With Eight State Championships To His Name, Rainier Beach Boys Basketball Coach Mike Bethea Looks To Win Another One
by Jacob Uitti
Even though he’s won eight state championships and coached some of the most talented and successful players in the world in his nearly 25-year career, Rainier Beach high school boys basketball coach Mike Bethea approaches each season like it’s his very first.
But his actual first season almost never happened. Bethea, whose alumni include 18-year National Basketball Association (NBA) veteran Jamal Crawford and San Antonio Spurs starting guard Dejounte Murray, had to be convinced to take the head coaching job at Rainier Beach in 1994 and again to stay on staff, once the season ended.
Bethea, then 35, was an assistant at Rainier Beach when the 1994 season began. The following year, though, the team’s head coach, Francis Williams, said he felt burnt out on the job and talked about quitting. Bethea suggested the two finish the season and figure out the next move afterwards. But the following morning, Williams gave his notice and the job of interim head coach rested on Bethea’s shoulders. He completed the season, but thought that would be the end of it.
“After the season, the Athletic Director, a guy named Robert Johnson, sat me down,” Bethea, now 61, remembered. “He asked me to apply for the full-time head coaching position. I told him I wasn’t interested and that he should open up the search to find somebody else who wants it. But he said, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m not going to do any of that. I’m going to name you head coach and if you want to resign after that, that’s up to you.’”
Bethea accepted, thinking the job would last just one more year, while the school found a more suitable replacement.
He’s been there ever since. The 2018-19 season begins Nov. 30 with a game at Seattle Prep.
“I think not wanting to do it was more than likely a little bit of doubt,” he said of not immediately accepting the job. “I was so new to coaching and I didn’t have full confidence in my ability. It was another big challenge for me. I sat back and thought, ‘What can we do with it?’”
At the time, the athletic director’s expectations for the program were to compete with other local powerhouses like O’Dea High School and Franklin High School, where future NBA champion Jason Terry played. But Bethea had higher hopes. If he were to sign on and take the reins, he wanted to run one of the best high school basketball programs in the country. And in 2003, less than 10 years into Bethea’s tenure, Rainier Beach ranked number one in the nation.
“I’m that shoot-for-the-stars-and-moon type of guy,” Bethea said.
Growing up, Bethea didn’t immediately gravitate toward basketball. He played football and ran track, but when his friends began picking up hoops in junior high in 1970, Bethea followed. He was a good athlete, and took to the game. As an adult, he learned about the sport’s ins-and-outs from local mentors, including his own high school coach and from his friend, Seattle University standout Gary Ladd. Later, as his own coaching career blossomed, Bethea struck up a friendship with Seattle Supersonics head coach George Karl, who still ranks sixth in all-time NBA victories.
But before Bethea’s legend could grow, he had to win his first title, which he did in 1998 to great fanfare. During Rainier Beach’s first championship run under Bethea, the school set the record for highest attendance in the now-defunct King Dome. As Jamal Crawford, then the team’s best player, led Rainier Beach through the playoffs, some 50,000 fans bought tickets to the championship games. The final game drew a whopping 20,000 people.
“That was the Jamal Crawford breakout party,” says Bethea, “It was something right out of a book, surreal. I couldn’t even imagine how it felt to win one until we won.”
Bethea, who calls the Northwest a “goldmine” of basketball talent, has since coached hundreds of kids: Crawford, NBA Slam Dunk Champion Nate Robinson, Dejounte Murray. In other local high schools, pros like NBA All-Star Brandon Roy and promising 2018 rookie Michael Porter Jr. have made names for themselves. Coaching and engaging such top talent, even at a young age, might seem daunting for some. But Bethea thrives on it, keeping his message simple.
“My biggest philosophy is to play hard,” said Bethea, who still keeps in regular contact with his graduates in the pros. “We’ve always been an up-tempo team. On the court, we want to make the other team play faster than they want to play. If we can get the other team out of their comfort zone, that plays right into our hands.”
The discipline of winning has lasting effects on and off the court. In all of his players, Bethea aims to foster an environment of maturity and understanding, noting that urgency is good. Some understood this idea immediately and others needed him to lean on them.
One such student was Keith Wheeler, a student who joined the team in the mid-1990s.
“He was headed in the wrong direction,” Bethea said. “He tells me that I played a big part in his life, had an influence on him. Today, he’s one of the top motivational speakers in the whole word and the Superintendent for the South Central section of the L.A. school district.”
Bethea’s teams won the state championship in 1998, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016 and finished second in 2001, 2004, 2015, 2017 and 2018. But he’s not one to brag. In fact, he hardly considers his accomplishments, remembering losses more clearly than any victory.
Most recently, Rainier Beach lost in the 2018 State Finals. But Bethea said he felt proud. The team fielded a lot of young and inexperienced players, he said. There weren’t high expectations for the group outside the Rainier Beach community.Yet, after a great deal of hard work, Rainier Beach made the final game and came within nine points in overtime of earning another crown.
This year, though, many in the South End hope the team’s earlier-than-expected success portends more of the same this year, with the squad potentially ending the upcoming season with a win as they have eight times prior under Bethea. With decades of experience on his resume, Bethea is confident, and focused on another lofty goal: his next championship banner.
“This year we want to put another one on the wall,” he says. “That means win another state championship.”
Featured Photo by Waz-Mix Pix.