By: Chris Whitaker - Americus Times-Recorder
AMERICUS — Two years ago, the Georgia Southwestern men's basketball program needed a cleansing of sorts.
And so did guard Evan Mobley.
After 10- and 7-win seasons, Hurricanes coach Mike Leeder pulled an unorthodox measure and removed specific jersey numbers, including Mobley's No. 11 to symoblize a fresh start.
It turned out to be just what Mobley needed.
Not only is he the school's first 1,000-point scorer since it joined the NCAA, Mobley is a Peach Belt Conference Presidential Honor Roll student three semesters in a row, and he will become the first male in his family — which consists of 75 men — to graduate from college. He's also the first Hurricane to play his entire career at GSW since it joined the NCAA.
And let's not forget the Hurricanes won the PBC Western Division last year, made their first trip to the NCAA Tournament and finished with a 20-9 record. They were also picked to win the PBC in the preseason coaches' poll.
The Hurricanes are 6-0 this season entering Saturday's conference opener at Montevallo as the only Peach Belt team still undefeated on the year. They are ranked 12th in the nation in the latest NABC coaches poll.
Mobley scored his 1,000th point in the second half of the season opener against Trinity Baptist and was presented a game ball at the Fort Valley State game.
"I feel like it's a really big accomplishment for me to be here five years with a great coach like Coach Leeder," said Mobley of reaching the 1,000-point plateau. "I feel like it's beyond 1,000 points because of the relationship I've built with him. It's one in a million. I couldn't think of no better place to do it than GSW."
Mobley wasn't so sure of that a couple of years ago.
He was an All-State guard at Windsor Forest in Savannah in high school, and he never heard of Georgia Southwestern until Leeder began his recruitment. Despite scoring 25 points a game, his team was 6-19 overall and won one region game his senior year.
Mobley redshirted his freshman year, and while he wanted to play badly, Leeder had his best interest in mind.
"At the time we weren't eligible for the postseason, making that transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II," said Leeder. "He came to us at 17 years old, and I tried to tell Evan and his mom and dad that it would be a short-term sacrifice by not playing right now. In the long term, he gained a fifth year coming back. I told them he'd physically be more mature, get ahead academically and the payoff in the end would be worth it."
Mobley had it easy in high school, being the go-to guy on his team. But he received a wake-up call with Leeder.
"When I first got here, I was probably one of the most out of shape people," said Mobley. "I never went through preseason training, running or lifting (weights). That was one of the things we bumped heads on. I couldn't finish running segments. He said I was going to always be a loser, and he really lit into me. I think that's when I really had a reality check.
"I didn't know it was going to be that hard I heard people say it would be tough, but once I experienced it, I really did question if I wanted to play basketball."
Despite the hard practices, Mobley said Leeder was always in his corner.
Mobley was the PBC Freshman of the Year, averaging 9.9 points and almost 1.5 steals a game. His scoring raised to 14.1 points as a sophomore, but the Hurricanes struggled to a 7-20 overall record and 3-14 in conference play.
"He was a guy that had the ability to score the ball, and I thought he was a really competitive kid," said Leeder. "I kept trying to say if we could some better, stronger character guys around him ... I kept looking at Evan as being a big piece of the puzzle to get this thing turned around."
The rebuilding began the Christmas of his sophomore year when Leeder brought in transfers Phillip Brown (Air Force), Matt Shaw (Lipscomb) and Colin Slotter (Murray State).
It was one of Leeder's most trying years as a coach. After that group of seniors graduated, Leeder said it was time for a change. That's when he put away some of the jersey numbers and he and Mobley ceremonially buried his No. 11 jersey, the number he had worn throughout his playing career.
"After his sophomore year he came in and said, 'Coach, I've never been on a winning team. I just want to be on a winning team,'" said Leeder. "A lot of guys talk about being on a winner, but they're not willing to make the sacrifices to be on a winner.
"I told him in order to get a clean break, he can't be the old Evan Mobley. We went and dug up some dirt and threw it (the jersey) in the dumpster."
Mobley was surprised at Leeder's suggestion.
"I laughed at first," he said. "I didn't think he was serious. But I was all for it. I wanted a fresh start. That number meant a lot to me, but I never won in No. 11. I decided on 3 because of my family — my mom, my dad and my sister. Coach promised to get the ship right. I believed him. I had no reason not to. He did it, and we've been doing well ever since then."
Mobley had his best all-around season last year, averaging 11.6 points and almost four assists in starting all 29 games. He watched Brown (player of year), Slotter (freshman of year) and Leeder (coach of year) take top conference honors at the PBC banquet prior to the conference tournament, but that didn't bother him at all.
"I'd rather have a winning team and receive less accomplishments," said Mobley. "I was fed up with a losing career, and I wanted to be a part of something bigger and more special, especially for a school like GSW that hasn't been successful on the Division II level."
Leeder, and both Mobley's parents — mother Avis Knowles and father Felix Mobley — said being level-headed has helped him the most.
"His attitude remains the same," said Knowles. "He's always been that way. He is very humble. In high school, he was on a losing team, and all the coaches from the other schools wanted him to come to their school to play. He sticks with it. If he wasn't already my son, I'd want him to be my son. He's a team player. He doesn't try to be the one scoring points all the time or the one that has to have the ball all the time. He's loyal, even through losing."
Mobley is finally tasting the success that he's longed for, but his success in the classroom has his family talking even more. His sister Tamara Knowles was the first female to graduate college in his family, and he will join her as the first male.
He will graduate with a degree in recreation and has aspirations of being a high school coach or work with children with disabilities.
"Before I got to college, I never knew that," he said. "My mom mentioned that my sister was the first female on either side, and that I'm the first male. I was like, 'Really?' I was just like in awe when I heard that."
Felix welled up with pride knowing his son will receive his diploma in May.
"I'm speechless about it," he said. "Just his work ethic and him being the first male in my family to go that far and be successful at it, I'm really proud of him. He hung in there, showed a little more determination and wanted it. He had to work a little bit harder, but he did it."
Mobley said the Bible verse from Phillippians 4:13 which states, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (New King James Version), has been his testimony.
"That plays a big part in my life," he said. "I talk to the Lord every night before I lay my head down and when I wake up. When I pray about it, I know everything will be all right. It's not the challenge I necessarily take on. I put it in God's hands."
Mobley said his mother is his role model. Avis has watched her son grow into a man the last five years, and she said his faith has been a life-changer for her, too.
"He wrote me a letter when I was going through some tough times, encouraging me to get myself together," she said. "God has made sure we were always taken care of. Evan told me I could do anything I put my mind to, and I shouldn't give up. He believed in me."
And Mobley has found the winning formula whether it's on the court or in the real world, and he owes a lot of it to Leeder.
"I'm glad to have a coach like Coach Leeder in my life," he said. "He's had a part of me growing up and becoming who I am today as far as being a leader and taking care of responsibilities and that sort. I think him for doing that and being hard on me and the way he has believed in me.
"Going through the losing and learning how to deal with the losing and bouncing back and ultimately dealing with winning as well as being humble, especially at the age I am right now and fixing to graduate, he's helped mold me for the real world."
Said Leeder: "Of all the guys I've coached, he's in my top two or three favorites to watch him grow like that over the last five years. He's been one of the real joys to watch him come in at 17 and now 22. He's now equipped to be a valuable employee, a good husband and a good father and have a successful life."