For a man who didn’t even play basketball in high school, let alone college, Steve Freeman has had a one-of-a-kind career coaching the sport.
The long-time coach, who has been an assistant with the girls basketball team at Shawnee High School, will be honored for a storied career when he is inducted into the Oklahoma Girls Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame on May 30.
“It’s a really nice honor, very exciting,” Freeman said. “It’s also very humbling, because so much about winning is being in the right place at the right time with the right kids. I’ve been fortunate that I have, a lot of the time, been in the right place at the right time. There are a bunch of very good coaches who have never were lucky enough to be in that right situation. I feel really privileged, really blessed.”
Given the opportunity though, Freeman has taken advantage, winning a pair of state titles as the head coach at Dale in 1990 and 91 during a 10-year stretch in which he won 82 percent of his games and made six state tournament appearances.
He’s also had stints at Okemah, Durant, Plainview and McLoud before landing at Shawnee, taking the assistant position when Wendi Wells became the head coach. The duo have rebuilt a moribund program into a winner, getting a state championship in 2012 and making multiple trips to the state tournament.
“She gives me a lot of leeway,” Freeman said. “I just told her when I get to saying too much, when I’m too active, just tell me and I’ll shut up. We have a really, really good relationship.”
“He’s been great for me,” Wells said. “A lot of former head coaches want to do things the way they’ve always done them. He’s been really good about letting me do my own thing.
“He teaches you a lot of the stuff both with basketball and off the court,” Wells said. “The biggest thing he’s taught me is that kids have to know you care about them off the court and that what happens on the court stays on the court. Kids will do anything for you if they know you care.”
When Freeman graduated from OBU in 1974, he had two bachelor’s degrees, a teaching certificate and no plans on coaching. At least, until he got to his first job at White Rock Elementary in Lincoln County.
“When I got my first teach job, the principal called me about the third day and said, ‘Steve, you know anything about athletics?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know some.” He said, ‘Good, you’re the coach now.’”
He became the coach in all sports for boys in grades five through eight. After two years he moved to Dale where he worked under legendary coach Harold Jones. Jones won four titles in a six-year stretch before retiring in 1983. Freeman then took over the girls program until leaving in 1993.
“[Jones] probably taught me more about the game than anybody,” Freeman said. “He kind of put Dale basketball on the map. They’d been good previously, but not to that level. When I coached at White Rock I went to Harold’s basketball camp and watched how he was teaching the fundamentals. I went to clinics and just absorbed things like a sponge.”
Freeman applied for the head coaching position at Shawnee back in 2008. The school selected Wells, who was already an assistant at the school. Freeman decided to do something that not many coaches with his resume would do, taking the second chair next to the rookie coach.
“I don’t have anything to prove, my ego’s OK,” Freeman said. “The thing about it is, it’s been so easy for me because of Wendi, and the way she’s handled it. A lot of coaches, especially younger ones, would just give you a clipboard, but we have from day one been a collaborative affair. She still makes all the calls, whether she wants to or not.
“Why would I want to [be a head coach]? I don’t want to go back to dealing with the peripheral stuff. I just drive the bus and coach.”
The program they inherited had been down in the dumps for some time with few good seasons shining through some bleak decades.
“It had been a disaster for years,” Freeman said. “That was just a place coaches went to die. They had some good teams here and there but the bottom just fell out. Wendi has had a tremendous effect because of her no-nonsense attitude, with me supporting her.”
Freeman also singles out Kelsee Grovey, who was a freshman on Wells’s and Freeman’s first team in 2008 and grew into a star of the 2012 state champions before playing at the University of Tulsa.
“She was such a tremendous player and worker. I’ve never seen a single player have that much impact. Her charisma, her aura, made everybody around her better. Her play kind of turned everything around.”
Times have been good and times have been bad for Freeman. But some of his best memories are from the lean years when his teams weren’t winning.
“Some of my most rewarding times were the times when we weren’t very good. Those clubs that won 8 or 10 games, but those kids bought in, they played hard and really gave it their all. Those were real rewarding times, when you see the light bulb go on with a kid and they do something they didn’t think they could do.”
Something Freeman never thought he would do when he was fresh out of college in 1974 was become a hall of fame coach. But now he is one.
“It’s long overdue,” Wells said. “I’m excited for him. With what he’s done for girls basketball in this state, he really deserves it.”
“I’m just really thankful to the coaches that have taught me,” Freeman said. “There’s not much new to the game, you just take what other coaches have done and adjust it to what you have. I’ve always had good support from my players. I’m tough. I’m old school, but kids seem to buy into it.
“The job’s been good to me. I don’t have any regrets.”