BY JAMES COLLIER
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
Russell's Bobby Hale makes a pass on a fast break against West Carter on Feb. 6.
KEVIN GOLDY | THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
RUSSELL Russell’s Bobby Hale needed one final piece of the puzzle to make his basketball skills complete.
But the answer was not found between the hoops that hang 84 feet apart inside Marvin Meredith Gymnasium. The answer was not found on a marker board or by talking to a coach or former player.
The answer he needed was already a part of him and his search was finally complete before the senior began his final season as a Red Devil. It was his voice. “He’s a completely different person,” Russell coach Bryan Groves said. “He was a great kid back then, but he’s really grown up. If you would’ve asked me last year about his being a leader, I would’ve told you he just doesn’t have those qualities to do it. This year, he is our leader. He’s changed his whole personality, his process he does before the game and his thought process during the game. He’s changed everything and he is certainly a leader.”
Hale is wrapping up his fifth year as a varsity player and has helped the Red Devils turn a forgettable 2-9 start into a 13-13 regular season record while earning the No. 1 seed in the upcoming 63rd District Tournament.
After the lackluster start to his senior campaign,Hale called a team meeting to discuss the needed changes if the Red Devils were to turn things around. That was when Groves saw the switch flip for Hale.
“You have certain leadership qualities like leading by example and being vocal, and when I was an assistant in 2013 under (former Russell coach) Merle (Kidwell), Bobby just didn’t have those,” Groves said. “Now you are talking about how vocal he his and he will get on a guy’s rear end in the locker room when he’s not playing up to standards. It’s a complete transformation in my book from being an eighth-grader to being a senior.”
After returning to the 16th Region Tournament last season, Russell looks to make back-to-back trips to Morehead with hopes of cutting down the nets Friday night at the Marv for the district title.
“It had been a while since we had been to region, so last year our goal was just to get back to region,” Hale said. “We did that and now this year our goal is to win region and make it to State. I think we have a good chance.”
At times in Hale’s career at Russell, simply saying, “Hey, coach” was easier than remembering all the changes at the top. Hale started with Kidwell in eighth grade, played for Jason Strader his sophomore season, then spent his final two years under Groves.
“Being the point guard, he was kinda close to me, then coach Strader was there and they had a bond,” Kidwell said. “He knew coach Groves, but it’s taken them a little bit of time to form that same bond. For anyone to have that many coaches in that amount of time, it’s tough, but it’s probably been harder on Bobby than anyone in that program.”
Groves and Hale were not strangers when the third coach in as many years took the reins. Groves served as an assistant to Kidwell before spending two years at Louisville Eastern.
“If I wouldn’t have been here then, I wouldn’t have known him and (Russell senior) Ryan (Stump),” Groves said. “I was at the middle school that same year and I was in the school too to get a connection with them.”
Groves added: “If I wouldn’t have been in the school to make that connection, Bobby wouldn’t have called me when his AAU team was playing in Louisville two summers ago to come watch him play. That’s when it started, was back then.”
Kid with Kidwell
Hale and Stump joined the varsity roster in their eighth-grade year after Kidwell believed they were better suited to play against tougher competition. Hale’s mother, however, was not a fan at first.
“His mom was hesitant about us bringing him up, but we felt it would benefit him more to be in a varsity practice for a full year rather than play eighth grade,” Kidwell said.
The decision certainly paid off, as Hale has become one of the top players in the 16th Region. But regardless of the amount of success Hale has achieved, he often refers back to “his main man Merle” to offer the credit.
“He’s a great guy and a great coach,” Hale said. “Especially when it comes to X’s and O’s. He was a great guy to me. He decided to bring me and Ryan up our eighth grade year and it’s really matured us in a good way.”
Kidwell departed Russell in 2014 and now serves as an assistant to Harold Tackett at Greenup County. As the Red Devils and Musketeers are archrivals to the nth degree, Hale admits it’s all business when he takes the court against his former coach.
