Hubbard-Led Patriots Eye Repeat

MADISON – The early morning of Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014 began as a normal one in the Hubbard’s Rolling Wood household at 151 Yucca Drive. Jason and Betty awoke and started their day with a cup of coffee as they almost always do, then began getting ready for work. At some point, Betty went to wake up her nine-year old son, Josh, the youngest of five siblings, who was still in bed asleep after playing in a 4th-grade football game for MRA the night before.

She quickly realized something wasn’t right. An ordinary day turned abnormal in an instant.

“The first thing I noticed was his eyes, they were all red and puffy,” she recalled. “I just assumed it was allergies, but then I realized his temperature was high, and he had spots on his chest and stomach. They looked like burns.”

Josh never made it to school that day. In fact, he wouldn’t return to school for the better part of a month. A trip the pediatrician that morning parlayed into a stop at UMMC and eventually led to him being admitted into Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital – all in the same day. He underwent a series of tests as doctors attempted to make a diagnosis. More and more symptoms arose, as many as 14, causing even more confusion. And angst.

“We didn’t know what was going on with Josh, and the doctors weren’t sure, either,” Jason said.

In time, the doctors narrowed it down to two things: Kawasaki disease or Steven-Johnson syndrome. Hubbard was experiencing symptoms of both. Kawasaki is a heart disease that involves inflammation of arteries especially in kids five years or younger. Symptoms can be wide-ranging. Meanwhile, Steven-Johnson is a rare condition characterized by a severe skin reaction that may lead to a wide range of health complications.

After more days in the hospital, with the symptoms worsening, they went with Kawasaki disease as the diagnosis. Of main concern was Hubbard’s temperature, which stayed above 100 degrees, sometimes spiking as high as 105-106, as the infection attacked his body so vigorously. Nurses routinely packed Hubbard’s body with ice in an attempt to get his temperature down. He also developed sores in his mouth, making it very painful to eat. He lost a lot weight as a result. Doctors tried Boost protein shakes and pudding, but with no avail. A tube was eventually inserted into his nose to help maintain efficient nutrition.

“We knew he was really sick at that point,” Betty said.

Said Josh: “That was one of the worst things about the whole deal. It wasn’t a lot of fun.”

Endless nights of vomiting and nausea followed. One night, he coughed, causing the tube to come through his mouth. The spots began to cover his body. It was one hard day and night followed by another one. In time, doctors gave Hubbard an IV-IG infusion of immunoglobulins in hopes of fighting off the infection and lowering his temperature. Long term heart issues were also a concern. His temperature went down within 24 hours, but eventually spiked again. The infusion didn’t have the desired results.

Two weeks in, and at wit’s end, an infectious disease doctor was called in. “I remember her walking into the room and saying “Josh, you have me troubled. We had been praying throughout the entire ordeal, but she prayed with us that day. We all prayed together and asked God to help Josh pull through this.”

Finally, on the 18th day in the hospital, Hubbard’s fever broke. For the first time in over two weeks, his temperature dipped below 100 degrees. The next day – 19 days in – he was able to leave the hospital.

“There were 11 doctors in the room at the time, and they were all amazed at the turnaround,” said Betty, who stayed with her son the entire time. “Josh showed a lot of perseverance while he was in the hospital. He showed what kind of fighter he is.”

Said Jason: “We were so happy because it was a long, rough 19 days. It was tough as parents seeing one of your children go through that. He was in a lot of pain, and he was so fragile at the time. We left it in the hands of God, and thankfully He pulled Josh through.”

One thing that helped Hubbard during that extremely trying time was a gospel song entitled Alright OK, sung by J Moss. He listened to it every day, without fail, on an iPad given to him by his father. On the days he was too weak to work the iPad he asked his sister, Jada, to download and play it for him.

“The gist of the song was I’m coming out of this and that’s exactly what Josh did,” Betty said.

The traumatic experience helped shape Hubbard mentally, physically, and spiritually.

“It was definitely a bad situation,” he said. “There were a few negative thoughts that came to my mind at times, like am I going to make it through this . . .but with a lot of prayer and support from my family and friends it all ended with a good outcome. I still think about it to this day. It serves as a motivation for me to stay positive.”

Fast forward some seven years later, and one could never imagine Hubbard, now a well-chiseled 185-pound 16-year old, going through what he went through at a younger age. Not only is he MRA’s star basketball player and the best player in the MAIS, he’s developed into one of the best players in the state of Mississippi. He’s even ranked among the best point guards in the country in his age group.

A starter on the varsity since the 8th grade, Hubbard, a 5-11 dynamo blessed with unlimited shooting range and the slashing ability to match, enters his junior season with the school record for career points already in hand. He has scored 2,097 points in 109 career games, an average of 19.2 points per game. His scoring average has improved with each passing year, and longtime MRA head coach Richard Duease expects more of the same this year. The Patriots tip off their season Tuesday night against Clinton Christian inside Duease Hall.

“I do think you will see that number go up again this year,” Duease said. “He’s got so much speed and he’s really strong so he can explode to the rim. And he’s able to shoot it from deep. Not only that, he’s very intelligent. He’s got a high basketball IQ. That’s a great combination to have, and it’s what separates him from other guards.”

