PHOENIX — Mincing words is not a part of Mike Bibby's coaching DNA. August Mendes, one of his assistant coaches at Shadow Mountain High, is saying as much to the color guard. It's Feb. 1, less than three hours before MaxPreps' No. 7 boys basketball team in the nation has a crosstown matchup with a highly ranked rival, and Mendes is pleading with the flag-twirling brigade to find another place to practice before his boss arrives.
"They could either leave now or have Mike come in and let them deal with that," Mendes tells me. The color guard proceeds to exit.
Twenty minutes later, Bibby walks into the gym at his alma mater, stone-faced and with a game plan in his head. His team is two days removed from what the coaches felt was a disappointing effort in a 33-point win over an opponent it had beaten by 70 earlier in the season. Even the blowouts now feel far from perfect for a team that has won three Arizona 4A state titles in four years, hasn't lost to an Arizona team in three years and hasn't lost at home in four years.
Lean and clean in a white Air Jordan polo and black pants, Bibby, aiming for his third consecutive state title as head coach, gathers his team in a semicircle. He's fighting off a small cold, but that doesn't deter him from preaching his sermon of swag and sound bites.
"Put those motherf--kers in the hole we're gonna dig for them," the 39-year-old says to his team. "We're gonna kick their ass like we're supposed to do."
The 14-year NBA point guard who helped script the basketball poetry in motion that was the Sacramento Kings of the early 2000s isn't done talking. He's only just begun to add kerosene to the fire of his one-loss squad, pointing to the tweets sent out by fans and those associated with Buckeye, the school they're playing in hours, saying how Shadow Mountain is a paper tiger, not worthy of the national hype.
"They're popping off on Twitter or whatever s--t y'all doing nowadays," he says of the tweets, which are printed out and taped up in the locker room. "But they don't believe that!"
Even the more questionable disputes of disrespect, such as similar play-calling or the matching blue-and-yellow color schemes, leave Bibby, a disciple of the likes of Lute Olson and Rick Adelman, shaking his head at Buckeye, a school they beat by 68 in last year's state playoffs.
"They got all our plays. They got our uniforms. They got our s--t," says Bibby, who looks leaner and more muscular than he did during his playing days.
"But what did you say, Coach?" turning to Mike Warren, an assistant coach who's been with him since he returned to Shadow Mountain in a coaching role in 2014. "That's right. They're not us."
In a high school basketball landscape largely dominated by legacy, brand-name prep academies, Shadow Mountain is the little Phoenix public school that could. Despite playing at a school of fewer than 1,400 students, the Matadors are arguably the most exciting, uptempo boys high school basketball team in the country this season, scoring 89 points a game, good for fourth in the nation, with a frenetic full-court defense that leads all schools with 24.3 steals per contest. (They're also ninth in assists.) In 2017, they were the first boys team from Arizona—and the only public school—to compete at the DICK's Sporting Goods (now GEICO) High School Nationals, an end-of-year tournament featuring the best squads in the country vying for a national championship in New York.
"He definitely started at the bottom level," Warren says. "And he's taken a regular high school team and put us on a national stage."
Their success, which could culminate with a repeat trip to New York in late March, comes as a collection of interchangeable athletes, no player taller than 6'5", who are often overlooked when it comes to big-time college recruiting. They're an undersized but excessively talented bunch, relentless in their pursuit of the ball—and respect.
"We feel like we don't have anything," junior guard Jovan Blacksher says. "We've been doing this for a while. The cameras just weren't here."
Arizona State commit Jaelen House, Bibby's nephew and son of former NBA player Eddie House, agrees. "It's been cool for others to get on the bandwagon," he quips.
The school's rise has also steered eyeballs in the direction of Bibby, who has made it clear that this is his first stop on the road to a college or NBA coaching gig.
"I think I'm ready for the next level," he says to me before the Buckeye game. "All it comes down to is getting a break somewhere."
Right now, that's the least of his concerns. It's all about Buckeye—and he's trying to make that as clear as he can.
"Them motherf--kers are coming at 'cha head," Bibby barks. "Coming at your head!"
By the time Bibby wrapped up his final NBA season in 2012, he had already been coaching his son, Michael, for a few years on the AAU circuit. When his son was around 9, they formed Team Bibby. The kids assembled, he says, weren't the kind that would normally get the looks at the basketball tournaments.
"I'm doing the same thing here, doing it with guys who others think might not be able to play," he says with a smudge of a smirk.
Bibby's basketball relationship with his oldest son is different from the one he had with his own father, he says. When Bibby was born, it was toward the end of his dad's career. Michael was born when Bibby was still in college at Arizona, where he led the Wildcats to their only national championship in 1997. So Michael got to see Bibby's whole career play out, from the highs of being the toast of the NBA with Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and the rest of the Kings to the lows of bouncing to four teams in his final two seasons.
Wanting to stay close to his son, who was starting high school at the place where his own legend was born, Bibby would go to his games, being that dad in the crowd who'd make sure his son heard him put in his two cents from the stands. When an assistant coach's position opened up before the start of the 2013-14 season, Warren, then Shadow Mountain's athletic director, asked Bibby to come on board. "It was a no-brainer," Bibby says.
The move to coaching came as no surprise to his cousin Raymond Walcott, one of the team's assistants. As part of a family big on sports and church, Walcott, who was coached by Warren at Glendale Community College in the '90s, saw how his cousin's love for the game extended well beyond his physical gifts.
"You could tell basketball was going to be his livelihood for his whole life," Walcott says. "When he was done playing, his basketball IQ was so high that he just had to pass that along."
With the excitement from the blowouts, state championships and a rising national profile has also come the critics, who, Mendes says, have taken shots both publicly and privately at Shadow Mountain and the legitimacy of Bibby as a coach. What does it really take to coach this good of a team? Last year, Bibby, who isn't taking a salary, earned his college degree from UNLV, completing online courses in addition to coaching—and made it very clear in the process that he has his eyes on not coaching high school forever.
