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Detroit Mercy's Alexander comes full circle

by Art Regner /

When Koronne Maine was an elementary school girl, she met a boy named Perry. They became lifelong friends. 

Little did they know when they met, their friendship would have a profound impact on Koronne's son.

Because, if Koronne never met Perry, the chances of Detroit Mercy's head basketball coach Bacari Alexander ever becoming a star basketball player, let alone a coach, would have been remote at best.

"My mother, my late mother, went to elementary, middle and high school with Perry Watson," Alexander recalled about how his mother decided that he was going to be a high school basketball player. "My neighborhood school at the time was Detroit Northern and I went there for two weeks and my mother said, "No, you're going to Southwestern, as a matter of fact you just grew from 5'8" to 6'1" in one summer, you're not only going to Southwestern, you're going to play basketball.

"I couldn't walk and chew bubble gum, let alone make a lay-up. So, here I am walking the halls of Detroit Southwestern as my mother transferred me out (of Detroit Northern); I'm thinking I am meeting Perry Watson, here's this big portly and stout fella who's a phys ed teacher and it's Frank Leonard, Vashon Leonard's father! I thought it was Perry Watson initially. My mother says, 'No, that's not Perry!'"

Once the mix-up was cleared up, Alexander met Watson for the first time and his future path began to take shape, even if Alexander didn't realize it.

When he was a sophomore, Watson left for Michigan to become an assistant coach and Alexander was miffed this 'family friend' would leave him just as his game was beginning to show promise.

"Perry moved on during my 10th grade to Michigan with the Fab Five phenomenon and all that, I had the pleasure of playing for his longtime assistant, Larry Pierce," Alexander said. "Even though in 1991 we win the state title with Jalen Rose, Vashon Leonard, we had that great team, I thought that Perry was being elusive because I thought I was going to be in his teaching grasp, he goes on and advances his career."

Even without the guidance of Watson, Alexander developed into a talented player and after graduating from Southwestern, he received a full scholarship to Robert Morris College, where he was named to the Northeast Conference's All-Newcomer Team as a freshman.

After two years at Robert Morris, a coaching change was made and Alexander saw the chance to come back home to Detroit.

"My mother hadn't seen me play to that point in college, so that was a huge driver (to transfer)," said Alexander. "I remember how this transfer occurred. My mother decides to pick up the phone and calls Perry (now the basketball coach at Detroit), she had him on speed dial in high school and in college, and she says, 'Perry, my son is coming home and you need to take him,' and hung up.

"That was it, she was quite the deal broker to say, 'Hey this is what's happening and I don't care what you say, Perry, he's coming.'"

While at Detroit, Alexander and the Titans program flourished.

"Two championships, the only outright conference championship in our school's history were won on the teams that I played on during in the late nineties," Alexander said, recalling his days as a Titan. "Looking back on it, I can't think enough about Perry's influence."

Once his college career concluded, a friend of Watson's, Rex Nelson, was working for the Pistons in community relations and brought Alexander on board. A few years later, Alexander jumped at the opportunity to become a Harlem Globetrotter.

Two years later as his time with the Globetrotters was nearing an end. Detroit Mercy President, Sister Maureen Faye, whom Alexander had stayed in touch with over the years because he was part of her student advisory committee when he attended Detroit Mercy, asked him what he was going to do next.

"I am not sure, maybe I'll do something in business or whatever," Alexander told Sister Faye. "So, she said let's talk and we had agreed for me to come back to Detroit Mercy in the capacity of university advancement and development - to raise money. That was going to be the gig.

"Perry (Watson) got wind of it and said, 'If you're coming back to Detroit-Mercy, you're coming back to work for me.' I was like, I am not about to coach and here we are at the end of my 16th regular season as a coach. It's been quite the whirlwind experience."

Over that 16-year period, Alexander was mentored by four men that molded him into the man and coach he is today. 

His first six years as a coach were at Detroit Mercy with Watson; up next he accepted a position at Ohio University under Tim O'Shea; a few years later he came back to Michigan and worked under the guidance of Steve Hawkins at Western Michigan and then Alexander became John Beilein's assistant at Michigan for six seasons, a situation that he says was similar to the time he spent with Watson at Detroit Mercy.

On April 22, 2016, Alexander was named the 21st head basketball coach in Detroit Mercy's history.

When asked about what it means to be the Titans head coach, it's apparent that Alexander has not only a passion for basketball and his school, but a love for the city of Detroit.

"Detroit Mercy is the oldest Division 1 basketball program in the state of Michigan at 111 years old; Michigan is 101," Alexander said. "It's a great opportunity for me not only to shepherd this program into the tournament, but, to share with our kids to be a part of something bigger than yourselves.

"The University of Detroit Mercy has never left this city; we have stayed committed for over 139 years."

Friday afternoon a little before the 5:30 p.m. tip-off between Detroit Mercy and Milwaukee in the first round of the Little Caesars Horizon League Championships at Joe Louis Arena, Alexander will lead his team onto the court with the opportunity to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament - The Big Dance.

But you'll have to excuse Alexander if his attention is not completely in tune to the task at hand just before the start of the game.

Alexander is a native Detroiter, coaching Detroit Mercy in Detroit, with a chance to have his team play in the last basketball game to ever be played at the Joe if his Titans can advance to next Tuesday's Horizon League Championship game. That is something of which he is very well aware.

"There is a poetic element to this rendition of Motor City Madness in this farewell tour of the Joe," Alexander said. "The tournament also represents something a little bit more for us at Detroit Mercy because we're trying to develop our program under my leadership congruent with the rise of the city.

"So, you look at Joe Louis and his historical significance in sports history and how he ascended to the top of his field and you look at the city of Detroit and how we've always dusted ourselves off as citizens and rose to the occasion."

He pauses for a moment, gets a reflective look in his eyes and says with a big old Alexander smile, "It is a very surreal thought to say the least. My team is hungry right now. They feel that the season is not indicative of what their potential is; they recognize that we're all 0-0 right now.

"Furthermore, if the basketball gods are kind they will want to see us be one of the last teams standing in Detroit. It would be appropriate, it would be destiny fulfilled if we can find ourselves on Tuesday night cutting down the nets at the Joe.

"Not only saying farewell to the Joe, but finishing it in a manner with a lot of class, it can be the spark of the resurgence of one of our most storied jewels here on Livernois and Six Mile."

Destiny is a funny thing. You never know when it will strike and where it will eventually lead.

But destiny intervened many years ago when schoolchildren Koronne and Perry met, and Alexander is certainly glad that it did.

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