By ARIA JONES
In the summer of 1998, 21-year-old Anthony Fletcher knew he was going to get cut from his college basketball team. Angelo State University had hired a new head coach, Joe Esposito, to rebuild a program that hadn’t won many games. Esposito met with each of the players. Many came out of his office crying after being told they wouldn’t be on the team anymore.
Fletcher knew his fate before entering Esposito’s office. He would be entering his senior year without playing basketball. He couldn’t do that. He’d have to transfer to stay involved with college basketball.
“Can I work for you?” he said to Esposito, insistent about remaining with the program. “Can I be a manager? I’ll wash uniforms.”
Esposito wasn’t sure about it at first, but Fletcher wasn’t ready to give up. He spoke with the assistant coach and Esposito accepted. Fletcher worked for free as a student manager his senior year and was hired as a graduate assistant coach the next.
He worked 60-80 hours a week, sweeping the floor, helping with practice, speaking to recruits, recording the games, doing laundry and whatever else was asked of him as long as he could be part of the team.
He also taught a physical education class. He made only $8,000 a year. And he loved it.
“I knew that I wanted to use the game of basketball to be able to provide for my family one day, and I knew that going in and doing everything the coach asked me to do,” he said. “Whatever they needed to help them I wanted to do, because I wanted to be them one day.”
On Jan. 26, in his 20th season as a basketball coach, Fletcher earned his 300th career win. The Harvesters defeated the Cedar Valley Suns in a 112-76 blowout. The team won by 36 points, but in the beginning, Fletcher didn’t know how the game would play out. The Harvesters had suffered two consecutive losses in away games, one against Mountain View College and the other against Richland College. Then, a day before the game, team captain and starter Scott Garriga had a minor ankle sprain that took him out of the game.
The Harvesters came onto their home court with a crowd. Players from the volleyball team, students, employees and high school students cheered for the team from the stands. The Harvesters pulled ahead early, and with less than five minutes left in the first half, the team had an 18-point lead.
Fletcher yells a sophomore’s name across the court.
The player didn’t go into the free throw lane; he knows one of his teammates can get the rebound.
Fletcher sends another Harvester in to get him off the court.
“He has got to stop,” Fletcher says.
As Fletcher walks toward him, he begins to stand.
“Sit down,” he says to the player.
Haywood tries to explain himself.
“No. Let me talk to you.”
Fletcher walks the player away from the bench and sets his focus on the conversation. Haywood getting the rebound is a non-negotiable for Fletcher.
Scholarships are the most important thing to Fletcher, and good stats help his players have a better chance of recruitment. Haywood is “big and strong,” and because of that, Fletcher knows the best chance of him getting scholarships is having as many rebounds and double doubles as possible. This means being in the free throw line to get rebounds.
“At the end of the day, I have to promote,” he said. “I’ve got to have them being marketable because I bust my butt to get them scholarships to the next level. If every rebound is important, he may not have that big picture, but I do.”
After games, Fletcher posts his players’ stats on social media for four-year coaches to see. When the team plays well, he knows he has more material for the highlight video he will make at the end of the season.
He keeps a detailed list of how many of his students have gone on to four-year colleges, what degrees they earned and their athletic and academic accomplishments. So far, 121 players have moved on to the next level, securing more than $2 million in scholarships, and 108 have earned degrees. Four have been awarded master’s degrees.
Kevin Harvey was a shooting guard for the Harvesters from 2009 to 2011. Harvey transferred to the University of Saint Mary and returned to coach and earn his master’s there in 2017. Now he is an assistant coach for their women’s basketball team and expects to earn his degree in May.
“[Fletcher] set a good example for me because of how he ran a program and how to help kids,” Harvey said. “It’s doing more for the kids instead of wins and losses.”
Harvey said he remembers how much Fletcher wanted players to get a degree and better their lives. He remembers Fletcher sending his highlight tapes to coaches he knew and coaches he didn’t know.
“He was just working endlessly for not only me but my teammates as well,” he said.
To Fletcher, the 300 wins achievement isn’t for him. It’s for his players. He is already thinking about how his career milestone can help him market them to four-year colleges.
