By RALPH N. PAULK TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Published: January 31, 2009
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Anthony Peeler jogged for several weeks around the campus of Virginia Union trying to decide whether to parlay 13 years in the NBA into a coaching career.
At times, he was tempted to stop in at Barco-Stevens Hall to watch the Panthers during summer drills. But he would keep on running, mostly because he wasn't sure if he could deal with college athletes.
Then, early last fall Peeler met with VUU first-year coach Willard Coker. After three years in retirement, the former University of Missouri All-American was eager to get back to work.
Coker didn't bother to request a résumé. He offered Peeler an assistant coaching job only hours after their first meeting.
"At first, I didn't believe it," Coker said. "I was delighted when he said he wanted to come in and help."
Coker credits Peeler with helping develop a Panthers team that this season has largely overachieved.
The Panthers (10-2 CIAA, 14-3) weren't expected to challenge for the conference title this season. Yet, they have strung together 12 wins after staggering out of the gate at 2-3.
And the Panthers look to extend their winning streak tonight when they host St. Augustine's, which handed them their last defeat -- a 77-55 thumping Dec. 4 in Raleigh, N.C.
Peeler, a first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1992, has focused mostly on developing the Panthers' shooting skills. But he's put an even greater emphasis on discipline and work ethic.
As a result, Peeler is convinced the Falcons (6-3, 13-6) will face a different and more determined VUU team than the one they pushed around nearly two months ago.
"It's always about hard work," said Peeler, the Big Eight player of the year in 1992. "You can never just walk between the lines or take a few days off, then expect to be successful.
"I learned that playing with Magic Johnson in Los Angeles. I was amazed at how hard Magic worked, and he had far more talent than anyone I ever played with or against.
"Right now, our players have the right attitude," Peeler added. "We're winning because we're a more cohesive group and no one outworks us."
Peeler works hard, too.
On Wednesday, he showed up long before the afternoon practice began. In fact, he was in the gym early that morning helping a couple of players smooth out the wrinkles of their mid-range jumpers.
And one hour into their practice session, Peeler was still putting the Panthers through the basics. They worked on layups and short jumpers -- the kind of shots often missed under pressure.
"Bite the rim," shouts Peeler, who constantly uses the term to encourage the Panthers to attack the basket.
The Panthers, seeking the No. 1 seed in next month's CIAA tournament in Charlotte, N.C., are a much more aggressive team this season.
They are better conditioned, too. It's still fresh in their minds how they faltered from fatigue in losing their second-round game in the NCAA Division II tournament in Augusta, Ga.
"There's not much of a difference in what we do as a team, but Coach Peeler has helped bring more energy," said point guard Branden McDonald. "He's always talking about being aggressive and he doesn't allow us to take a play off."
Coker said Peeler's influence extends beyond his ability to teach the game. Peeler, he says, uses his NBA experiences to toughen the Panthers mentally, especially at the end of games -- like the grueling 80-74 overtime win at Shaw on Tuesday that pushed VUU's winning streak to 11 games.
"We want the players to believe in their minds they will be successful," said Peeler, who for 15 years conducted basketball camps in Kansas City before finishing his career with the Washington Wizards in 2005. "I try to keep their morale up, especially those guys who are trying to get off the bench. No one gripes around here, because they know they'll always have a chance to contribute."
Peeler is thrilled that Coker has given him a chance to fulfill his lifelong aspiration to coach.
"One of the best things to happen for me is learning from people like [former VUU coach] Dave Robbins and Coach Coker. I just write down everything they say, and just soak it in."
The Panthers, too, are learning a lot from Peeler.
"[Peeler] has had a tremendous impact on our team," Coker said. "Our guys have matured a lot, and Coach Peeler is a big reason why."