Mendes, a 29-year-old pursuing his Ph.D., knew he wanted to work with Bibby when he coached against him in AAU—and hopes to follow him wherever he may go. Having traveled to the training camps for the Kings and San Antonio Spurs, as well as a few college programs, Mendes says he realized how far along they were at Shadow Mountain compared to some of their peers across higher levels.
"Some people pick schools for their math programs. Some pick it for their theater arts program," Mendes tells me after a practice, gazing into the desert mountains behind the school. "This is a basketball education where you're getting an education from the highest level possible." He adds: "Mike is an NBA coach right now."
Walking back into their locker room—one that has inspirational quotes and photos from the likes of Michael Jordan's Bulls, Nick Saban, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bruce Lee lining the walls and smells like a cross between Vicks VapoRub and Chick-fil-A sandwiches—the Matadors are in trouble.
Thanks to a House three-pointer at the buzzer, they lead 32-29 at the half. The festivities and excitement of senior night inside a three-quarters-full Jerry Conner Gymnasium have left the team, donning its home Air Jordan white jerseys with blue and yellow trim, failing to find any kind of rhythm. Its swarming defense, forcing turnovers at midcourt, isn't translating into easy offense. Warren is already hoarse, and Mendes, who scouted Buckeye through seven game films since November, is befuddled.
"These n---as suck!" House yells in frustration.
Even more pissed at how the game is going, Bibby, who harps on how he's sometimes treated differently by high school referees, reminds them that they are being hunted on their home floor.
"That's the worst I've seen us play, and we're still up," he says. "Y'all gotta wake the f--k up, man."
Though it's rare for Shadow Mountain to get a close game from an Arizona team nowadays, these are the exact matchups that have made the school a basketball sensation. This year alone, they've played games in Florida and California against some of the most respected teams in the nation. (Their only loss came at the hands of Nevada powerhouse Findlay Prep.) But even with Bibby, the success might not be what it is without House, the 6'1" point guard and one of the main blocks to the foundation.
As Bibby's nephew and the son of an NBA sharpshooter, House remembers hanging out and getting advice from Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen growing up. At 7, he was one of the youngest people inside the Celtics locker room when they won the 2008 NBA championship, seeing champagne cover seemingly every inch of space, including his dad, on that June night in Boston.
"Since I was a kid, I've always liked the spotlight," House says. "Having grown up around the NBA and the players, I want to be around that again."
When House was in the seventh grade, he hadn't planned on coming to Shadow Mountain. That changed when Bibby got the job. House says the close relationship he's had with his uncle is something he's valued even more during his time at the school. He has gotten so accustomed to Bibby’s thinking of intricate lob plays off the top of his head in the huddle that he brushes it off as an attribute that's expected from a coach.
"He knows what it takes to get to where he's been," House says. "In any given situation, he can do anything on the fly."
Blacksher, House's longtime friend and partner in arms in the starting backcourt, says the trust he has in Bibby, whose ability to see the game in slow motion is raved about by any colleague or player you ask, is something that puts him at an advantage.
"When we're on the floor and are having an up-and-down moment, we can look to the side and he can tell us what to do," the 6'2" shooting guard says. "We know it's certified since it's coming from him."
Bibby has also made Shadow Mountain into a talent magnet. This year, after repeating as state champions and earning the invite to high school nationals, the team added five out-of-state transfers—three of whom are starters. One of them is Antonio Reeves, a 6'4" junior guard from Chicago whose father was looking into coaching jobs when they looked into Arizona-area schools.
"I looked them up on YouTube and saw how hot they were on defense," says Reeves, whose father is the coach of the freshman team. "Right then, I knew I wanted to play for them."
It all makes for a dynasty in bloom in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. But still, the top-10 program and its players remain something of an afterthought in recruiting. It's an ongoing fight for respect that Bibby, who's coached many of the players on this year's team since they were kids in AAU ball, takes personally.
"We've always been the top team in the state, and I don't think people give us the credit that a lot of the kids on this team deserve," Bibby says. "We're not scared of anybody."
With 43 seconds left in the game, House causes what Ballislife later calls a damn-near riot inside the gym where the head coach's retired jersey is hanging. Starting off the third quarter on an 11-0 run, the Matadors never look back. The once rowdy visitors' section is silenced by the exhausting onslaught. Up and down, up and down, rinse, repeat. Buckeye has no answer as House gives them a steady diet of threes and drives. Or for Blacksher, who finishes with 17, mixing it up with silky-smooth jumpers and floaters. Shadow Mountain is in celebration mode, which means they're still playing full-court trap defense.
Off his 10th steal of the game, House dribbles down the lane before launching from the Denver Nuggets-inspired logo in the paint for a one-handed jam.
It's only his third in-game dunk, and first at home, resulting in Matador mayhem. Students trickle onto the sideline to slap hands with, or simply touch, House, who saunters around the court, mean-mugging anyone in his line of vision. It's the exclamation point on his 28-point performance and the team's 87-67 win against the state's third-ranked team
Back in the locker room, Bibby, looking only slightly more relieved than he did at halftime, promises his players they'll see Buckeye again. It's games like these that he hopes can help give notice to what's going on at Shadow Mountain—and the players responsible for it.
"I want to give back to the kids, to make sure they can go to school and get a free education," Bibby says. "That's all it's about for me right now." He adds: "I want to see these kids succeed."
And like that, Bibby is walking across the gym, fist-bumping friends before briefly unwinding with his family. Soon, he'll prepare for the team's third game in four nights. There's no rest for the hunted, but for now, Bibby can stop talking. The result speaks for itself.