Hubbard averaged 15.3 points per game as an 8th-grader, 18.2 as a freshman, and 24.3 a year ago as a sophomore. He sank 53 3-pointers in his first season, 93 his second, and 75 a year ago for a total of 221 treys. Barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance, Hubbard should finish his high school career with over 3,500 points, which would make him the MAIS’ all-time leading scorer on the boys’ side.

He joined the 1,000-point club 25 games into his freshman season and the 2,000-point club 32 games into his sophomore season. He has scored 40 or more points in a game twice, 30 or more 12 times, 20 or more 43 times. He has scored in double figures in 97 of 109 career games.

Hubbard’s career-high came against Gulfport as a freshman. He poured in 46 points and sank nine 3-pointers, including the game-tying 3-pointer from well beyond the top of the key with :17 seconds left and the game-winning 3-pointer from the deep corner in the waning seconds.

“Everybody knows he’s different,” said Gulfport coach Owen Miller, a former college assistant and high school teammate of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson), who interestingly enough has become a mentor to Hubbard. “The two things that jump out at you the most are his quickness – he’s a blur - and his ability to score at every level. He was unreal that day against us. We were sitting over there as coaches going we’ve got to pick him up early and not let him shoot, but we couldn’t. He was making them from everywhere. He was basically in range when he came past half court. And he’s so strong and physical. He’s built like a football player. We had a lot of upperclassmen on that team, some that went on to play JUCO and Division II basketball, and they were just bouncing off of him. And he was a freshman. It was like hitting a wall. He’s a handful.”

Miller was also courtside for Hubbard’s varsity debut against Stone County three years ago. Hubbard, just 13 years of age and weighing all of 145 pounds at the time, started and scored a team-high 18 points with four 3-points against a senior-laden lineup.

“My first impression was this kid could be special,” Miller said. “He was so young and little then, but you could see even at that early age that he was going to be a tremendous player just because of all the things he could do and the ways he could score.”

Hubbard has different memories of that initial varsity game.

“I remember before the game I was really excited, but at the same time I was super nervous,” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t think they knew that I was an 8th-grader until they announced the starting lineups. I knew I had to play my best. Once they saw I wasn’t all that bad for an 8th-grader, I got a little respect.”

That respect has grown exponentially since then. Most scouting services have him listed as the No. 1 player in Mississippi in the Class of 2023. ESPN has him listed as the 35th best point guard in the country in the Class of 2023. He was somehow inexplicably left of The Clarion-Ledger’s Dandy Dozen list a year ago, but most assuredly will be included on it this season. He’s been named the MAIS Class 5A Player of the Year the past two seasons. The list of individual accolades goes on and on. Hubbard, however, focuses more on team accomplishments.

“I’m grateful for all of the accomplishments, and I feel very blessed, but to me its more about the team,” Hubbard said. “My No. 1 goal is winning championships.”

MRA was able to do just that last year. The Patriots won their seventh straight state title, and capped off the season with a thrilling overtime victory over Greenville Christian in the Overall championship game. Hubbard put on quite a show that night, especially in the first half when he scored 27 of his game-high 36 points. He was 10-for-10 from the field, including a perfect 5-for-5 from 3-point territory. The only shot he missed came at the free throw line, where he was 2-for-3.

“He was on fire that night,” said MRA teammate and longtime friend Sam Hailey. “I’ve seen him have some pretty incredible performances, but I’ve never seen him have a half like that.”

Said Hubbard: “I was focused, but at the same time I felt free. It was a lot of fun.”

With four starters returning from last year’s State and Overall championship team which finished 33-3 and won its last 15 games, Hubbard knows the expectations are going to be high again this season. The lone starter not returning is Hubbard’s backcourt mate the past three seasons, Phillip Hughes, an All-MAIS selection who signed with UT-Martin after averaging 11.9 points per game a year ago as a senior. Hughes, a three-year starter, amassed nearly 1,300 points during his career.

“No doubt, Phillip was a good player . . . we’re going to need some guys step up in his absence,” Hubbard said. “But we’ve got a lot of guys coming back, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t have a good team again this year. We’ve all been playing together for a long time, so the chemistry is there. We’re looking forward to another good season.”

Hubbard’s parents credit Josh’s two older brothers, Jason Jr. and Jordan, for molding him into the player he is today. “If it weren’t for them nobody would know Josh,” his father said. “They taught him how to dribble, they taught him how to shoot. They taught him everything. And they made him tougher. He would come into the house some days crying because they had been pushing him around, or they had taken his ball. Betty and I just told him to toughen up and go on back out there.”

Very few push Hubbard around these days. He really dedicated himself to lifting weights and working out a couple of years ago, and all the hard work has paid off. Not only does he have a small court and Shoot-Away at his house, he’s got an adjoining workout area complete with weights, a vertimax machine, a treadmill, a tractor tire he flips back and forth, and a super-sized hammer. Despite standing a skosh below six feet tall, Hubbard can now dunk with ease, something he couldn’t do earlier in his career.

