For Ball State head coach James Whitford, it is about the relationships that will last a lifetime. Whitford coached players 22 years ago, and one of those players is his son’s godfather, and the other is a great friend of his.
Despite the Cardinals (10-13, 8-9 MAC) losing 91-89 in overtime in the Mid-American Conference Tournament against Toledo (21-7, 15-4 MAC), it goes beyond the court.
It was potentially the final game of redshirt senior forward Brachen Hazen, redshirt fifth-year guard K.J. Walton and senior guard Ishmael El-Amin’s career at Ball State. Whitford had nothing but praise for who they are as people.
“They are great people,” Whitford said. “It is awesome [coaching them]. People tell you that the championships are what you are competing for every day, but it is really the relationships that you’ll remember forever.”
Walton was one of the seniors who contributed in Ball State’s loss, as he scored 23 points, nine rebounds and two steals. Beyond that, Whitford praised who Walton is as a person and how his future is bright.
“He helped us a lot today,” Whitford said. “Then it is who he is as a person. He is a great teammate and a great guy. He is a college graduate, and he is working on his second bachelor’s degree as we speak. He is a great uncle and has nieces and nephews he heads over heels for. He will be a great man for years to come.”
Before the season, El-Amin led a march in Muncie, Ind. in the summer of 2020 amid racial tensions across the United States. Those are the actions that resonate with Whitford more than a basketball game.
“They are going to be great basketball players, great dads, great professionals and great husbands,” Whitford said. “They are the kind of people you want to coach. We are really proud of the impact they had on our program and in the community.”
The Cardinals were led by redshirt sophomore Jarron Coleman, who scored a career-high 33 points and hit the layup to send the game into overtime. He credited the seniors for helping him develop into the player he is, enabling him to perform well in big games.
“K.J. [Walton] showed me that you have to go nonstop,” Coleman said. “Ish [El-Amin] taught me to always stay calm and poised no matter what the situation is. Same thing with Brachen [Hazen]. He is great at keeping the team poised as well.”
The seniors were the leaders. They had to help lead a team through a year of postponements and injuries. Despite losing in the tournament, Whitford is proud of the Cardinals and how they handled adversity this season.
“It is complicated, but it would be a different feeling if we went through the year and beat ourselves or had attitude issues or had some of the other things that don’t allow you to be what you want to be,” Whitford said. “We didn’t do that, and that wasn’t the story of our season. The story was we dealt with adversity, and guys hung in there.”