Creek senior Payton Brown

After undergoing surgery to receive a second cochlear implant for her other ear immediately before her freshman year, Payton elected to transfer to Cy-Creek for her sophomore season — a better fit for her both academically and athletically.

“We were very lucky she transferred,” says Tami Combs, third-year volleyball head coach at Cy-Creek. “Initially it was a challenge because we were both trying to get a feel for each other and her teammates. As the the team has matured, she’s probably communicating with the team more so than anybody on that court and her leadership is outstanding.”

As a three-year varsity standout at both libero and defensive specialist, Payton has been tabbed Cy-Creek defensive MVP, a second team all-District performer, and has ranked as the district leader in digs per game and among the leaders in total digs per season. On the club front, she has been named the most valuable defensive player several times, including the last two years for her Houston Skyline Juniors team while garnering interests from several collegiate volleyball programs.  Payton knows that she will be playing volleyball in college and is looking forward to that challenge.

DONNING THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE

After being scouted at a regional qualifier for the Junior National Championships this past May, Payton was given the opportunity of a lifetime to represent the United States in the 2013 Deaflympics.

Originally founded as the International Silent Games in 1924, the 2013 Deaflympics featured 20 events and were held in Sofia, Bulgaria, in which Payton was the youngest representative on the US volleyball team.

“My first thought was that this couldn’t be real,” says Payton, who had been told by some that she was too young to compete. “I immediately called my dad to come over after being offered a spot on the team and we accepted right then and there.

“I’ve never felt any luckier or blessed to have this opportunity to go overseas and play international ball with some of the best deaf athletes in the world.”

Although she was overjoyed with the opportunity to play in Bulgaria, there was an adjustment period as Payton was told she couldn’t compete with her cochlear implants as the rules provide that they would create an uneven advantage.

“It was a challenge at first because I thought we would be able to wear the implants for one practice so we could get used to the Olympic ball,” she explains. “It was rough the first few times we played, but we got better.”

As the squads’ libero, Payton typically relies on the sounds of the game as well as her vision to determine what movements she should take on the court. During the Deaflympics she was forced to look at the game from a new perspective by only being able to analyze the spin and rotation of the ball.

“Not many people have that opportunity to see that higher level of play at a young age,” says Combs. “It was out of her comfort zone not being able to hear anything during competition but I think it’s an advantage because she now understands body movements and a whole new element to the game.”

Posting wins against Canada, Russia, Uzbekistan, Poland, Italy and Mexico during the Games, the United States was knocked off of the medal podium in a fierce rematch with the Russian team.

“Playing together with the team this summer made me grow as a person with the deaf culture,” says Payton, who developed lifelong friends and has now picked up sign language to enhance her communication efforts. “It doesn’t bother me anymore that I’m deaf — after my experience this summer, I just say ‘who cares?’”

MOVING FORWARD

With one final year of high school remaining before heading off to college next fall, Payton is looking forward to excelling in the classroom, enjoying the time with her friends and teammates and giving back to the community.

Payton and her Cy-Creek teammates opened play in the ultra-competitive District 17-5A on Aug. 27 where they are vying for one of four coveted playoff spots and Payton is one of the key components and senior leaders for the Cougars’ squad.

Although both academics and volleyball can consume her schedule, Payton still finds time to give back to the community by volunteering at the Star of Hope Women’s and Children’s Homeless Shelter, and Via Colori, a street art festival benefiting the Center for Hearing and Speech in Houston.

“I want to be a role model that inspires others to give back,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in a rough situation — I still need to help other people. At Via Colori, working with little children that have hearing aids or implants and just being there for them and helping them know that they’re not alone is so much fun.”

Much of Payton’s desire to give back to the community stems from her faith in God and the strong network of support that she has received over the years from her immediate family, doctor, speech therapists, teachers, teammates and her grandparents.

“If you would ask me now which would I prefer — a hearing impaired kid or a normal kid — before Payton, I would have said that I wanted a normal kid,” says Chuck. “Now, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Payton’s drive and determination in her life echoes her father’s sentiment.

“Don’t let anything stop you,” she says. “There are always obstacles in life but you have to look past them and get over them and that is how you can reach success.”

VYPE Update: Cross Country

Over the past few months I’ve been doing some freelance journalism work for VYPE Magazine. VYPE is a high school sports magazine that focuses on covering student-athletes in the Houston area.

While I’ve covered an assortment of sports in my career, I haven’t covered cross country or track since I wrote two features back in 2008. The first highlighted Olympic hopeful LeJerald Betters and the other was a feature for the Big 12 Conference on Erin Bedell.

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to speak with two local student-athletes on behalf of VYPE Magazine who are making their mark on the Houston cross country circuit. Both Willis’ Cali Roper and The Woodlands’ Brigham Hedges were named Gullo Player of the Month.

To read the features, click here and here.