The backlash was unfathomable. The hate mail and death threats quickly poured in. Yet, it was just a simple play. A matter of momentum. Just a split-second in the otherwise unblemished basketball career of Houston’s Aubrey Coleman.
Last season, when Arizona’s Chase Budinger took a charge from Coleman and was subsequently lying on the court, Coleman, continuing his motion, stepped over Budinger and made contact with him.
The public perception – fueled by Youtube and a 24-hour media out for blood – was that Coleman stepped on him on purpose. That he was trying to hurt Budinger. That it was an act of rage.
If you ask the man at the heart of the issue, the reality was far from it.
“I know in my heart I didn’t try to do it on purpose,” said Coleman, who is currently the nation’s leading scorer. “It wasn’t a situation where he was on the ground and I just kicked him. The play was still going. He took a charge. I’m stepping, and as I’m stepping he’s still on the ground, and I just happened to step on him.”
After the incident, a scuffle ensued. Coleman did not retaliate, but he received a flagrant foul and was ejected from the game.
The media pounced on this. Soon, the play was being discussed and dissected across the nation in media outlets everywhere. All the negative attention – however unfounded it may have been – was thrown onto Coleman.
“It was unfair and a terrible creation of television,” said Houston Head Coach Tom Penders. “Anybody that knows Aubrey and sees him on a daily basis know that he would never intentionally elbow or step on anyone. It was a lynch mob mentality out there.
“If there’s pacifist in college basketball, it’s him.”
Able to make some light of the issue after the fact, Coleman quipped: “(The media) blew it out of proportion. They slowed the tape down real, real slow. Put x-ray vision and all that kind of stuff on it.”
Throughout this, Coleman was whole-heartedly supported by his teammates and coaching staff. Penders even sought a sports psychologist and a body-language expert to analyze the tape. In both instances, it was concluded that Coleman did not have any vicious intent.
“We’re a team,” senior guard Kelvin Lewis said. “We’re close-knit and what we think is reality. It doesn’t matter what people say or what people criticize about.”
Labeled as a “thug” and a dirty player, many people were quick to classify Coleman as just that. The FBI even had to get involved since the threats to Coleman were so violent and numerous. The harassment, although it has subdued, continues to this day.
But, as a true testament to his character, Coleman refused to let that one moment distract or define him. Now, with a chip on his shoulder and a 25.7 points per game average (and a sneaky 2.8 steals-per-game tally, good for second in the country), he is starting to get recognized as something else – one of the nation’s best basketball players.
What gets overshadowed as a result of the negative press following the incident with Budinger is that Coleman possesses the drive and work ethic that many in the media are quick to mightily praise. For Coleman, who Penders says could be the “poster boy for the NCAA”, the dedication to his game started in junior college.
Out of high school, the 6-foot-4 guard enrolled at Southwest Mississippi Community College. It was there that his basketball game and tireless work ethic started to take form.
“I used to have to break into the gym,” Coleman said. “On the weekends I wasn’t able to go home, so I found a way in the gym and that’s what I was doing every Saturday and Sunday. I worked out every day during the week, but on the weekend, they’d lock the gym because they said there’s no supervision and you can get hurt. So, I would just climb in through the girls’ restroom and then shoot some jumpers.”
Despite having to use a “bootleg” shooting machine that helped retrieve balls once they went through the basket, the hard work paid off. After two years of junior college, Coleman received interest from many Division I schools, including Cincinnati, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. In the end, the Houston native decided to stay close to home.
“I’m able to hug my mom and my sister after the game and it just feels good to see a smile on their face,” Coleman said.
The way Coleman has performed for the Cougars the past two years, his family, who come and see most of his home games, have plenty to smile about.
Coleman has scored in double figures in every game this season. Seven times this year, including as recently as Feb. 24 in a win against Memphis, Coleman has scored at least 30 points. The victory versus Memphis was the first time in 11 tries that the Cougars beat the Tigers. The win also improved Houston’s overall record to one game over .500, at 14-13.
“I stayed in the gym all summer,” Coleman said. “Even when we had two-a-days and running and all that, I still found time to come to the gym to work on my game as far as shooting and finding other ways to score. I knew everyone knew I could drive, so sooner or later I knew I was going to have to get my mid-range and 3-point game together.”
Last season, Coleman shot just over 20 percent from 3-point range, going 10-for-48. This year, he has already made 35 from behind the arc and is shooting nearly 32 percent from downtown, making him a tough matchup as teams now have to cover him further out on the perimeter.
“I know he put in hundreds and hundreds of hours before we even practiced,” Penders said. “Then, in the season, he has a routine where he gets up in the morning, comes in and shoots free throws. He has to make 100 before he goes to his first class. Then, he’ll come in during breaks all day, and then he’ll come in late at night.
“I’ve been doing this for 36 years and he has without question the best work ethic of any player I’ve ever had.”
The 2009 All-Conference USA First Team selection excels in more than just scoring points – he fills up a box score. Actually, for much of the season, he also led the nation in steals.
“I watch the scouting reports and the tape and I see how many times my opponents run a certain play or what pass they’re going to throw next,” said Coleman, who twice collected seven steals in a game this year. “So, when I get in the game, I visualize that. That’s how I get my steals.”
Lewis raved of Coleman’s speed and athleticism, so it’s no surprise he is able to force some turnovers. What is remarkable is that at 6-foot-4, Coleman is among the team’s leaders in rebounds as well. His 7.4 rebounds per game are behind only Houston’s 6-foot-9 forward Maurice McNeil.
“To him, a shot by the other team is a loose ball,” Penders said. “He gets all the rebounds that people don’t get above the rim. He has got great hands and strong hands, and once he gets his hands on it, he’s going to come out with it.”
“Sometimes what I’ll do is just wait until the big men bring the ball down, and I just strip it right from there,” said Coleman with a laugh, obviously amused.
With Coleman, Houston has one of the nation’s top talents. Combined with Lewis, who averages over 15 points a night himself, Houston is a team that has confidence in its abilities and its chances to win the Conference USA Tournament, despite a 6-7 conference record.
Citing Georgia, which surprisingly won the SEC Tournament in 2008, Coleman thinks it’s possible for this Houston team, who he thinks hasn’t peaked yet, to sneak into the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tournament.
And why not? Coleman has no reason to think anything is not possible. Only a few years removed from climbing in through the women’s restroom at Southwest Mississippi Community College, he is leading the nation in scoring and is a legitimate pro prospect, likely to get drafted in this year’s NBA Draft.
Penders called Coleman a “coach’s dream’. He’s the kind of player that is a good teammate with an unparalleled work ethic. The type of person that came to Houston to be closer to his family. And, a player who personifies much of what is good about intercollegiate athletics.
And that – not the person unfairly vilified by so many after last year’s incident – is the real Aubrey Coleman.