“I knew I needed to get bigger, faster, and stronger so I’ve really worked at it,” Hubbard said. “Football really helped me with that, too.”

Speaking of football, Hubbard excelled at that sport also until giving it up after his freshman year to focus on basketball. How good was he? “Division I good,” MRA head football coach Herbert Davis said.

Rest assured, college coaches have taken notice. Hubbard already has offers from Houston, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss among others. He plans on waiting until after this his junior year to make his final decision. “I want to wait and see how things play out, but it’s definitely something I want to decide on before my senior year.”

Other high schools and prep school have taken notice, also. Some have tried to pry Hubbard away from MRA. That's not happening, however. MRA is home to him - he's been at the school since the fourth grade - and most of his close friends attend school there. Many of those, including Hailey and fellow teammate Henry Hollis, were among those to visit him during his hospital stay years ago. His sister Jada also graduated from MRA, as did his brother Jordan, who played basketball for Duease.

"Those two guys have been like brothers to me since I've been at MRA," Hubbard said. "And everybody at MRA has always shown me a lot of love. It's like family. Everyone cares about each other, and they're always there to pick you up when you're down."

While Hubbard is the marquee name, he will be the first to tell you this MRA squad will be far from a one-man show. Far from it. There’s plenty of talent to go around, led by 6-6 junior forward Harrison Alexander, who returns after averaging 11.7 points per game a year ago as a sophomore. His ability to score in the paint and from 3-point range makes him a tough matchup for opposing defenses. Alexander, who had a season-highs of 28 points and six 3-pointers in a win at Jackson Academy last year, has received Division I interest from Southern Miss among others.

“Harrison is one of the most improved players we have,” Duease said. “He’s much more aggressive this year, and his vertical is so much better. He’s dunking it easy now.”

Alexander will be joined in the frontcourt by 6-4 senior Davis Dalton. One may remember it was Dalton who had the clutch tip-in at the end of regulation that kept MRA alive in last year’s Overall championship game. He averaged 6.2 points per game last year, with a season-high of 16 points against Clinton Christian. Dalton provides much-needed rebounding and solid interior defense at the 5-spot despite being out-sized on most nights.

“Davis is a good all-around player,” Duease said. “He can score and he can defend. He gives us a presence inside and does a really good job of defending bigger guys in the post.”

The other returning starter is 5-9 senior point guard Tylor Latham, who averaged 5.2 points per game a year ago. His best game last season was a 21-point, 9-steal performance in a win at Bayou. Latham is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, and keeps turnovers to a minimum at the 1-spot.

“Tylor is the best one on one defender that I’ve had in my time here at MRA,” Duease said.

Ryan Russell, a 5-9 junior, who has been a part-time starter the past two years, is slated to start in the spot vacated by Hughes. He’s a combo guard, as is 5-9 sophomore Sam Hailey, who is expected to see significant playing time this year. Russell is righty, Hailey a lefty. They played together on MRA’s undefeated junior high championship team a couple of years ago.

“Ryan and Sam are two of our better shooters, they both play hard, and both are very smart basketball players,” Duease said. “.”

Canaan Yates, a 6-3 junior, will provide depth along the frontline along with 6-2 junior Rivers Godwin, 6-1 junior Holder Jones, and 6-3 junior newcomer Ethan Hendry. A wild card here could be incoming 8th-grader Sam Funches. The 6-8 newcomer, who is expected to split time between the junior high and varsity teams, already has offers from Georgetown and Ole Miss among others.

Street Toler, a 6-2 senior, will provide depth in the backcourt along with 6-2 junior Henry Hollis, 5-9 junior J.J. Latham, 5-9 sophomore Matthew Latham, 6-0 sophomore Will Hooks, and 6-0 freshman Jas Smith.

The schedule is the toughest in school history, and that’s saying something considering Duease has never shied away from tough competition. His teams have played in 13 different states, and routinely play a lot of games against upper-tier public school competition. MRA is slated to play New Hope in the Southern Sports Tip-Off Classic, CPA (Nashville) in the Lighthouse Classic, a Memphis Home School team featuring two Division I players in the New Albany Shootout, reigning MHSAA Class 2A state champion Coahoma County at Pontotoc, 6A State runner-up Murrah in the Rumble of the South, Gulfport at home, possibly Biloxi and Pascagoula at the Gulfport Tournament, two games in the Desoto Central tournament, defending MAIS Class 3A state champion Clinton Christian, and defending MAIS Class 2A state champion Greenville Christian. That’s not to mention a trip to Miami to play in the Junior Orange Bowl Classic during the Christmas break.

MRA will certainly be battle-tested come late February as it chases a 8th straight State title and back-to-back Overall titles. The Patriots will likely have to play its first six games without the services of six players – all play football. Two of those are projected starters in Tylor Latham and Dalton.

“No doubt, it’s the toughest we’ve ever had, but that’s okay,” Duease said. “We like playing good teams, it’s only going to make us better. And I really like this team. They will practice anytime you want to practice. They take care of each other better than any team I’ve had in a long time and they love basketball. That’s a winning combination.”