“With him down there at Greenup, we talk and stuff off the floor, but when we are on the floor, we’re kinda socalled enemies,” he said. “That’s just being competitive.”
Although Hale admits he can still hear Kidwell’s voice on the opposing sideline, the words he utters are not always opposing the Russell standout.
“With him being as loud as he is … there’s been times he’s even told me stuff when we are playing Greenup,” Hale chuckled. “He will say stuff like ‘get more arc on the ball’ or ‘stop playing so unselfish and go to the rack.’ He still coaches me on the floor even with him at Greenup. That’s why I like him so much.”
Hale recalled one of his favorite coaching memories under Kidwell that still makes him laugh.
“Freshman year, I wasn’t playing very well in the first half and he (Kidwell) came into the locker room and said, ‘This is what you get for being one of those Y-ball players,’” Hale said. “He was saying I was playing like I do at the YMCA.”
Tough love or not, Hale credits his former coach for elping him become the person he is today.
“He’s brought me a long way with me becoming a leader,” he said. “I was always a shy kid coming up. I was timid and scared to talk to people, and he has brought that nature out of me.”
Hale’s mother, Debbie Mershon, said she rolled the dice with Kidwell, but the payoff has been remarkable.
“I put a lot of trust in Merle when he pulled him up because he was only in eighth grade,” she said. “He was always good and fair to Bobby, but when it is in the heat of the moment, it’s different. At the end of the day, Merle still loves those boys.”
Game day for Rob and Debbie Mershon is a house divided, literally. Not only does Debbie have to prepare for her son’s final high school games, but her stepson Greg also plays basketball — at another of Russell’s district rivals, Raceland.
Even more, the brothers often draw each other as a defensive assignment. Hale recalls the first matchup between the teams earlier this season and how weird it was leading into the contest.
“It was honestly awkward with us living in the same house,” Hale said. “Before the game I went home to get something to eat and he (Greg) was sitting at the kitchen table eating, too. I was like, we’re about to go head to head, Greg. Come 7:30 p.m., there he was guarding me. Just one of the brotherbrother moments.”
Hale has gotten the better of Mershon in both matchups during the regular season. Russell scored only its second win of the year, 7863, in overtime at the Palace. Hale scored 22 but was held to only three made field goals.
“We played together a long time even before we were stepbrothers,” Hale said of Mershon. “We played on the same teams, so he knows a lot of what I do. It’s tough and that’s where my teammates come in so much, because they do a great job of getting me open. Greg is a great defender.”
Hale and Mershon play together on the Cameron Hoskins All Stars AAU team led by Raceland assistant coach Charles Pack, but battle as competitors during the high school season. Regardless of the venue, Pack said he loves to watch the show between the brothers.
“It is exciting to watch, but it’s also a bit difficult as well,” he said. “You want to see both those guys do really well even though you know only one is going home a winner. The thing about those two is they are always going to compete, and as a coach you love to see that.”
Pack admits although he has familiarity with Hale after coaching him in AAU the last two seasons, wanting to stop him and actually doing it is vastly different.
“(Raceland) coach (Bob) Trimble and I talk about how you defend Bobby on the pick and roll, and I just laugh and say, you can’t,” Pack laughed. “He’s just too good. He does so many good things, but the thing he does the best that I don’t think he gets enough credit for is just making everyone around him better.”
Groves just enjoys the watching the competition.
“It’s fun to just sit back and watch them battle,” he said. “All you can do is smile and hope we come out on the good side of it. You love it because it’s the game of basketball; they are competing and just playing their heart out.”
With the Red Devils and Rams on opposite sides of the district brackets, an openinground win by both would set up a showdown for the title Friday night at the Marv. Although the teams have met twice already this season, Debbie was unable to attend either and is hoping for a championship showdown while watching Bobby and Greg advance to Morehead for the region tournament.