In basketball, much attention is paid to the players, and rightfully so. But watching a good coaching duel develop can be like watching a work of art being created in front of you.
TheDribbleDrop has always appreciated all facets of the game and will be linking with a distinguished high school basketball coaches every week to discuss the ins and outs of the game and what happens in-between the lines.
This week, Mater Dei head coach Ben Gamble. During our interview he discusses his time working at St.Anthony's alongside Coach Hurley, why so many kids turned to private schools over public schools, the keys to being a successful coach and more .
By Christian Mordi / @thedribbledrop on IG and Twitter
TheDribbleDrop: Coach for those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about your coaching and playing background.
Coach Gamble: From a player perspective, I played at St. Anthony’s under Coach Hurley. I graduated in 1981. I won state titles in 80’ and 81’. I played college ball at Walsh College for Bob Huggins, who is now the head coach at West Virginia. Right before the season I broke my arm. I came back home and ended up at Pace University.
As far as coaching, I have been coaching for over 23 years. I was at Kean University as an assistant in 1996. In 1997 I became the head coach at Hudson Catholic. I was there for three years. Lots of growing pains. I left Hudson Catholic in 1999. Went to St. Anthony’s and worked with Coach Hurley for 15 years.
During my time there we won 6 T.O.C. and two national championships. We also had four undefeated seasons. We also hold the state record for 83 straight victories. Around 2014-2015 I left St. Anthony’s and went to be the head coach at Cardinal Mccarrick. It was a down program. They only won a couple games in two or three years. I turned that program around. I won my first 19 games in a row there. We finished the year 21-5.
To my surprise, the school closed. Several high schools reached out. Coach Hurley wanted me to come back. The Patrick School wanted me over there with them as well. Mater Dei reached out to me. I wasn’t afraid of rolling my sleeves up. It wasn’t a school with a big basketball history, but I chose Mater Dei. I’ve been here for two years now. So far we have won the Shore County Championship back to back years. We also have finished top 10 in the state the past two years.
TheDribbleDrop: You played for and coached for 15 years alongside Coach Hurley. Tell me about that experience.
Coach Gamble: Coach used to always say “you need to see things through my eyes," so I developed a stronger eye of things by working alongside him. My game preparation became a lot better. I felt like I was prepared as a young coach but he helped me take it to another level. He gave me a lot of responsibility. I pretty much handled all the scouting reports. During the years that I was there he really never let anyone else handle those things. He also pretty much gave me complete control of the post players. He gave me a lot of freedom to grow.
When I was ready to go, I had a lot of positive things to take with me. I was ready to prepare teams in any hostile environment. My time there paid dividends.
One of the advantages I had was being apart of so many big national events. We have played against Dajuan Wagner. We have played against Andrew Wiggins. Countless great players. I can always stop practice and talk about those guys and what we did to prepare for them.
TheDribbleDrop: Your mentioned your first head coaching job was at Hudson. Tell me about that experience.
Coach Gamble: Things moved pretty quickly for me when I got into coaching. I did one year at Kean and then I got the Hudson Catholic job. At that time, I needed more schooling. I think it happened too fast. I thought that coming from the winning environment I came from that I could just put my foot down and it would work. Honestly, I was a losing coach when I started out. It was a lot more things I needed to do. I got lucky to get a second chance and did things a lot differently this time around. I try not to make the same mistakes.
I think I have a better relationship with the kids now. My game preparation is a lot better. I communicate a lot better with the parents as well. I’m just a lot of mature now. Early on, I didn’t handle certain things well.
TheDribbleDrop: If you were use one word to describe your coaching style, what would it be and why?
Coach Gamble: Intense. I think coming from my background. Playing and working at St. Anthony’s. Being around Coach Hurley.
TheDribbleDrop: You have seen the landscape of New Jersey basketball change a lot over the past decade or so. Private schools have been sweeping over things. Years ago many good players went to public schools. What are your thoughts on that?
Coach Gamble: Well I think one of the reasons you didn’t see as many kids moving on to private schools years ago was the fact that public schools were more stable. Now that isn’t the case. You may see a guy like Phil Colicchio from Linden, who has been there for more than a decade. He’s a great example. Kids stay because they know he will be there. He coaches the players up well and gets kids into college. But there is a lot more turnover in the public school coaching ranks. Then you have the influence of AAU now. Parents aren’t just using their judgement anymore. They are using the judgement of an AAU coach. I think that has a factor in things as well.
