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From D.C. to Florida: Frank Oliver Jr. brings his impact to IMG Academy

Oliver has risen to be one of the top high school girls basketball coaches in America

After Frank Oliver Jr. and the H.D. Woodson girls basketball team won the Washington, D.C., city title game between the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletics Association (DCIAA) and Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) champions in 2008 and 2009, a phone call from the State Department created a once-in-a-lifetime experience for his team to attend the annual White House Easter Egg Roll in 2009.

Some of the Woodson players’ neighborhoods did not look like the manicured lawns and pristine architecture of the White House, but Oliver and President Barack Obama both had the same mission: to inspire change.

“I told the girls before, ‘Someone is going to know what you guys are doing,’ ” Oliver said. “I told them, ‘We ‘are going to get invited to the White House if you guys win.’ I don’t know if they believed me or not but that’s exactly what happened.”

Oliver, 45, built and rebuilt girls basketball programs around the Washington, D.C., and Maryland area, so it was only fitting the Florida A&M University graduate was hired to be IMG Academy’s girls basketball head coach this year. His previous basketball programs experienced everything from grief and underfunding to championships and even winning a game 94-0.

After meeting then-Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the champions were in for a treat.

“More Secret Service came and I said to myself this has to be President Barack Obama coming,” Oliver said. “Sure enough, he came in and shook everyone’s hands.”

As President Obama went down the line of champions, he stopped at 6-foot-7 Woodson center Jeniece Johnson and said, “Hey, didn’t I just read about you in the paper?” This was a surreal moment for the team, especially after they experienced four deaths of family members in 2008, including Johnson’s mother who suffered a fatal heart attack.

“She [Johnson] couldn’t really say anything because she was just so starstruck,” Oliver said. “All she said was yes and then he asked her how she was doing and all she said was OK. She was amazed just like all of us.”

To get to that point of triumph, Oliver emphasized four priorities, in order.

“The priorities were God, family, school, then basketball,” said Tia Bell, a former Woodson player who went on to play at North Carolina State. “Everything else, including your little boyfriend, did not have a place — and we knew not to come to coach with any of it.”

Frank Oliver Jr. (left) and President Barack Obama (right) watch as a child shoots a basket during the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2009.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

This quartet of priorities was instilled into Oliver by his parents. Oliver’s father, Frank Oliver Sr., was drafted in 1975 by the San Francisco 49ers, played for the Buffalo Bills, and was on the inaugural Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster. Oliver’s parents originally met at Kentucky State University before establishing roots in Tampa, Florida.

After his NFL career, Frank Oliver Sr. became a principal. Oliver believes his mother, a former track and field coach and teacher, is one of the best coaches and leaders of all time. Once his parents divorced, Oliver and his mother moved to the Washington, D.C., area.

Oliver initially looked at basketball as an interruption from watching cartoons and leaned more towards track. One day, on Oliver’s way to the track, it began to rain and he went into Rollingcrest-Chillum Community Center in Hyattsville, Maryland. A simple attempt to stay dry turned into a life and legacy dedicated to basketball.

“I saw guys playing basketball and I started to fall in love with it and wanted to get better,” Oliver said. “The rec center had a lot of future Division I athletes and professional athletes, so I got dropped [in] at the right place at the right time. I was surrounded by excellent players and coaches that were teachers of the game.”

Oliver attended DeMatha Catholic High School whose alumni include Houston Rockets guard Victor Oladipo, two-time NBA champion guard Quinn Cook, Portland Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant, New Orleans Pelicans guard Jordan Hawkins, Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz, and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Chase Young. At DeMatha, Oliver beat his WCAC rival Gonzaga College High School to win the championship in 1996.

After hearing countless stories and going through his parents’ yearbook, Oliver decided to follow in their footsteps by attending an HBCU.

“For me it wasn’t a stretch to go to an HBCU,” Oliver said. “Every professional person in my life went to an HBCU and I didn’t really see anything else. I just saw excellence. I saw people that I looked up to, how they were leaders in their everyday lives and communities. It showed me the importance of accountability, structure and family.”

The aspiring health and physical education student stepped foot on Florida A&M’s campus in the fall of 1996 as a hopeful 17-year-old. Stand-up comedian and actor Roy Wood Jr. lived in the same dorm as Oliver and the two connected over both of having a parent with Alabama roots.

