LEXINGTON — Boundless energy and unbridled determination helped A.W. Hamilton maximize his gifts on the basketball court. Those same ingredients have made him a rising star in the coaching ranks.
No surprise, then, that Hamilton’s 34-minute, keynote speech Friday night to the Georgetown/Scott County Chamber of Commerce awards banquet was delivered without the assistance of notes or a podium.
“My parents [Bill and Deni] would tell you I’m ADHD, so I’ve got to move around a lot,” Hamilton quipped.
The latest upward move in his profession doubled as a return to Hamilton’s roots.
Twenty years separated from his steady point guard play on the first of Scott County High School’s two KHSAA state championship teams, Hamilton was handed the keys to his first NCAA Division I program, Eastern Kentucky University, last spring.
Hamilton emphasized the highlights of how he made that full circle in an inspirational speech heavily laced with humor and appreciation for the community that fueled his passion.
“One of the proudest things in my life is I’m from Georgetown, Kentucky,” he said.
Basketball holds a prominent place in the county’s identity, of course, but Hamilton’s own family tradition was equally strong.
His grandfather played and later coached the game. So when Hamilton informed his parents after his eighth-grade year that he wanted to give up baseball and soccer to focus on the court, they sent him to Alabama for the summer to soak up some of that hardwood wisdom from his grandfather.
Before the immersion was complete, Hamilton’s grandfather gave him the task of writing out five goals — suitable for lamination and taping to a mirror — for his high school career.
Hamilton settled on making the SCHS varsity team as a freshman, becoming a starter his sophomore year, leading the school to that elusive state title, being named one of the top five players in Kentucky, and earning a Division I scholarship.
The first two pieces fell into place, setting the stage for the third, achieved with unforgettable wins over Lexington Catholic and Paintsville on the same Saturday in 1998.
“If we played them 10 times, they probably would have beat us 9 1/2, but it doesn’t matter,” Hamilton said. “We were better for that one night.”
Being part of that run as a junior earned Hamilton the coveted top-five recognition going into his senior campaign. Still, no major programs came calling. Hamilton’s coach, the plain-spoken and brutally honest Billy Hicks, told him it was because he’d put his emphasis on the game too far ahead of his academics.
To rectify that situation, Hamilton took a one-year detour to Hargrave Military Academy. It was an all-boys’ prep school in Chatham, Virginia, a town that boasted few of the world’s turn-of-the-century trappings.
“All my friends are going to Kentucky, Louisville, Western, Eastern, all these schools,” Hamilton said.
“Now I want you to picture Chatham, Virginia. It’s like Stamping Ground, Kentucky. No offense to Stamping Ground. I love Stamping Ground, but it’s small.”
The elite program further developed Hamilton’s game, but it also did wonders for the all-important academic side of the equation.
“My ACT score went from 16 to 26,” he recalled. “As soon as that happened, I had all these offers. Michigan State, Tulane. Florida State, Western Kentucky. I ended up going to Wake Forest University, in the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference], one of the top academic schools in the country.”
There, after one season, came another bump in the road. The coach who lured Hamilton, Dave Odom, left for the job at South Carolina and was replaced by Xavier’s Skip Prosser, a notoriously good recruiter.
Maybe a little too good.
“He signs a guy named Chris Paul. We played the same position. Chris Paul is making about $20 million a year [today, with the NBA’s Houston Rockets], and I’m up here speaking to you on a Friday night,” Hamilton said, eliciting laughter. “This is where I show you my education paid off: I transferred.”
Hamilton played three years at Marshall University, then served a year there as a graduate assistant, where the realities of the job were far less glamorous than he’d imagined.
“For a whole year I was the best at folding and stuffing our recruiting letters,” Hamilton said.
“I did a thousand of them a day, then walked across campus to put them in the mail.”
His former coach at Hargrave, Kevin Keatts, brought Hamilton aboard as an assistant the next year, promising $10,000 and a fully furnished apartment. Hamilton said he later found out that amounted to a futon and a small TV set.
When Keatts ended his wildly successful tenure at Hargrave to become an assistant at the University of Louisville, Hamilton’s loyalty paid off with a promotion. He amassed 237 wins against only 22 losses in his own six years at the helm, leading Hargrave to the 2016 national title.
Keatts called again to offer his protege an assistant coaching job at North Carolina State prior to the 2017-18 season. Others scoffed, Hamilton said, when he told them he wanted it to be a one-year stop before stepping up to lead his own program.
Hamilton said he learned of the job opening at EKU while flying back from N.C. State’s appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“For two weeks I stalked the athletic director [Stephen Lochmueller] at Eastern Kentucky. I called him, I sent him texts. I sent him stuff in the mail. Anything I could do to get his attention,” Hamilton said. “I decided if they weren’t going to hire me, they were sure as hell gonna remember who A.W. Hamilton was.”
Winning the job didn’t immediately translate to a huge spike in wins on the court: Eastern made a modest jump in that category from 11 to 13. But Hamilton’s infectious presence and EKU’s full-tilt-for-40-minutes style were a smash hit at the turnstiles. His team was among the national leaders in scoring, steals and forced turnovers.
Now, recalling his grandfather’s motivational tactic of yesteryear, Hamilton hangs his personal and program goals for all to see. Chief among them: Winning an Ohio Valley Conference championship; making a Cinderella run during March Madness; becoming successful enough to write each of his three children a check for $1 million when they grow to adulthood (not to mention $10 million for his wife, Chelsea); and building the largest charitable foundation in his home state.
Want to bet against him? Hamilton told the crowd he welcomes doubters.
“I want Eastern Kentucky to be a national brand,” Hamilton said.
“I want more people to tell me we can’t do it, because that will push me even harder to do it. I want people thinking, ‘Eastern Kentucky’s coach, he’s a little bit delusional,’ because that helps me.”
Kal Oakes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.