If you're to be the best, preaches Dallas Lincoln High basketball coach Leonard Bishop, you must stand ready to prove it. Which is exactly what his undefeated state Class AAAA champions did last season. En route to a 40-0 record and the No. 1 spot in the nation in schoolboy rankings conducted by USA Today and Prep Sports, his Tigers defeated five schools that were judged among the nation's premier teams.
Invited to a tournament in St. Louis, they won the championship by defeating No. 6-ranked Midwest City High. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, they knocked off No. 23 Westbury Christian. Closer to home they scored wins over No. 6 Beaumont Ozen, No. 9 Cedar Hill (before a crowd of 17,995 in Reunion Arena at The Dallas Morning News Shootout ) and The Colony, which was ranked No. 14 in the country.
"I think the fact we were willing to go up against so many outstanding teams in non-district play," the 52-year-old Bishop says, "was the reason we were ultimately picked as the national champion."
Which is a pretty daring act for a man who looks more like a businessman at courtside, rarely displaying the emotional rants of many in his line of work; a coach who insists his primary job is to make sure his kids excel academically.
"Basically," says the former all-state guard who grew up in little Sexton, Missouri, "my job is that of a teacher. I spend most of my time trying to help students learn life skills that will be important to them long after they've played their last basketball game."
He says with pride that all 10 seniors who made the recent season so memorable are now on college campuses.
"Every player on our team," he says, "grasped the fact that playing basketball wasn't the only reason they were coming to school every day. They were a group that recognized that hard work--in the classroom, at home, at practice and on game day--was essential to reaching the goals we had set before the season began. They realized that to be successful you have to apply yourself fully every day.
"What these kids accomplished," Bishop continues, "is something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I've done some research in an attempt to see if there has ever been any other high school basketball team that has gone undefeated, won state and been ranked No. 1 in the same year and haven't found one."
For the Southeast Missouri graduate who entered his 30th year of coaching when practice for the new season opened in October, the magical 2001-'02 season was not something he'd foreseen. Even getting a job at a school with a celebrated athletic history like that of Lincoln's seemed out of reach when he launched his career back in New Madrid, Missouri. From there he came to Seagoville, where he served three years as coach of middle school basketball before working his way up to the high school job he held from 1984 to 1999.
Then, three years ago, Lincoln High came calling. In his first season as head coach of the Tigers, his team made it to the regional finals. In the second year, they advanced to the state tournament. Then last year, Bishop and his team rang all the bells, turning away all opposition with a controlled fast break offense that averaged 78 points per game and an aggressive defense.
Where does one go from perfection? Despite the fact only two players return from last year's varsity, there are great expectations. Last year's junior varsity went 16-2, and the freshman team lost only one game, in overtime. Back from last year's championship team are junior forward Cedric Griffin and the coach's son, Leonard Bishop Jr., a senior guard. A 5-foot-10 sophomore, Byron Eaton, has already been ranked by one preseason publication as the No. 2 point guard in the United States. "One of the things we try to do," Bishop says, "is develop talent on our lower-level teams. We had kids playing jayvee ball who were good enough to be on the varsity had we not had so many good seniors. Now, it's their turn."
Not only to add to the school's string of victories but to benefit from the lessons coach Bishop will teach.