Oliver found belonging on the university’s basketball team with NBA prospect Jerome James. James’ presence on the team provided an unusual experience for everyone. FAMU men’s basketball coach Mickey Clayton scheduled 5 a.m. practice for his team, but NBA scouts would still show up at the Rattlers’ practice to see James.

“If you can play, they will find you,” Oliver said.

Frank Oliver Jr. (bottom row, third from left) and the 1998-99 Florida A&M’s men’s basketball team.

Frank Oliver Jr.

Oliver’s coaching journey reached a turning point when he was coaching at St. Francis School and it was time for him to face Alice Deal Middle School.

He made sure his girls were prepared. They studied film on Bell, Deal’s best player at the time, leaving her confused about how they knew her entire playbook. Bell had the worst game of her early career. Directly after, her mother presented her with a challenge.

“My mom made me go up to him [Oliver] after the game,” Bell said. “She told me if you are not a sore loser, you will ask that man how you went from scoring every point to how you got shut down. I snapped at her saying they didn’t shut me down, but I was just really bitter from the loss. I was being a typical teenage girl throwing a drama fit.”

Oliver told Bell he watched her film, something unheard of at the time at the middle school level.

Bell and her family believed in Oliver, prompting Bell’s mother to take her out of arguably the best public middle school for academics and athletics to send her to St. Francis to learn under Oliver.

Bell, who calls Oliver “Champ,” began to transform as a player and committed to traveling across town every day for school to have the chance to play for him.

“I had never been off of my block until I met Coach Frank,” Bell said. 

Every day during the summer of 2004, Oliver picked Bell up before the sun came up to go to Run N’ Shoot Athletic Center, a notable gym in the DMV area. Oliver was able to make her a more polished player while still keeping her D.C. grit. Bell was able to grab the rim as the summer months swiftly passed.

“I played all positions,” Bell said. “He was really forward thinking by allowing me, at 6-foot-4, to bring up the ball. He went from this stranger and this person that I hated that shut me down and told me stuff I had never heard about to being a protector and everything else a lot of coaches today do not do anymore.”

Bell used basketball to tame her anger and keep her off the streets. Once she began attending St. Francis, the team was undefeated and won a championship in Woodson’s gym. The victory on Woodson’s floor foreshadowed Oliver and Bell’s next steps at the high school level.

In 10th grade, Bell began to dunk in front of packed crowds all over D.C. Woodson lost in the playoffs that year, but during Bell’s first game of her junior year she scored 52 points. At the end of Bell’s junior year, Oliver won his first high school championship. The following year in 2007, the Warriors experienced a heartbreaking loss against Academy of the Holy Cross, spearheaded by ESPN analyst Monica McNutt.

“I still get mad when I think about that game,” Bell said. “We [Bell and McNutt] talk and hug but some things just never go away. We [Woodson] wanted to win.”

Hampton guard Chanel Green (right) drives to the basket against South Carolina during the second half on Dec. 16, 2015, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Sean Rayford/AP Photo

Oliver’s Woodson team endured highs and lows. Bell’s mother’s car was stolen at a practice. The coaches had to make efforts to ensure safe housing for players, and the team rallied together to get sponsorships from different urban wear companies around the city for all of its basketball needs.

But in addition to multiple city titles, Oliver led Woodson to seven DCIAA championships and Bell won D.C.’s Gatorade Player of the Year award twice.

“People talk about blood, sweat and tears and sacrifice but that was really us,” said Chanel Green, who played for Oliver at Woodson before playing at East Carolina and Hampton University. “When you’re in it sometimes you don’t realize what’s happening. But when you take a moment and look at how you got to where you did, it makes it even sweeter.”

Oliver’s coaching style includes running a fast-paced offense, pushing the ball in transition and pressing on defense. This style led them to large margins of victory.

“Somebody is always going to win or lose and we didn’t set out to lose,” Green said. “We should not have to stop our greatness because another team is getting beat down and losing. My coach was getting us ready for the next level and we all knew at the next level they were not going to take it easy on us. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Oliver’s former players remember the young coach teaching them German words and forcing them to eat lettuce and tomatoes on their McDonald’s burgers.