“I’m happy for them,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s all for them.”
Courtney Fletcher, his wife, said that many of his players get scholarships to multiple colleges, but he does research on the colleges and their coaches to find the best fit for his players.
“That’s his passion, to get these boys not just winning at Eastfield, but really winning at life,” she said. “Get them on to a four-year school where they’re going to be successful.”
The road to coaching
Fletcher has had a lifelong love of basketball. He grew up with a basketball net in his backyard in Mesquite. He remembers trying to coach other kids growing up.
“You go there! You go here!” he would holler at the other kids.
He first visited Eastfield in 1987 as a seventh grader for a summer basketball camp hosted by former Dallas Maverick Rolando Blackman. Coach Robert Flickner, the former athletic director and head basketball coach, remembers Fletcher from back then.
“He was just a delightful little kid at that time,” he said.
Fletcher played on the junior varsity team at Poteet High School. His sophomore year, his future with basketball became uncertain when he was injured during Christmas break.
While playing a game of pickup ball, his friend went for a dunk and Fletcher tried to block him. When they collided, the force was so great it knocked his shoulder clean out of the socket. The dislocation took him off the court for the rest of the school year. As a junior, he didn’t make varsity. Despite his disappointment, he kept playing anyway.
“Most guys look at it as, ‘JV as a junior? No way, man. That’s embarrassing,’” he said. “I didn’t care. I just wanted to play basketball.”
After he graduated, he ended up at Angelo State University, but after not playing his senior year, he wasn’t a part of their basketball team.
As a college sophomore, he saw a player practicing in the gym and wasn’t impressed. He thought to himself, “If he can play, I can play.”
Fletcher had been off the court for two years, but from that moment forward, he did whatever was needed to become a part of the basketball program. He signed up for classes he didn’t need to take, like bowling, to make sure the coaches remembered his name and face, and eventually he earned his spot on the team as a walk-on.
He played for the team until Esposito was hired. As an assistant coach, he would often drive four hours across Texas to watch a game and four hours back to the college, working 12 hours before he even sat down to do paperwork. But he was learning, preparing for a time when he would get to lead his own program.
After games, he and the other assistant coaches would head to Esposito’s house. With a big bucket of Popeye’s chicken in tow, they would sit on the blue, pinstripe couch in his living room and pop in the VHS tape of that night’s game. After each play, Esposito would stop and rewind the tape, over and over again to break down each play. He wasn’t going to stop until every play was reviewed, even if it meant staying up until 3 a.m.
When Esposito left the room, one of the coaches would fast forward the tape by 10 minutes or so, hoping he wouldn’t notice, but he always did. This helped Fletcher understand good and bad plays and taught him the work ethic he has today.
“There’s no excuses. There are no sick days,” Fletcher said. “You’ve got to get it done. That’s just part of being a coach.”
Two years after being cut, Fletcher, under Esposito’s leadership, would help take the team to a Lonestar Conference Championship win with a record of 11-1.
Education and family
While the Harvesters were earning Fletcher his 300th win, his mother, Olga Fletcher, watched from behind the bench. The team had returned to the court after halftime. In the first five minutes, the team extended their lead to 30.
“Rebound! Come on! Rebound!” she yells at the team.
Fletcher is following the game closely. He throws his hands in the air and yells before he crosses his arms and paces away from the team. Olga chuckles. He reminds her of what she would have done when she played recreational basketball as a kid. She has always loved the game.
“From an educational standpoint, he has a vested interest in seeing all his students do the best they can,” she said.
In Fletcher’s family, education has always been viewed as the key to success.
“It’s something that I’ve always believed in,” she said. “You have to have education to be able to take care of yourself.”
Olga Fletcher grew up in public housing in Louisville, Kentucky, and left her parent’s home when she was 18 to pursue her degree at Kentucky State University and earn her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in biology and her master’s in public affairs.
Her first semester of graduate school she had Fletcher. When she earned her master’s degree a year later, she saw more opportunity for work in Dallas.
Olga started her professional career in the healthcare industry, one she has now had for 40 years. Fletcher was 3 years old when they moved, and she always reminded him that she got her degree.
