by Lee Hurley Photos by Brit Huckabay
The dominance of Mountain Brook High School’s basketball program in the last decade is improbable. And yet probability has everything to do with its success. It’s called Bucky Ball. Part sweat, part math, part exuberance.
I interviewed Bucky McMillan at a small conference table across from his office in late July. I found him attentive and humble (he studied his phone while we were talking and then apologized saying, “I was sending you an image”) but also knowledgeable and confident. There were some things he asked me not to write about so I didn’t. And I am not rehashing the diversity issues here because that has been done already quite well. But the quickest way to get a rise out of Bucky is to insinuate that his players or their parents have done something unethical. Bucky is someone who understands the larger significance of his basketball team. He is causing us to rethink our community while preparing his players for a life of achievement. BOOM.
Bucky McMillan grew up on Peacock Lane with 2 brothers and a sister and graduated from MBHS in 2002. According to Maxpreps, Bucky scored over 1000 points in his time playing point guard. His junior year team reached the final four alongside standout player Beau McKinney. After high school Bucky played for Birmingham Southern, where he started 3 out 4 years. Just before Bucky’s senior year the schools’ beloved president Dr. Neal Berte retired and the incoming president decided to withdraw from Division 1 play, a move that caused several of Bucky’s teammates to leave. Bucky was offered outside scholarships, but he decided to stay at BSC. That agonizing decision paved the way for Bucky to begin volunteering with MBHS Coach Cornelius and soon after taking his place as one of the youngest head high school basketball coaches in the country. Interestingly Bucky’s father Bucky HW McMillan, elected at 29 to the Alabama Court of Appeals became one of the youngest judges in the country, proving that apple trees do tend to produce apples. Bucky’s dad was also one of the first volunteer coaches to begin taking Mountain Brook basketball teams to play outside the school system. That practice, so normal today, was novel in the 90s and helped the players become more competitive by the time they reached high school.
At 34 Bucky has been head coach for a decade. He was able to start so early because as he wryly put it, “I was good at math and able to financially get myself in a position where I could work for very little while learning how to coach.” Bucky’s record of 242-65-0 with four state championships and one runner up puts him in rarified air. With back-to-back state titles and a national ranking of 20th, Bucky was awarded Boys’ Basketball Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association, the first Alabama coach ever to win such a title.
In fact, Bucky McMillan and Nick Saban have some important similarities. Both men have attracted top level players by creating an atmosphere of achievement and success. Both instill a combination of ferocity and humility in their players. Both work their teams hard and themselves harder. Both have a process which looks at the game from a macro point of view.
I’ll be there, Paulie
Bucky did something a decade ago that is still cutting edge today, especially in high school basketball. He adopted an on court strategy based on analytics using a variety of resources who studied the mathematics of basketball (watch the movie Money Ball). “Losing a game is not a big deal to us as long as it’s in the better interest of a long term goal,” Bucky says. “In fact some of our longest practices have occurred after a win when I see us drifting away from our game.” Another trait of Bucky’s is to stay on the attack. “We force teams to react to us,” he says. Games seem like they are played in fast motion. That’s intentional of course. “We stress three principles: show up— give 100 percent effort, 100 percent of the time; sacrifice—be unselfish for the better of the team; be fearless—play with complete confidence.”
This season Mountain Brook is favored to win the state again. I ask Bucky a question he has heard many times before. Would you consider coaching at the next level? He answered this way. “When Paulie Stramaglia was in first grade he said, ‘Coach Bucky, will you still be our coach when I get to the high school?’ I said, “if you’re there, I’ll be there, Paulie.”