Federal Way senior point guard Marcus Stephens said some of his fondest team memories took place off the basketball court this season. Courtesy of Dennis Box

Eagles’ success extends far beyond the court

For the first time all season, Federal Way basketball coach Jerome Collins couldn’t bear to watch his team.

With 7 minutes, 20 seconds left in the Eagles’ final game of the season Saturday, senior forward Rashon Slaughter heaved up a desperate 3-point attempt. When the shot fell short, Collins raised his head towards the heavens, eyes closed. When Curtis Vikings forward Nate Ward nabbed the rebound and started yet another fastbreak, Collins just couldn’t watch anymore.

He turned around, facing the Curtis fans. Collins refused to watch his team give up more easy transition points in its final game of the season. Collins called timeout moments later, but it was too late. The Vikings were up by 13, and they eventually won the game 70-62 in the boys basketball state tournament at the Tacoma Dome.

From start to finish, it was clear the Eagles’ loss to Richland two days earlier still lingered as they struggled to keep pace with the Vikings.

“Just couldn’t find the motivation to play,” a somber Collins said. “You could see it in the kids’ eyes. They were disappointed not playing for a title today. It was just difficult coming out here.”

Now, Federal Way (23-4) basketball fans are left to ponder the all important question for the next 10 months: What if?

What if the Eagles beat the 2017 basketball state champion Kentwood Conquerors three straight times? What if Federal Way put five players on the court against Richland instead of accidentally sending out an extra player?

If the Eagles had taken care of Kentwood, they likely would have been a lock for their third straight state championship. If Federal Way wasn’t hit with the technical foul, which resulted in the win for Richland, then it had 5.7 seconds to possibly win the game in regulation.

If Federal Way did all of that and won the state title, it would have ended the season on a 72-game win streak, 10 wins shy of tying Brewster for the state’s all-time win streak of 82 consecutive games from 1973-77.

Instead, the Eagles went 5-3 in the postseason and received the sixth-place state tournament trophy. Collins doesn’t live by what ifs, however. He expects his players each year to take responsibility for their actions, no matter the outcome.

“I don’t believe in [what ifs],” Collins said. “You make your own breaks, and you got to be disciplined in scenarios to function and come out on top. We didn’t do it. There’s no what ifs. Bottom line is we didn’t do it.

“You have to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves,” he added. “Unfortunately, through some of those errors, we didn’t do that.”

Federal Way still had a remarkable season.

The Eagles lost four starters from last season’s state championship team, including Division I talent Christian Jones.

Senior captains Malcolm Cola, the 4A boys basketball Player of the Year, and point guard Marcus Stephens led the team to a 23-win season this year.

The two not only led the team on the floor, combining for 34.5 points per game, they mentored this team off the floor, too.

“This year’s team didn’t just happen out of nowhere,” Stephens said.

Eagles fans saw the chemistry their players had on the floor. What they didn’t see was how Federal Way basketball developed its winning mentality off the floor.

Most of it was formed during the Eagles’ evening practices, but a good portion came from dinner invitations.

By the time games get out, most places in the city are closed and the streets empty. One place that’s still open by the time coaches and players file out of the gym at 9:30 or 10 p.m. is Buffalo Wild Wings.

The restaurant just so happens to be a sacred place for Eagles basketball.

That outlet pass from Stephens to Etan Collins or Cola that led to a dunk hours earlier? It was likely designed over a basket of wings and soda the week before.

“It’s funny,” Stephens said. “Coach doesn’t set up team dinners. We just end up having them. It’s after a game, and somebody will be like ‘let’s slide to Buffalo Wild Wings.’ It’s just fun times with a lot of laughter that we’ll never forget.”

It doesn’t stop there.

Even at school, the team is together. Outside of school, if the players aren’t together shooting hoops, they bond through technology, particularly Xbox One and NBA 2K17.

“We really only hang out with each other,” Cola said. “We have friends at school, but we’re really close. We’re brothers and friends.”

The eldest brothers, Cola and Stephens, now gear up for the next chapter of their lives with college basketball.

Stephens has serious interest from both the University of Montana and Seattle University. Redhawks assistant coach and head recruiter Lance LaVetter attended four home games this season. Stephens said he also has two nationally recognized junior college programs courting him, and he’ll likely start there.

Cola has also gotten attention from major college programs but said he’s not ready to make any decisions or reveal which programs have shown interest.

The two will hand their leadership roles over to upcoming seniors Etan Collins and Elijah Nnanabu for the 2017-18 season.

Jalen Womack, who will be a junior, has the hardest job of all within Federal Way basketball: Taking over the point guard role.

Both Jerome Collins and assistant coach Yattah Reed are successful former point guards. Stephens said the challenge of living up to their expectations is difficult, but no matter how hard they can be, Womack should embrace the role and everything that comes with it.

“Just listen,” Stephens said. “Listen as much as you can. Don’t try to know the answers, even if you do. Just listen. Take in everything (Collins and Reed) tell you. Keep your mouth shut and listen.”

It won’t be easy for the Eagles to replicate the success of the last three seasons with next year’s team, either. Jerome Collins spent much of the last game of this season trying to avoid watching that potential team unravel.

After the game, though, he couldn’t wait to get started on next season’s team.

“We’ll take a rest for a week or so, then start gearing up for next season.” Collins said. “We’re going to come back with some power. We’ll be back in the weight room and working on things. We had guys step up and play supportive roles they weren’t used to. We have to use that experience and push on down the road. Bottom line, we’ll be back.”