LITTLE ROCK — An on-court contest at Greenwood High School and an on-air conversation 30 years later illustrates the competitive nature of Arkansas’ new women’s basketball coach.
For a reason he can’t remember, Brian Evatt decided his senior year at Greenwood would be the right time to try out for the high school basketball team.
Coach H.B. Stewart called tryouts “Dog Days” for good reason, but, at one point, Stewart decided the players deserved a break from the grind and scheduled a one-on-one tournament, posting a huge bracket on a wall.
Looking back, Evatt says his status was similar to that of a “play-in team” in the NCAA Tournament — a representative from an obscure conference that is matched against the No. 1 seed — because Mike Neighbors was his first-round opponent.
“We were playing to five by ones,” Evatt said in an e-mail. “I toss it to him. Check. He throws it back and I immediately shot it, hoping to score before he guarded me too closely. It was a cheap shot, but I would take any advantage I could get.”
The shot was good.
“I saw Mike’s jaw tighten and I thought, ‘you messed up.’ Long story short, he beat me 5-to-1,” Evatt said.
Evatt also witnessed Neighbors’ withering look in hotly contested wiffle ball games. “If he cared that much about a wiffle ball game, I can’t imagine how driven he is to win now that he has his dream job,” he said.
“When I was 10, I cried when the Razorbacks lost,” Neighbors recently told Justin Acri and former Razorback Pat Bradley during their radio show. “My grandparents explained it was because I loved them so much.”
Before the new coach’s interview, Evatt shared some background about Neighbors with Acri.
Asked about competitive wiffle ball contests with running prohibited, Neighbors knew “Perch” had provided the inside info. Evatt picked up that moniker when he was new to Greenwood and kept passing the ball to a tall guy known as “Catfish.”
Evatt hasn’t seen Neighbors for years, but says members of the 1987 class keep in touch on social media. “He is one of the more nostalgic classmates,” he said. “He seems to remember every detail, and has many pictures from the school days.”
During the 18-minute radio interview, Neighbors admitted being competitive in shuffleboard and darts and recalled how he and a friend went at it after finding an Oklahoma City arcade with Pac-Man and other video games from a bygone era.
“If it’s got a time, a score, and a consequence at the end of it,” I will compete, Neighbors said.
Responding to an Acri query, Neighbors said cricket was his favorite dart game. Me, too, Acri said, casually mentioning a competition some day with the coach.
“Bring it. Bring it,” Neighbors said with enthusiasm easy to detect.
Communicating with Evatt and hearing Neighbors, there is no doubt the coach’s want-to will infect his players.
Also impressive was his response when asked about competing in the SEC, which provided both teams in the NCAA championship: “We can’t do impossible things. We can do hard things.”
He admitted that during most of his years as an assistant, he was fixated on Xs and Os. At Washington, head coach Kevin McGuff told Neighbors he needed to focus more on recruiting and tasked him with signing Kelsey Plum. The highly recruited athlete agreed to play 1,200 miles north of her California home, but McGuff took the Ohio State job on a Monday and the school released Plum from her letter of intent the following day. At the time, Neighbors was prepared to join McGuff in Columbus.
“If you stay, I stay,” Plum said in a text to Neighbors.
Once Neighbors is settled, the message from the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and the No. 1 pick in the recent WNBA draft will be framed and displayed on his desk.
A competitor with a soft side is a winning combination.
Harry King is sports columnist for GateHouse Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: email@example.com.