By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
Maykai O’Neal is talented enough to be the leading scorer on a team.
The focal-point player.
The spotlight would be bright, but it would only shine on him.
And that is not what he is about.
Nor is the rest of his team as head coach Marlon Jones has carefully crafted an unselfish group of Ravens that have big goals still standing in front of them.
O’Neal, instead, has accepted his role as the team’s sixth man and the results have been special.
“Maykai has gone above and beyond this year for this team,” said Jones, who is a 2002 graduate of Ravenna. “He is our sixth man, and he accepts that role and he is great at his role. He is the best sixth man in the league, in my opinion. He plays great defense, because he is long, he is smart and he hustles. He is not afraid to dive on the ground or sacrifice his body for the team.”
O’Neal’s development as a player and leader, ultimately, make it difficult to remember the underclassmen version that Jones remembers.
“He has done a complete 180,” Jones said. “We see it every day. He would love to be a starter, but coming off the bench is where we need him most, where it helps the team most, and he understands that. He is now a player that is willing to give anything and everything to be part of a team that can put numbers on a banner.
“Maykai has definitely invested himself into this team,” Jones added. “His body language is different, he thinks differently. He has been an amazing leader and a motivator and you need players like that. He has matured a lot and become a great player, a great team player. I really love him and the man he is becoming.”
And love is a word that is being said a lot by the Ravens.
There is a love for the game of basketball, then there is love in the game of basketball.
Ravenna is living in the latter and the results have followed with an 11-3 record and the Ravens are in a first-place tie atop the Metro Athletic Conference standings with four league games to play.
O’Neal and his other eight seniors have found joy in playing for each other. On any given night, O’Neal could be the team’s leading scorer or it could be Mason Ross or Pavel Henderson or Emmanuel Miller or Justice Haven.
Winning is all that matters for the Ravens and it is a mindset that Jones has been pushing relentlessly on the group since they were freshmen.
“Coach pushes us hard, because he wants us to be the best that we can be,” O’Neal said. “He wants the best for us no matter what we do. Basketball, school, life, he just wants us to know what it means to work hard for something. I love him from the bottom of my heart.”
Jones genuinely smiled when he heard O’Neal’s comment about the love he had for his coach.
“These guys know that I would do anything for them and they know I would be anywhere for them if they needed it,” Jones said. “We are a family. There are times I am hard on them, but it is out of love and because I want nothing but the best for them. I feel like if a kid can’t trust us as coaches, then we have lost.”
Ravenna has been doing more winning than losing on the court this season.
The title chase is a rare situation for the Ravens, who have just one league title in school history. It came during the 1978-79 season and the group was coached by Dave McBee and led by Oscar Wilmington, who was a unique player just like O’Neal.
O’Neal is capable of hitting long 3-point shots, can slash to the basket for easy layups, can drive and dish to an open teammate spotting up for a jumpshot and create offense through the team’s defense in the open court or transition.
All the abilities that could make him a focal-point player.
O’Neal does not want the bright spotlight, though. He wants the big spotlight. The one that can fit his entire team inside, because that is how a family thinks.