Nate Oats, loyal to the end, protects star Brandon Miller at Alabama


NASHVILLE — The basketball coach’s Friday started with a celebration: players and staffers surrounding him at Alabama’s team breakfast and singing “Happy Birthday” to 7-foot center Charles Bediako on the morning he turned 21. There were hugs. Laughs. Pledges that this may be just the start of an extraordinary, potentially historic stretch.

Nate Oats kept smiling as noon came and went, and his Crimson Tide rewarded him with a blowout of Mississippi State in the SEC tournament quarterfinals. Alabama was physical, fast, merciless in transition and from three-point range — a vision Oats has been teaching and attempting to realize for two decades. Bediako had five “birthday blocks,” Oats said, and was awarded the honorary plastic hard hat for scoring the most “blue-collar points.”

Brandon Miller, the first player to be the SEC’s freshman of the year and solo player of the year since Anthony Davis led Kentucky to the national championship 11 years ago, scored 18 points in his homecoming to Tennessee before celebrating with Crimson Tide fans near the tunnel.

“It’s a great group of kids. They all love each other,” Oats told reporters. “Everybody always says they’re going to have great culture at the beginning, and you go through the season and face adversity. Your culture gets tested a little bit, and our guys really have responded.”

That adversity would seem to include the fact that a Crimson Tide player, Darius Miles, was charged with capital murder in January after he allegedly provided the firearm that killed a 23-year-old woman in Tuscaloosa. (Miles was quickly removed from the team.) Among the supposed tests to Alabama’s culture are that police say Miller, the best player on the nation’s baddest team, delivered the gun to the crime scene after Miles texted Miller asking for it. Another man, Michael “Buzz” Davis, is alleged to have fired the shots that killed Jamea Jonae Harris.

An attorney for Miller said Miller’s vehicle was struck by bullets but that he “never touched the gun, was not involved in its exchange to Mr. Davis in any way, and never knew that illegal activity involving the gun would occur.”

Oats has said Miller did nothing wrong, and therefore he has faced no discipline. Nor has Jaden Bradley, another Alabama player who police say was also at the scene. In Miller’s first game after being publicly linked to the deadly shooting, he scored 41 points and made the winning basket — his best outing of a dominant season.

It’s a season in which the Crimson Tide is in line to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and could reach the Final Four for the first time — but one “stained in the blood of Jamea Harris,” the victim’s stepfather recently told, “and it’s not ever washing out.”

Oats, 48, directs a fast-paced, mega-physical style that has lifted Alabama from a men’s basketball backwater to near the top of the mountain. Now he presides over an unprecedented moment and a widely debated example of sports anthropology: What do you do when the biggest opportunity and the greatest controversy of your coaching career are happening at the same time and centering on the same player?

“It’s got to be very conflicting,” said Bobby Hurley, the former Duke superstar who, as coach at the University at Buffalo a decade ago, plucked Oats out of the Michigan high school coaching ranks. “It’s easy for me to say how I might’ve handled it, but I don’t think that’s fair or appropriate for me because I’m not living it.”

Hurley, now at Arizona State, said any good coach’s first instinct is to protect his or her players. Teams are insular, us-against-the-world micro-communities, and American culture tends to lionize those who close off the rest of the world, ignore criticism and win anyway. Coaches are painted as parental figures and the shepherds of a young person’s future, and in no other sport is this more true than college basketball.

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There are legions of young men who played for Oats and say better futures were possible because of him. When Will Clyburn, who played for Oats at Romulus High outside Detroit, was about to drop out of school and get a job because his family couldn’t afford the rent, it was Oats who talked him out of it, Oats who took him on college visits and Oats who tutored him so he could graduate on time.

Clyburn said he doesn’t know Miller or the details of the situation in Tuscaloosa, but he knows the covenant made by coaches, prospects and their families. Miller grew up in Antioch, Tenn., a suburban area of Nashville, a city that historically has pushed Black residents to the outskirts and deeper into generational poverty.

A 2022 study reported a 36 percent increase in Nashville’s murder rate from the previous year, and Tennessee has the eighth-highest rate of gun homicides in the country. Antioch, just a dozen miles southeast of Nashville’s sparkling city center, has experienced the following in the past six years: one dead, seven injured at a church in 2017; four dead, four injured at a Waffle House in 2018; and four shot, two fatally, at a pool party in 2022.

“Oats probably sat in his living room, talked to this guy’s parents, said he’s going to treat him as one of his own,” Clyburn said. “He’s got to stick by him, no matter what. I don’t think anybody is going to throw their child under the bus, because that’s what these kids are to these coaches. You’re going to have his back until you can’t have it anymore.”

