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eStem (Arkansas) head coach moonlighting as Team Arkansas TBT head coach

Mets assistant coach Hunter Mickelson is playing for him
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By Nate Olson | Photo courtesy of KATV 

This past basketball season, Monty Patel was Hunter Mickelson’s boss at eStem High School in Little Rock. This summer, he’s still in charge of Mickelson but in a different way. 

Mickelson, a Jonesboro native and former University of Arkansas and University of Kansas forward, is playing for Patel as part of Team Arkansas in ESPN’s The Basketball Tournament (TBT) with an opening-round game Thursday at Wichita, Kan., against a team comprised mainly of Colorado State alumni.

“We’ve been buddies for a long time, so he knows he can tell me some things, and if I see something, I can mention it to him,” said Mickelson, who gave up playing professionally abroad this season to teach and coach. “We have a good relationship.”

For Patel, coaching Team Arkansas is privilege. A basketball lifer, the Jonesboro native served as a varsity assistant coach at Marion, North Little Rock and Jacksonville before landing his first head-coaching job at eStem, a charter school, last year. Patel has also been heavily involved in AAU basketball and is a director at HoopLife Basketball Academy in Pulaski County.

“[Coaching] TBT is a lot of fun, and I learn a lot from the players and some of the other coaches,” Patel said. “There is a lot I can take to my high school team that I learn here.”

While Patel enjoys the Team Arkansas gig, it is thankless. The only way he receives compensation is if Team Arkansas wins the one-million-dollar purse. No Arkansas team has done that in the nine years of the competition. The workload is heavy since he and former Arkansas star Sonny Weems, a West Memphis native who plays professionally in China, share the general manager tag and must work together to recruit a roster. Seven players have initially committed before pulling out, including recent Arkansas star guard J.D. Notae, who attended training camp in Little Rock on Sunday night but texted his change of heart Monday.

“Normally, the text says something about personal matters and that is about it,” Patel said referring to the reason players give.

In addition to landing players, Patel and Weems must also attract sponsors. He said the goal is to break even and pay for the players’ expenses. He said some programs such as the Syracuse team have a wealthy booster who kicks in a six-figure donation to give at least some players a one-game guarantee. Without that luxury, his operation is at a disadvantage but nonetheless he works hard to get sponsorship money and a talented roster. One year, he had to cover $1,000 out of his pocket.

“I like it,” he said. “Every year it is something different. We adjust what we do offensively and defensively, and I learn from that. Being in a room full of coaches is a learning experience. I always learn something new.”

Every player on the roster has played professionally. Some. such as former Mississippi State big man Jarvis Varnado, have played in the NBA, so Patel’s approach must be different with Team Arkansas than with eStem.

“In high school, he is having to worry about teaching the fundamentals and how to do some basic things,” Mickelson said. “With us, he doesn’t have to worry about that. He just has to make sure he has us in the right places to be successful. He does a good job of that.”

Team Arkansas forward Adrio Bailey played for successful college coaches Mike Anderson and Eric Musselman at Arkansas and has been impressed with how Patel leads the team.

“He’s not only a good coach, but he is a good dude,” Bailey said. “You can see that. He treats the players well, and you can see how he runs practice that he is a good coach.”

Patel said he isn’t sure if any other full-time high school coach has also coached a TBT team. He said he hasn’t encountered one in two seasons of tournament play. Typically, TBT teams are coached by an older alum or a summer league coach with a connection to a player. Patel said he is seeing more and more college pro assistant coaches serving as TBT head coaches.

With games televised on the ESPN family of networks and the networking with other coaches and players in the tournament, the TBT could be a proving ground for Patel to advance his coaching career.

“I’ve always been told be where your feet are, and eStem is a great high school with a great education, and we have some talented players,” Patel said. “We keep building a culture there. I am happy, fulfilled and content at eStem, and we will see what opportunities come, but I am not pursuing anything. The people at eStem have been great.” 

For now, Patel is focused only on how to win the TBT with a 9-man roster. In addition to Notae, he recently lost former Hogs players Courtney Fortson and Jimmy Whitt. Weems can’t make the first game but will be in Wichita for the second game if Patel and Co. can pull out the first one. 

“We just have to play with the guys we have,” Patel said. “I feel very confident we have a good team and can make some noise. We just need to make a few key things happen.”