Jacee Hughes was academically ineligible last year. It cost him his basketball season.
But it took him sitting out to fully understand where this game stands in his life.
“I was just so lost,” said Hughes, now in his senior year at Stadium High School. “Basketball is everything.”
It’s an outlet.
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Hughes didn’t really start playing until after seventh grade when he lost his 39-year-old mother to heart and lung complications.
He found solace on the basketball court.
“When I play basketball, I have a fresh mind,” Hughes said. “I just go hard. Every time I get on the court, I work on stuff I know I have to work on.
“And everything I work on is for my mom.”
There weren’t many reasons to believe Stadium would find success this year.
The Tigers have their third coach in the past four years, hiring Eric Overgaard after he twice applied for the job. They are coming off a 2-16 season a year ago — this came after claiming the 4A Narrows League title in 2014.
Overgaard said it was about getting them to trust each other.
“It was a lot of clique stuff early on,” said Overgaard, a Wilson graduate who coached the Steilacoom girls the past two years. “I told these guys, ‘Wow, I see why you didn’t win.’
“I told them that and they looked at me like I didn’t just say that. I was like, ‘Yeah, I said it.’ ”
One key was Hughes.
He got home one day when he was 12 and was locked out of his house. So Hughes climbed onto the roof and got in through his mother’s bedroom window.
It’s then that he found his mother, Pamela Simmons, dead.
His aunt, Karen Bradley, and uncle, Dominique Ervin, took Hughes and his younger sister into their home. His oldest brother is currently in prison.
He played on Stadium’s C-team his freshman season but missed half of the year because his grades weren’t high enough. He got his grades up his sophomore year, played the entire season and was a swing JV-varsity player.
“Even when I got him at 12, his grades and stuff were up and down — it’s just like he couldn’t focus or concentrate,” Bradley said. “I attribute that to his mom. He had just lost her — the only one who had ever taken care of him.”
Then last season — and more grade problems.
To be fair, Ervin said that Hughes could have been eligible for the second half of last season. But just because his grades were good enough by WIAA standards, that didn’t mean they were by Ervin’s standards.
“But he’s put it all together this year,” Ervin said.
Hughes continued to work on his game individually, but it has taken time to learn how to play within the team.
“This is his first year playing within the whistle,” Overgaard said. “You take him down to Wright Park and he looks like Michael Jordan out there. But you put him in front of a whistle, it was like, ‘Oh my God.’
“But he’s been listening and buying in. He’s improving his understanding of the game.”
He said he frequently imagines the kind of man his mom wanted him to be. Hughes said he was a “momma’s boy,” most remembering their walks to the store, going to the mall, the movie theater and out to eat as a family.
“I’ve just had this drive, this chip on my shoulder, ever since she passed away,” Hughes said. “I just try to go hard every day, consistently. I felt like I had something to prove.
“When I didn’t play last year, that’s when it really hit me. Like, ‘Dang, I can’t play basketball — I can’t do nothing.’ ”
Overgaard first recognized Hughes because he had worked out with Overgaard’s stepchildren, Curtis grads Dom and Darnell Williams.
“That kid is a fighter, man,” Overgaard said. “He comes in day in and day out and competes.
“I was telling him, ‘Hey, I believe in you. You got to believe in yourself.’ He came in and told me, ‘I believe in myself, Coach.’ And he’s never looked back."
Hughes, a 5-foot-11 guard, is third on the team, averaging 9.5 points. He’s rotated between starter, sixth-man, starter, sixth-man and back to starter, but Hughes has scored at least 15 points in each game during Stadium’s current three-game win streak.
That was after Stadium (4-6) lost four of its first five games.
Blake Wilcox was going to come off the bench before a last-minute decision to start him for the season-opener against Federal Way. Now the 6-foot-6 senior is Stadium’s leading scorer at 19.2 points per game, with 6-4 Marcel Ferguson right behind him at 16.6 points per game.
“It has just been about coming together,” Hughes said.
Wilcox said he’s witnessed that more recently. Overgaard organized a shoe drive, getting his players to bring old shoes to donate to the Tacoma Rescue Mission. Their trip to the Franklin Tournament of Champions in Seattle, where Stadium won two of three games, also acted as a team-bonding experience.
“Coming into the year, I felt this team could win,” Wilcox said. “I had my doubts, but I knew the way we were going to have to do it was to come together, because we never did that last year.
“The guys my freshman year (when Stadium won the league title) were crying for each other when the season ended. They were all best friends on and off the court. That’s what you want. It wasn’t about individuals, it was just about the better of the team.
“I’ve started to see that. I don’t know if we’re at that point yet, but I think we can get to that point.”
And Hughes is enjoying being part of that process, instead of having to sit on the sideline.
“Last year my grades weren’t right, and I wasn’t really right. I don’t know why but I just couldn’t put all of the pieces together,” Hughes said. “I’m just trying to become a better team player — and that’s come with just playing and watching a lot of basketball.”
But what impresses Ervin most is what Hughes has overcome just to get here.
“Jacee has always been strong mentally,” Ervin said. “He’s seen a lot. I think he always wanted to do the opposite of some of the negative things he’s seen. When you come from almost the bottom, there’s only two things you can do. You can either be tired of that and get out, or you embed yourself into that situation. He’s one of the ones who didn’t want to be like his old surroundings.
“I’m happy he came to live with me because my dad raised me to believe that excuses only satisfy the person that uses them. You can use excuses as your motivation, but not as your downfall.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677