Breakout Year: Alexander emerges as leader for Ellender
Wed. January 29, 2014 at 11:42 a.m. | By Chris Singleton/Staff Writer
Ellender junior Leland Alexander (right) has emerged as one of the top players in the area this season. He is averaging close to 20 points and 15 rebounds a game per outing. (Photo by File Photo)
When Ellender High junior basketball player Leland Alexander needs inspiration, he takes a quick look at the blue-and-red studded state championship ring on his father's right hand.
The ring belongs to Leland's dad Larry Alexander, who was an assistant coach on Ellender's first — and only — boys basketball state championship team back in 1998.
Larry was an assistant coach at Ellender from 1996-2000 and head coach for the 2001-02 season. During Larry's years at Ellender, the Patriots made it to the Boys Top 28 state tournament four times, finishing as state champion in 1998 and state-runner up in 1997.
Leland grew up in the shadow of Ellender's glory days. He said he has spent most of his life looking at his father's ring, and he has heard countless stories about the great Ellender teams his father once coached.
"I hear about it a lot. Almost every day," Leland said. "He tells me about how they won a championship all the time and all the hard work it took to get there."
Leland said he has always wanted to play for Ellender and embrace the school's famed "32 Minutes of Pain" basketball style. He said the past success has inspired this year's team, which has a 20-3 overall and 3-0 District 7-4A mark this season, to go out and bring home Ellender's second state boys basketball title.
"We knew how good they were back then, so it just pushed us to go out and play harder like they did," Leland said. "We've got to play as a team and keep our intensity up, and I feel like we can win it the championship this year."
Leland, a 6-foot-3, 165-pound junior, has emerged as a breakout star for the Patriots. He leads the team with nearly 20 points per game and 15 rebounds per game this season.
Ellender coach Cornell Scott said Leland has continued to grow as a player since becoming a starter as a sophomore last year. Blessed with a long wingspan, Leland has the ability to block shots, nail jumpers and throw down crowd-pleasing slam dunks.
"Leland is big for us," Scott said. "He's a quiet leader. He leads by example. He put the work in at the weight room. It has shown in his maturation this year. With his physical presence, I could play Leland from the 1 position to the 5 (point guard to center). He does whatever he needs to help our team."
Leland said he has spent most of the offseason working out to improve his basketball skills and strength with Larry and his older brother Trey, a local boxer and trainer at Houma's Pro Athletic Performance (PAP) gym. He went from scoring six points a game last year to almost 20 a game this season.
"I see a whole lot of improvements in my game from last year," he said. "I really stepped it up this year. I'm more aggressive as a player, but I've got more improvements to make. There is room for improvement, so I'm going to keep working."
Leland's play, as well as his team's success this season, has caught the attention of his father.
"I told Leland that his team reminds me of when I was coaching some of those great teams," Larry said. "They've got good team chemistry. All of them want to win. They work hard. I can see them making a good run at the state tournament if they continue to play team ball and keep chemistry going. That's what it's going to take."
Since his days as a Biddy Basketball and a Terrebonne Recreation player, Leland said his father has been his biggest supporter and critic. They have spent many hours in the gym improving Leland's craft, and they take more time after games discussing areas of his game that need improving.
"He keeps me focused on the court," Leland said. "After every game, he keeps my stats like my rebounds, steals, blocks and points. He just shows me what part of my game I need to improve on. I'm thankful for having him. He showed me the game. He's really helped me a lot so I could be a great player. I'm grateful for what I have. I'm just glad that he's here."
Larry, a former prep basketball star who led St. James High to two state semifinal appearances in the 1980s, said he has been around the game long enough to know what it takes to make it to the next level. With former Ellender coach Sterling Washington, Larry coached some of the Patriots' biggest basketball stars such as Courtney Butler, Orlando Butler, Ernest Nixon, Tommie Jenkins and Wand Steward.
After years of working with other players, Larry said he spotted Leland's rising talent at an early age, which motivated him to pass on the knowledge of the game and stress the importance of hard work and dedication to his son.
"I'm very proud of him because I kind of push him to the limits," said Larry, who now works for Shell/Motiva Oil Company. "I try to get everything I could get out of him. Some players you don't push as hard because you know they don't have that potential to take it to the next level, but I think Leland has the potential to be a very good player, so I've tried to push him and get the best out of him."
Those high standards also apply in the classroom. Although the Alexanders love basketball, Larry said education comes first. Without good grades, Larry said his son wouldn't be allowed to play the game he has loved since age 7. Leland has responded by being a honor roll student at Ellender.
"My job is to keep him focused on academics first, and then being a great basketball player," Larry said. "He's been doing a great job of handling the constructive criticism. I teach him on the basketball court to do better, and his mom (Tracy Alexander) helps him with academics. We have a good combination and balance going."
Leland, who is starting to get looks from colleges, said his dream is to play college and pro ball, so he strives to excel on the court and in class.
"I love the game of basketball," Leland said. "I think basketball is going to be in my future. It's always good to have education. Without the A's or the B's, I wouldn't be able to play basketball. I have to keep my grades up to stay on the court."
As the regular season comes to an end, Leland said his attention will shift towards helping the Patriots prepare for their upcoming postseason run. Ellender is ranked at No. 11 in the current unofficial Class 4A state power ratings.
"Everybody is playing pretty well. We're having some good practices," Leland said. "We knew it was going to be a good season. We've got a lot of young people on our team. Everybody has their own role. Even if we struggle, somebody else is going to have a chance to step up."
He is hoping to lead the Patriots back to a state championship and get a ring of his own just like his father.
"If we keep working, I feel like we can win the championship this year," Leland said. "Everybody is going to have to step it up in the rest of the district games so we can good a good seed in the playoffs. I think we can win it all."