In his seventh season as head coach of Lawrence Central High School boys’ basketball, Al Gooden made history. He became the first African American high school boys’ basketball coach in Indiana to reach 500 wins when the Bears defeated Decatur Central 58-38 in the Marion County Tournament Jan. 12.
“When I started coaching,” Gooden said, “I never said, ‘I’m going to win 100, 200 games.’ I didn’t do that. I just coached for enjoyment — I enjoy helping the kids.”
Gooden played for Ball State Men’s Basketball from 1977-81, and he received his first head coaching job in 1988 with Heritage High School boys’ basketball. He coached there for two years before spending 21 years at Fort Wayne Harding High School and three years at New Haven High School.
Gooden credits most of his coaching journey to Ball State. The Cardinals won their first-ever Mid-American Conference Title and earned an NCAA Tournament berth during his senior season.
Ten years following his graduation, Gooden was inducted into the Ball State Athletics Hall of Fame. Former Ball State head coach Steve Yoder, who recruited Gooden out of high school, said Gooden’s success following his playing days has come as no surprise “because he was a good listener.”
“The biggest thing about Al — he was serious about the sport,” Yoder said. “He was one of those guys that, if you’re a coach, you just love to have around because he would respond to just about anything. He was a major part of that [Ball State] team all four years he played there. He just worked, and worked [and] never complained about anything. He was always trying to get better.”
Gooden said he always had an interest in coaching, and he began to see his future come to fruition during his time in Muncie because of his success at Ball State. In his current position, he understands he plays an important role in his players' lives.
“They need to have somebody to look up to and somebody that looks like them,” Gooden said. “Whatever color you are, basketball is that common thing that brings different people together, my kids together. I coach all kinds of kids, and basketball is a good focus point.”
Over the years, Gooden has coached Sacramento Kings guard Kyle Guy, former Notre Dame forward V.J. Beachem and Kansas State freshman guard Nijel Pack, just to name a few.
Pack, who played under Gooden at Lawrence Central from 2017-20, said he was ecstatic when he heard about Gooden’s milestone because he set an example for all African American head coaches to follow.
“This is a great achievement for not only [Gooden], but all African American coaches in Indiana,” Pack said. “Coach Gooden will always be remembered — not only in Lawrence Central history, but across the entire state — as one of the greatest coaches to ever do it.”
Pack said he believed Gooden’s traits and values played a key role in helping Lawrence Central find success during his time as a player. He credits Gooden for getting him out of his comfort zone and becoming more vocal on the court. Gooden once pushed Pack to receive all As in one semester in exchange for a dinner on Gooden.
“The leadership role was a big key for me being a point guard on his team,” Pack said. “He felt I had to be a leader no matter my age. I’m not a very talkative person, but he told me I would have to change to be a Division I athlete.”
Gooden said he believes the true benefit of team sports doesn’t just pertain to what happens on the court. He believes his players can implement the lessons they learn from a team setting in whichever way life leads them after their playing days.
“For the rest of life, you're going to be a part of a team,” Gooden said. “When you get married, you're a part of a team. When you have kids, you're a part of a team. When you get a job, you're a part of a team. That is one good value I learned from playing basketball and coaching.”
For the younger generation, Gooden’s message is simple.
“First, get a good education,” he said. “That’s the most important. If you have a good education, they can’t take that away from you. Also, have some kind of stick-to-itiveness. Things are not going to be easy at all. Sometimes, you're going to make errors [and] have some adversity. If you like it, battle for it [and] fight for it if it’s worth doing.”