Oats and Alabama have tested this idea to its extreme — resulting in repeated public-relations missteps. Less than three weeks after one of Oats’s players was handcuffed and led into Tuscaloosa County Jail, the university announced a contract extension that raised the coach’s salary to an average of $5 million per year. Last month, Oats apologized for saying Miller had simply been at the “wrong spot at the wrong time” on the night of the shooting, then apologized again days later when Miller received a “pat down” from a teammate during player introductions before a game. Oats claimed he was unaware of the ritual, which preceded Harris’s killing, and said it was intended to mimic an airport security check — that Miller was “cleared for takeoff.”

“We, as the adults in the room, should have been more sensitive to how it could have been interpreted,” Oats said. “I dropped the ball. That’s it — I dropped the ball on it. I can assure you it won’t happen again.”

If Oats is adored by current and former players for his unyielding commitment to having their backs, peers have occasionally taken note of how far he will take it. During a decade in which he built Romulus into a state power, Oats learned a player had gotten into a fight during class and wouldn’t be allowed to graduate on time. According to a former assistant, Oats called the assistant principal who handled discipline, then the principal, then the human resources director, then the school board president — eventually finding someone who would overturn a ruling Oats saw as unjust.

“Whatever we’re going to do,” former top assistant Josh Baker said, “we’re not ruining his life over this. [Oats] is as loyal of a person as you’re going to find.”

At Buffalo, Oats recruited Justin Moss, whom he had coached at Romulus, to play for Hurley. Moss had been dismissed from a community college in Iowa and then found himself on probation at Buffalo for stealing. A few months after Moss was named Mid-American Conference player of the year and led the Bulls to their first NCAA tournament appearance, he and two other basketball players stole $650 from the dorm room of two football players. Oats, who had recently replaced Hurley as head coach, spent two months fighting for Moss to remain in school and eligible to play before the university’s student judiciary expelled him.

The two other players — one of whom was another former Romulus star — were allowed to remain on the team, though Oats suspended them for the season opener.

Miller did not go to Romulus, but he is one of Oats’s guys. The coach has defended his star forward, even as media pressure escalates and opposing crowds chant “Lock him up!” when Miller shoots free throws. Has Oats gone too far in protecting a player who could help him cut down the nets at the NCAA tournament? Or has he done precisely what a coach is supposed to do?

“Everybody’s got an opinion,” said Marlin Simms, who coached Miller at Cane Ridge High. “Every kid has their own story, and nothing you can say to me will make me think he did anything wrong that night. All you can do is support kids if you love kids.”

Shortly before tip-off Friday, Simms wore a white sweatshirt emblazoned with photos of Miller as he watched his former player warm up.

“I agree with Coach Oats,” Simms continues. “But I’m biased. I’m very biased.”

Oats spent his Friday afternoon being whisked from one postgame interview to the next. Supporters patted his back in a corridor at Bridgestone Arena, and he spoke glowingly about his players, his system, his team.

“A good start to the tournament,” he said. “The question is: Can we continue to play like this for the next two days?”

Or through the remainder of March and into April? One of Oats’s longtime friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the coach, wondered if a Final Four berth would validate the past two months for Oats. Or would a national championship make the experience worth it? The friend said he hopes Oats’s choices have been driven less by on-court glory than by his support of a college freshman who, in a few months via the NBA draft, is likely to become a millionaire overnight and have a chance to uplift his family and the community where he grew up.

Still, the friend said, “I would’ve suspended him probably indefinitely.”

Oats has built a career on going for it — and on taking chances. Oats used to call in sick from his job teaching math at Romulus because he was visiting UCLA or the Memphis Grizzlies to watch practice and learn new plays and strategies. One year he visited Pepperdine, where Coach Vance Walberg was something of a math whiz himself.

“Every time you shoot the ball,” Walberg said now, “wouldn’t it be nice to get three points instead of two?”

His “dribble drive” strategy was that driving toward the basket and taking three-pointers are the most efficient ways to score, and players who shot midrange jumpers during practice had to run laps. If they did so during games, they would be benched. It was Walberg’s way to protect his team’s hopes even during a poor shooting game.

“This is it,” Baker, the former Romulus assistant, remembers Oats saying. “This is the system.”

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They returned to Michigan and followed Walberg’s formula, and soon Romulus was beating opponents by 20 and 30 points, advancing further than it ever had in the state tournament. Oats went 93-7 in his last four seasons and won seven straight conference championships. Weeks after Oats’s team won the 2013 state championship, Hurley offered him a college job, and Oats jumped. He brought Walberg’s concepts with him, as well as a willingness to recruit junior college transfers, who generally are perceived as prospects who can help a coach win sooner but come with more risk. With Oats as Hurley’s defensive specialist and ace recruiter, Buffalo signed more transfers in two years than Hurley’s predecessor had in 14.