TheDribbleDrop: So as a young coach, are you saying that I should be wary of public school jobs?
Coach Gamble: No. To be honest with you and this is before I got to Hudson Catholic, I had an interview with St. Peter’s College. I got the interview due to putting in the work. I volunteered at clinics. People saw my face everywhere. I got a call from the head coach at the time. It was between myself and Nick Marinello. I think he picked me because he saw my work ethic.
For most young coaches, I observe their work ethic. You may not get monetary rewards sometimes when doing things, but you will get a reward down the road. Nothing will be more satisfying than preparing a kid for life. You have to live this. This is a 24-7 grind. The great ones constantly search for information on how to get better. Picking the brains of experienced coaches. That’s something I did. Not only was I under Coach Hurley for a long time, but I paid attention to everyone. I used to pay attention to Vanessa Watson when she was at Shabazz. Coach Farrell when he was at Seton Hall Prep. I watched and observed the way they led. You try to incorporate that to your teachings.
Some young coaches think they know it all. You have a long ways to go. I struggled as a young coach. I had a 5 win season. A 9 win season. Another 9 win season. But I never stopped working. I tried to pick everyones brains.
Young coaches need to just keep working. The hard work will get recognized. It doesn’t matter what school you are at.
TheDribbleDrop: How you prepare the team for the style of play in early season practices?
Coach Gamble: I changed my emphasis on things when I left St. Anthony’s. When I was there, it was a huge emphasis on team stuff. When I got my own program I didn’t worry too much about the summer. I just wanted my players to focus on skill development and individual improvement. I don’t put my kids in summer leagues as most of my kids play AAU. All I require is my kids to work on their game during the summer.
In the fall we make sure our guys do a lot of conditioning. We have a roomy campus, so we make sure our kids run a couple miles. I’ll get my guys in a fall league. I just want them to be mentally and physically in shape come the first day of practice.
TheDribbleDrop: Offensively, what is your ideal style of play?
Coach Gamble: I like to run. I want to get easy baskets in transition. Ideally I would like to create in space, but with structure. Really it depends on personnel. My first couple years I had good athletes and good guards. I spread the floor out and gave them room for some offensive freedom. If I had a couple big guys I would run a bit more high low and feed the ball down low in the paint.
TheDribbleDrop: Lets talk about the shot clock. New Jersey doesn’t have one. Ideally, what do you think is best for the players?
Coach Gamble: I don’t think the shot clock is a factor in regards to the development of our guys. I think we have to take into account that the range of skills can be wide from the top teams to the bottom teams. A shot clock can make some already lopsided games even worse.
When I was at St. Anthony’s, Danny Hurley was at St. Benedict’s and Coach Boyle was at St. Pats we played in countless national tournaments. Yearly we were ranked top 5 in America. We played in areas that had a shot clock, but it didn’t affect our style of play. I don’t know if the shot clock will help development.
I would like to see the college three point line though. That’s something that could help the kids develop.
TheDribbleDrop: You have one of the best guards in the state in Alexander Rice. What are some things you try to do to free him up?
Coach Gamble: Alexander is a good kid. It’s my job to prepare him for college. I don’t see him being a two in college. He will have to run point. Sometimes I take Kenny Jones off the ball and let Alex run point a bit. That will help him get more prepared down the line. His decision making is very good. One good thing about him is that he’s very open to suggestion for improvement. His dad is a very good basketball coach and so he’s had a very good background of teaching. He spent a year with Coach Hurley as well. He will be ready for college in the next couple of years.
TheDribbleDrop: If I was a new first year coach about to hit the floor for the first time, what piece of advice would you give me?
Coach Gamble: Be mindful of your body language and try to remain relaxed. Your team is going to follow your body language. If you are uptight your kids will be uptight. If you are loose and having fun, your kids will show that as well.
Every game you need to let the kids know it’s going to be okay and that you are well prepared.
TheDribbleDrop: How do you gauge success at Mater Dei?
Coach Gamble: Well I set the bar pretty high. My first year we were 26-2. I thought defensively they were as good as any team in the state. Last year we had 25 wins. I would like to win a state championship. That’s my goal. We are playing to try to achieve that.