When he acted like he was the smartest person in the room, she would say, “Well, I got my degree.” He hoped one day he would be able to say that back to her. Fletcher saw this as a challenge, he knew from a young age that he was going to get his degree.
“I knew that he was motivated, and it was something he would do,” she said. “He was always the quiet child. He was always responsible. He took care of what he was going to do. I had no doubts he would get that degree.”
He got his master’s degree in science, kinesiology and exercise science from Angelo State in 2001. Fletcher met Courtney when she was playing basketball on scholarship at Collin College in 2003. But Courtney, being young, from a small town, and the first in her family to earn a degree would eventually burn out and drop out of college.
“I wasn’t quite ready that first go around,” she said.
Courtney began driving from Arlington to Waco, where Fletcher worked at McLennan Community College, to see him every week. They would eventually get married and start a family, but Courtney still didn’t have her degree. That’s when she started taking weekend and night classes at Eastfield to show their family the importance of having an education.
Fletcher would work all day and go home to watch the kids so she could go to school.
“I think I just wanted to be better for him,” she said. “Because that’s what he does for a living, he just makes people better. You just want to be better.”
Courtney was pregnant with their third child when she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in education, becoming the first in her family to earn a degree. She later earned her master’s degree in teacher leadership and now teaches third grade at Range Elementary School, a five-minute drive from Eastfield College.
“He was just there pushing me and helping me along the way,” she said. “He has been one of the greatest motivators that I could have to follow through and finish it.”
Beyond wins, beyond statistics, even beyond championships, Fletcher is known to his players as someone who will listen to their day-to-day issues. Fletcher knows that some of the challenges his players face come from outside the realm of basketball. He wants to get to the bottom of what’s bothering them.
“You know when people act differently,” he said. “If they’re hurting or sad, you can tell there’s something going on with them.”
Freshman Desmond Edwards said he feels like he can tell Fletcher anything.
“The first thing he’d want us to do is to talk to him,” he said. “He’s very open-minded, so he would tell us to talk to him to see what’s on our mind and why we’re acting the way that we are. Then, after that, if he feels like he needs to take disciplinary action, he will.”
Josh Shockey played from 2012-2014 as a shooting guard.
“That was the awesome thing about coach Fletcher, that he always made it a point to be available to all of his players,” he said. “If you ever needed anything, if you needed to talk he always had an open door to his office. You could always stop in to talk with him.”
Shockey got a scholarship and signed to Our Lady of the Lake University. But while he was at Eastfield, he was also interning for a church. His pastor called and said he was looking for a student pastor. Shockey turned down the scholarship. When he called Fletcher with the decision he made, Fletcher was encouraging.
“He always knew that faith was a big part of my life,” he said. “When he found out that I was going to take the job as a pastor he was really excited and supportive of it.”
Shockey is now a location pastor of Fellowship Church in Fort Worth.
“What I love about Fletcher is that he texts me,” he said. “He’ll text occasionally about different things, but he always makes it a point to text with every holiday. He does a great job of keeping tabs on all of his former players as well.”
Shockey says if it weren’t for Fletcher keeping a relationship with his former players, he wouldn’t have ended up at Eastfield. It was a former player that played a pickup game with him at the gym and gave him Fletcher’s number while he was in high school.
Courtney says Fletcher loves building long-lasting relationships with the players. He often receives calls from players years after they’ve left the team. They call to ask him questions, see how he’s doing or tell him about their new jobs and families. Fletcher says when he talks about being a family, some of the guys don’t always take him seriously.
“Seriously, we are,” he said. “I’ve got guys that sometimes say, ‘Coach, I’m in a bad situation, can you loan me so and so?’ At the end of the day, we’re a family so I do what I can when I can. I’m not saying I always do but I want to be realistic about that and being a part of a family, understanding that. It’s really big for me.”
Fletcher says he wants to attribute each one of his 300 wins to a player or coach who helped him win the game.
“He’s just so passionate about family,” Courtney said. “He’s passionate about kids at school. It goes way beyond basketball. That’s just a fun thing that he gets to do. He really does try to make those young boys turn into men.”
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