Archdeacon: The Hoops Whisperer of Wright State

Merriweather has Raiders’ women’s basketball team back in NCAA Tournament

Before she was the Hoops Whisperer, she was a couch listener.

Long before Trina Merriweather became the oft-honored head coach of the Wright State women’s basketball team, she was simply known as Willie Merriweather’s little granddaughter.

He was a basketball pioneer who had starred alongside Oscar Robertson in the backcourt of the famed 1955 Crispus Attucks High School team in Indianapolis that became the first all-Black team in the nation to win a state championship.

He was a star on that team, averaging 20 points and 20 rebounds a game, while shooting 70 percent from the floor and 94 percent from the free throw line. He went to Purdue and became the Boilermakers’ first Black All-American.

He ended up being inducted in both the Purdue Athletics Hall of Fame and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

Although drafted by the NBA, he opted to become a high school educator and he joined forces with well-known sports agent, Dr. Charles Tucker.

Merriweather’s resume gave him currency with players coming out of college and when he went to talk to them about signing with him, he’d sometimes have his young granddaughter with him.

“I remember sitting there on the couch in the living room, just watching and listening as my grandfather tried to close the deal with Alan Henderson who played for IU,” Trina said. “It was like out of Blue Chips. It was pretty cool.”

Henderson would end up a first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 1995 and have a 13-year NBA career with four teams.

Willie’s son, Kevin Merriweather, is Trina’s dad and was a walk-on player at Purdue and later developed and ran The Family, the Indianapolis-based AAU program that is known across the nation.

In those early days, he helped his dad. “He was like a babysitter for the players my grandfather signed,” Trina said. “I know he went out to Phoenix a couple of years and lived with William Bedford while he was playing for the Suns.

“When I was eight or nine, I went to Phoenix Suns practices and that’s where I fell in love with Charles Barkley.”

When Bedford ended up with Detroit and then San Antonio, she was around those NBA teams, too.

Shawn Kemp was another of her grandfathers “clients,” as she called them, and she said he also did some managerial work for Magic Johnson.

“Magic and I have the same birthday and for a few years he’d send me a card on my birthday,” she laughed.

She had an autograph from Spurs big man David Robinson and Bedford sponsored her community center basketball team in Indianapolis.

“When I spoke at the Junior NBA last season, I introduced myself to Isaiah Thomas and he said ‘Merriweather?... Are you Willie’s daughter?’” she said.

“I said, ‘No, I’m his granddaughter’ and we sat and talked after that.”

The lessons her grandfather picked up from his legendary Crispus Attucks coach, Ray Crowe, who went 179-20 and won two state titles in his seven years coaching the Tigers, he passed on to his son, Kevin.

That helped form some of the philosophy used to build The Family.

“There were so many different kids that formed the environment of The Family,” Trina said. “The majority were inner city kids. They were my friends and my sisters.

“They ranged from being awesome to having some rough backgrounds and stories, but the way I was raised, you don’t judge people. Everybody has a story that’s made them who they are and you appreciate that.”

And it’s those same lessons that now provide the foundation for her program at Wright State.

In her 11 seasons at the school – six as an assistant and top recruiter for Mike Bradbury and now five as the head coach – she often has embraced athletes that other coaches might overlook or not understand and shy away from.

Almost always she has molded them not only into better basketball players, but made them part of a cohesive team. The players get their degrees and while some continue on as pro players or budding coaches, others go to grad school or jobs or families of their own.

In her five seasons at the Raiders’ helm – and that comes with a COVID pandemic that prohibited the postseason last year and reduced the number of games this year – she’s compiled a 112-46 record. Three times, including this year, she’s been named the Horizon League Coach of the Year.

Her teams won the Horizon League regular season – outright or as co-champs – three times. They’ve have made two WNIT tournaments – last year likely would have been No. 3 – and, more importantly, two NCAA Tournaments: in 2019 and again this year.

The 18-7 Raiders won the Horizon League Tournament last week and tonight they will find out who they play when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced at 7.

WSU is holding a “Watch Party” for mask-wearing, socially-distanced fans at the Nutter Center. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

The real party though came after last Tuesday’s 53-41 victory over IUPUI in the title game.

As the Raiders players celebrated amidst the tumbling confetti on the Indiana Farmers Coliseum court, Merriweather came upon junior forward Jada Wright, who had committed to Rutgers, ended up a junior college and then West Virginia before finally finding a home at WSU and a spot in the Raiders starting line-up.

“After the path she had, she was crying and said, ‘Thank you! Nobody believed in me ‘til you!’” Merriweather said. “All that kid needed was to be needed.”

‘We hang banners’

“The first couple of things I did was ballet and gymnastics,” Merriweather said with a laugh. “But then I sprouted out and thickened up and I was like ‘Ooooh..I don’t know if gymnastics and ballet are the answer for me.’”

She hadn’t ventured into basketball until a teacher convinced her to enter a free throw shooting contest at her school when she was in fifth grade. She finished second and suddenly the foul line felt more comfortable than the balance beam.

Her dad, who’d been living in Phoenix, returned to Indianapolis to work with her.

“I already was 5-foot-7 at 11 years old,” she said. “They thought I was going to be really tall, but I didn’t really grow after that.”

She developed as a ballplayer though and played at Cathedral High in Indianapolis and then at the University of Cincinnati.

When she graduated in 2001, she became a grad assistant coach with the Bearcats for a year, then spent a season at UIC and three more at Purdue until head coach Kristy Curry left for Texas.

She was teaching school and working with her father’s AAU program when Bradbury hired her.

Over the next six seasons Bradbury’s teams won 128 games and got five postseason bids, including the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in 2014.

That started the winning tradition that Merriweather has now enhanced. And it’s why last year’s premature end to the season left a bitter taste.

“We’ve got banners hanging up from 2014 through 2019, but there’s none from 2020 and we don’t feel good about that,” she said.

“We don’t skip years. We hang banners.”

Valuable lessons

The lessons passed down from her granddad and dad have paid off handsomely when Merriweather has sought talent for the Raiders.

It enabled her to land Kim Demmings, who had had a bit of bumpy time during part of her career at Richmond High in Indiana, but then came to WSU and became both the school’s and the Horizon League’s all-time leading scorer and a two-time league player of the year. Today she’s a valuable member of Merriweather’s staff.

There have been other such transformations, but the real triumph was landing Angel Baker out of Pike High in Indianapolis. She had drawn a season-ending suspension for a scrap as a sophomore and that likely – and now foolishly – caused some schools to bypass her.

Merriweather stuck with her because she had found out who she really was and knew she would be a big-time addition to the team.

After last Tuesday title game IUPUI coach Austin Parkinson called her “one of the best guards in the nation.”

“And people don’t realize Angel is really smart,” added Merriweather. “She’s an exercise science major and is taking chemistry and biology and physiology. She’s not taking cupcake courses.

“You’ve got to take time to know someone before you judge them.”

And that’s just what Merriweather was about to do once again after we finished talking this weekend.

“I’m going to dinner with Angel,” she said. “I’m just about to walk into El Rancho Grande. She likes Mexican food.”

When you’re the Hoops Whisperer, you don’t only need to know how to coach, but to dine, as well.

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