Moss got expelled, Hurley went to Arizona State, and now Oats could mold the program as he saw fit. He kept filling his roster with win-now guys who could shoot the three and attack the rim, and Buffalo reached the NCAA tournament in three of his four seasons.

Alabama called in 2019, and with Power Five resources, he didn’t need so many junior college players. His first full recruiting class wound up ranked 12th in the country and included a 6-foot-7 wing named Darius Miles. “Tremendous upside,” Oats said.

In 2020-21, Alabama attempted more three-pointers than all but three schools in college basketball and wore opponents out with its suffocating tempo. Oats studied postgame reports from a third-party analytics firm and found that the key to victory is shooting at least 30 three-pointers per game. That season, the Crimson Tide attempted 43 during a win against LSU, and it was Miles who made Alabama’s 23rd three-pointer to set the SEC record.

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On Friday against Mississippi State, Alabama had a relatively cold shooting day, but in part because Walberg’s system protects teams from that, Oats’s team still won by 23.

After Alabama handled Missouri in an SEC semifinal Saturday, the Crimson Tide is a win away from the conference tournament title, then four more from the NCAA’s Final Four. That makes Oats’s mastery of his sport’s empirical data and math-don’t-lie philosophy difficult to call into question. But the gray areas seem to befuddle him. On Friday, he went on about defensive turnover percentage and scoring efficiency but muttered rehearsed answers about why Miller was allowed to play and why it took a police detective to disclose that three Alabama players had been at a crime scene in January.

“Everybody was comfortable, and, I mean, based on the information we had, Brandon didn’t break any school policy or team policy,” he said. “So I was comfortable with the decision that was made.”

Two months after a young woman lost her life, has a coach who seems to value humanity and compassion spoken with the victim’s family?

“What you ask is a private matter I’m not going to discuss publicly with everybody,” he said. “A lot of this is just hard to deal with, to be honest with you.”

“It’s a private matter,” he said.

About 200 miles south of Bridgestone Arena, DeCarla Cotton’s Friday evening started with rush-hour Taco Bell. Kaine, her 5-year-old grandson, wanted a chicken quesadilla and a blue raspberry slushie.

“For you,” she told him, “I will get in traffic tonight.”

Almost two months ago, Cotton had spent a few days thinking about how to tell the boy his mother was gone. She would muster the words, then feel a wave of anger and sorrow about how her daughter died, then flee into the next room before Kaine saw her crying. She’s an angel now, she eventually told him.

No, Cotton said, Oats hasn’t reached out. Nor has anyone from Alabama. Doing so now, she said, wouldn’t feel genuine. “Everybody has seen the way he’s talked about what he knew, what he didn’t know,” Cotton said. “It’s a whole mess. Just a mess.”

Those surrounding the Alabama basketball program insist it’s their job to protect a young person’s future, to prevent the events and uncertainty of Jan. 15 to stain a life permanently. The same is true in this home outside Birmingham, where Cotton has temporarily suspended her grief amid worries that Kaine will grow up angry and resentful.

“Just his future, just overall,” she said. “I worry about how he’s going to cope in the years to come. He’s small, and you kind of explain things visually, but I know there’ll be a day he’s old enough to go to Google and try to figure out things on his own.”

She lets out a long sigh.

“You want to say the right things to him as a small child,” Cotton continues, “but you want him to understand.”

It’s almost impossible, she admits, given the boy’s age and the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death. Earlier that day, Cotton’s husband, Kelvin Heard, had the news on television when a photo of Jamea came on the screen during a report about Alabama’s basketball team. Cotton whisked Kaine out of the room and told Heard to turn off the TV.

Among other reasons, Cotton said, she doesn’t want Kaine to blame basketball. He used to talk about being a ninja when he grows up, but now he says he wants to play hoops. Cotton said she doesn’t want him to associate the game with tragedy, even though that will be the theme of whatever NCAA tournament run Alabama may or may not make.

Since it was Friday, Cotton let Kaine stay up later than usual and play Roblox on his tablet. When the game ended and Cotton locked the device, Jamea’s picture came up as the wallpaper. Kaine’s eyes filled with tears, and his grandmother wrapped him in a hug.

“I miss my mom,” he said.

“She’s still in our hearts,” Cotton told him.

Then she handed Kaine his light-up teddy bear in an angel costume, suggesting that if he gave it a hug, his mother might feel it. He hugged it, then his grandmother, and she tucked him into bed with a kiss on the cheek.

“We always say we’re going to be brave,” she told him, the last thing the boy heard as another long, emotional day ended.

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