A high school hoops team, a vacancy and the bold appointment of a student head coach — Andscape
It was just minutes until tipoff for the Los Angeles-area basketball game, and the lead official was in the midst of his pregame meet-and-greet. After introducing himself to the coach of the Lawndale team, the referee appeared befuddled as he walked past the students standing near the St. Bernard bench.
“Who’s the coach around here?” the official asked one of the students.
Jordan Bradford, a St. Bernard senior, smiled as he met the official’s eye.
“I am,” Bradford replied, looking every bit of his 17 years.
The referee, initially confused, then realized Bradford was serious. Realizing he wasn’t being pranked, the referee laughed.
“I’m gonna need to check your student ID,” Bradford recalled the referee saying.
And that’s how it started back in November 2023 when Bradford, a former junior varsity player himself with a strong desire to remain attached to the sport he loved, launched his career as a coach of the St. Bernard High School junior varsity team.
For Bradford, there were no first-year coach growing pains. A win over Bishop Montgomery High School on Jan. 31 completed an undefeated conference record (10-0), a junior varsity league title and an impressive 16-2 overall record.
Yet Bradford’s coaching career continues. He’s also been an assistant to head coach Tony Bland this season on the St. Bernard varsity team, which will host a CIF Southern Section Boys Basketball on Wednesday against Mira Costa.
“This is my 29th year in education and I’ve never seen a situation where a student has been a head coach. I’m not sure it’s ever happened,” said Casey Yeazel, the president of St. Bernard. “Watching him, it’s like he’s been a head coach for 10 years. This is an amazing young man with a bright, bright future.”
Just how did they get here, a scenario where Bradford was coaching teens one day, and bowling and playing video games with them the next?
St. Bernard was without a junior varsity coach last summer — the previous coach had moved away from the area. Bradford was without a team — he had previously played a year of junior varsity, but there wasn’t much room on the varsity level for a 5-foot-10 power forward/center.
“I went up to [Bland, the varsity coach] and said, ‘if you need me, I can help with the junior varsity,’ ” Bradford said. “I was open to help in any capacity. I wanted to stay connected.”
The more Bland received calls about the vacant position, the more he thought about his conversation with Bradford and his desire to help out.
“Every place I’d been had made hires from inside,” said Bland, who started his collegiate career at Syracuse before finishing at San Diego State. “He’s well-respected on campus, by teachers and peers alike. I thought it would be an opportunity to give one of our guys a shot.”
Bradford, when the school year began and the school had not made a junior varsity hire, assumed he would be helping Bland out during the 2023-24 season.
Until the day of junior varsity tryouts.
“He asked me to lead the trials,” Bradford said. “That’s when I realized he’s going to give me the full power to do this.”
Bradford began showing up to varsity practices early to prepare. “I was taking mental notes, and seeing what I could incorporate into my team,” he said.
As he stepped into a position where he’d be the leader from the sideline, he underwent an extreme makeover.
“When I got the job, I cut my dreads,” Bradford said. “And I was probably about 240 pounds last summer, now I’m eating better and getting into the gym and I’m down to about 180.”
The biggest challenges as the season began?
Getting the buy-in from the supporters of the program.
“We’ve been doing a great job with this program,” Bland said. “We don’t want people saying ‘hey, what are they doing over there?’ ”
Getting the respect of the players.
“I don’t think they were taking me seriously the first few days of practice because I see them in school every day. I’m in some of their classes,” Bradford said. “I had to install a level of accountability and make them realize that if you don’t listen to what I’m saying, we’re going to run the entire practice.”
And getting the approval of parents, several of whom offered a side-eye when it was revealed that the early stage of their sons’ high school basketball career would be guided by a classmate.
“My first thought was who is this, and what the hell is going on,” said Linda Ferguson, whose son, Gary, is a freshman on the St. Bernard junior varsity team. “My son told me he was really good. And I said, ‘Is he?’ ”
The experiment could have backfired when an injury-plagued St. Bernard team lost two of its first three games during the Trevor Ariza Tip-off Classic in November 2023, falling to 1-2 after a loss on Nov. 22 to Venice.
St. Bernard ran the table the rest of the season, winning the next 15 games.
“At the beginning we felt he was too young, he had no experience,” Gary Ferguson said. “But then we kept winning and winning. You could see the other coaches get mad because they got outcoached by a 17-year-old.”
And mama Ferguson, who watches over the team like a hawk, attending games and even practices, was a quick convert.
“If it was me, I probably wouldn’t have listened to a 12th grader,” Linda Ferguson said. “But then they started winning and I said ‘OK, this is cool.’ ”
Bradford gained a bit of notoriety when a Los Angeles Times column noted his unique position.
“Before that article, I’m not sure everybody realized I was 17 years old and a student,” Bradford said. “And that was cool. I was just able to go out there and coach.”
Besides his team’s impressive record, Bradford is proud that he went the entire season without cursing on the sidelines or getting a technical foul.
“On the bench, I tried to keep it PG,” Bradford said. “In the locker room, it was sometimes different because I had to send a message in the way they’re used to talking, and the way they’re used to hearing.”
With the season soon to wrap, Bland is extremely proud of the growth demonstrated by Bradford during his four years at St. Bernard.
“As a player learned his position and everybody else’s position, and he was the freshman on the bench telling the seniors where they needed to be on certain sets,” Bland said. “I could see he had that coach in him, the same way Steve Fisher would tell me ‘you’re going to be a coach one day’ when I played for him at San Diego State.”
At the start of the school year, Bradford had visions of a career in sports communications (“I want to be a sports analyst or play-by-play”) and has applied to schools including USC, UCLA, Syracuse, Cal and Vanderbilt. [Bradford was not paid: the coaching stipend, according to Yeazel, will be applied to the college he attends].
With coaching experience now on his résumé, his career aspirations have grown.
“This year opened up a new world for me,” Bradford said. “Coaching was something I never really thought about, but it’s now something I would love to do in the future.”