“It was a beautiful time,” Bell said. “This time period really made me. All the losses and all the big decisions I had to make at the time really made me grow up. We’ve really been through the mud. Over 15 years later, all of this is who I am.”

When Bell went to NC State, Oliver raised money for gas and dorm essentials for her, then took it upon himself to drive Bell five hours to Raleigh, North Carolina, to begin her collegiate journey.

Bell’s relationship with Oliver even pushed her to take on a coaching minor.

“Those championships would mean nothing to me if those young ladies would not have gone to college,” Oliver said.

Bishop McNamara guard Madison Scott (left) listens to instructions from head coach Frank Oliver Jr. (right) on the sidelines.

Billy Sabatini

Because of the success Oliver saw at Woodson, he could look up at any second during the college basketball season and see two of his former players competing against each other. His first time seeing this was during the 2011-12 season when Kentucky guard Bernisha Pinkett and Georgia guard Ronkia Ransford squared off in primetime on ESPN.

“This was a moment that made me cry,” Oliver said. “I know where they came from. From raising them on the court in the eighth grade to see them in college playing at these two major universities.”

Oliver would look up again and see Bell matched up against Wake Forest’s Patrice Johnson. The icing on the cake for Oliver was getting a phone call from then-Liberty guard Avery Warley-Talbert and Pinkett from Albuquerque, New Mexico, before competing in the NCAA tournament.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything and we always say we need a Netflix special because I don’t think people really realized what we went through during that time,” Green said.

After a whirlwind of experiences at Woodson, Oliver decided to take a year off from coaching. During his gap year, he became one of the founders of the girls division of the AAU powerhouse Team Takeover.

Oliver’s goal was always to go back to coaching in high school but due to the success he had at Woodson, he would not apply to just any position. Oliver got wind of an opening at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland and felt it would be a perfect fit.

McNamara made Oliver’s hiring public and the players were introduced to their new coach on the last day of school in 2013. Prior to his arrival, the Lady Mustangs were 3-27. Oliver knew turning the program around would be a tall task but believed he could do it, with the right kids and guidance.

Soon, Oliver set off to create a new identity for McNamara basketball, and it began to pay off once Jakia Brown-Turner became the first female basketball player at McNamara to become a McDonald’s All-American in 2019 followed by her teammate Madison Scott in 2020.

University of Pittsburgh guard Liatu King is originally from southeast Washington, D.C., and never saw herself playing at a private school until she saw the passion Oliver gave his players.

During the 2018-19 season, Oliver’s team sold out several gyms, including King’s most memorable matchup against St. John Catholic High School. In the WCAC, it is typical for all-boys schools like Gonzaga and DeMatha to sell out games but unheard of for the women’s teams in the conference.

“The tickets were sold out and the whole gym was packed,” King said. “I couldn’t even hear. It was so crowded that they had to have an overflow room in another part of the building where they had the game broadcasted in another room. It just really showed how we had a following and how supportive our fans were.”

Oliver’s Mustangs were constantly in the mix for the WCAC championship. In 2019, they fell short in the championship game, but in 2020, during King’s senior year, the Mustangs finally ended McNamara’s 12-year championship drought.

“It was a huge breakthrough,” Oliver said. “Those young ladies worked extremely hard and they have their own journey and stories. It was a really special group. Some of the kids I won with at McNamara were from the same places as some of the girls from Woodson, which made it even more special.”

IMG Academy girls basketball coach Frank Oliver Jr. talks to players during a game in Bradenton, Florida.

IMG Academy

Oliver always said to himself that if the right opportunity in Florida presented itself that he would consider it. He is excited for this new ride and extremely thankful to IMG Academy after making it through such a rigorous interview process.

With Oliver’s hiring, Bell hopes to create a pipeline between Washington, D.C.’s inner city children and IMG Academy.

“There’s no limit to the possibilities,” he said. “The mission is still the same: to help prepare these young ladies for college. That has been and always will be the mission for me.”

Alexis Davis is a former Rhoden Fellow. She loves styling suits with sneakers and can name any sneaker you show her. She quit basketball to cheer in high school but hopes the women's basketball coverage she does now makes the sport forgive her for going to the other side of the sideline.