Remembering coach Demetrius Poles and the legacy he left behind

Demetrius Poles talks to the team during a timeout. Throughout his time as head coach, the women's basketball team won two NJAC Championships. - Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. - Photo via Lee Kotzen

Legend. That is the word that many would use to describe head coach Demetrius Poles, especially in the Rowan and South Jersey community. 

Tragedy struck the Rowan Women’s Basketball Team, and the Rowan community as a whole when Poles passed away over the summer due to heart failure at the age of 50. He had battled health issues throughout his life, but many in the Rowan community were taken aback when they learned of his unfortunate passing, including one of his former players, the now-graduated Grace Marshall. 

“To me, it was a shock,” Marshall said. “I remember saying when it happened, that I feel like a lot of people in his life were so used to seeing him fight through things that might seem impossible to others. We knew that he had his health issues that he was battling. But he was just one of the strongest people that most of us have ever met. So, it was just tough hearing it because you don’t want to believe it, it’s almost still hard to believe. And then on top of that, he had fought through so much and was able to overcome it. It was just a shock to everybody.”

With the women’s basketball season underway, the team will be hosting a memorial game for him on Tuesday, Nov. 21 against Stockton, where they will honor his legacy.

Poles had accomplished many things in his life, making his legacy hard to define. To start off, he was a husband to Sandra White and a father to Jelani and Jaden Poles. His wife and kids are a part of his legacy and always will be. On top of that, he has a legacy in basketball as not just a coach, but a player as well.

As a player, he was a National Champion, making what was probably the most important play in the semifinal game for the Rowan men’s basketball team, when he tipped in a game-winner to send them into the championship round. He was also a freshman All-Star at St. Joseph’s University. His playing career did not end after college either, going on to play seven more seasons in Asia and Europe. In 2020, he even got his jersey retired by his high school.

But even more significant than his time as a player was his time as a coach, where he has so many accomplishments. One of his biggest was being named as the 2012-13 “Coach of the Year” after coaching in Italy and Sweden for ten years. 

After he left Europe, he came back home to Rowan University as an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team in 2013. However, in 2016-17, he switched over to the women’s team as an assistant and eventually climbed his way up to become the head coach of the women’s basketball team in 2019. He would use that knowledge from his past experiences, and of course, his love of the game, to help him throughout his coaching career.

“He was very knowledgeable, that’s the best way I think I could describe his coaching because he knew so much about the ins and outs of basketball,” Marshall said. “He would teach us things about European basketball, how it was different from American basketball, and about what works, and he was so good at breaking it down and explaining it. And he was kind, there’s so many words to describe him. He was determined and kind. He was passionate. He loved basketball. Dedicated, 100% dedicated to coaching us and winning.”

As head coach of the Rowan women’s basketball team, he would be named New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) “Coach of the Year” twice; once in the 2020 season, and the second time this past season, meaning he is still the reigning NJAC “Coach of the Year.”

It was during those same seasons that he won the NJAC Championship; the first one in 2019-20 when the team also won the NJAC regular-season title, and the other in 2022-23, when the team was the No. 3 seed entering the tournament. More importantly, Poles had a tremendous impact on his players.

An obvious example was during the COVID year when he was not allowed to be around the team as much due to health concerns and restrictions from the pandemic. When the team was reunited, it was a great moment for all involved. 

“Coach Poles wasn’t able to come to practices during that COVID year because of his health, but I remember the team, after a few months of not seeing him, and he came to visit us,” Marshall said. “And I remember they told us, we have a surprise for you. And we didn’t think it was going to be him. When he came in, we all ran to the door and talked to him. It was tough because he looked so different. I think that shows how much we really loved him, and it was probably hard for him to get there. But it was one of the highlights of that year.”

For Marshall, Poles was not just a mentor on the court, but he also helped her a lot off the court. He cared about how all the women were off the court just as much as he did about their play on the court.

“Our relationship, I would say, was hard to describe, because he was so much more than a coach,” Marshall said. “And even though he taught me so much about the game of basketball, it is his love for me and the girls on the team that extends beyond the court. He cared about us and our families, our well-being, and even our academics. I had reached out to him going into my freshman year of college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. He took me on my tour. And he was someone who always supported me, and told me ‘You have to believe in yourself because I believe in you.’”

One of the players that knew Poles the longest is senior guard Nicole Mallard. Poles immediately saw something in her.

“He was recruiting me during my sophomore year of high school,” Mallard said. “That is a very long time for me and him to have a relationship. He was at all my games, and I live two hours away from Rowan. He would bring his kids to the games, who had school in the morning. I appreciate him coming to all those games and supporting me and my teammates.”

Watching Mallard play and seeing how she acted on and off the court allowed him to see how to use her best. Knowing someone that well also allows you to trust them.

“We had a connection,” Mallard said. “Obviously he has coached and played basketball overseas. He knew I had a high basketball IQ and he allowed me to do what I wanted to do on the court. He knew I was not a very vocal person. He accepted that and never tried to push me to do something I didn’t want to do. He allowed me to lead by example. He is a leader.”

Looking back on those times, Mallard appreciated the fact that he was letting her be herself. For Mallard, some of her fondest memories of him were the little things he did or said, just Poles being Poles.

“Me and Grace [Marshall] always kept a list of sayings he used to say,” Mallard said. “He used to say things like ‘It is time to put the kids to bed.’ Or ‘you look like a bunch of scrambled eggs out there.’

Marshall still has the list of all his sayings.

“I think I actually started the list,” Marshall said. “I don’t know if we ever ended up telling him about it. But we as a team would write in these notes, like our notes app, a long list of all these funny things. We were in New York in the middle of December. It’s freezing cold outside. We just won the whole tournament and we were heading back to the bus to go back to the hotel. And one of the girls, Savanna [Holt] has a jersey and shorts on about to go outside. And Coach Poles just looks up and he yells, ‘You better put a jacket on, it is not summertime outside’ and we all just started cracking up.”

Holt is a guard for the Profs who was with Poles throughout her first four years at Rowan. Holt and him had a very unique relationship according to Mallard. 

“Savanna [Holt] is our energy, she is crazy. Not a lot of people can put up with her energy. He could not put up with her sometimes, and he would just always respond to her in funny ways.”

Holt is a player Poles would use as a spark plug off the bench because of her aforementioned energy, but she recalls a moment when he provided energy for the whole team during practice.

“I was mic’d up for one of the practices,” Holt said. “We were practicing half-court shooting and he lined up to take one. He sunk it on the first shot. Everyone was excited. He was always so ultra-competitive. Especially with me. He just made basketball so fun for all of us. He always made me want to work hard.”

Holt and Poles’ relationship was special, and now, she wants to follow in Poles’ footsteps.

“The game means everything to me,” Holt said. “Being with him since my freshman year means a lot to me. He has done so much for me, so many things that I admire. I want to be a coach when I graduate. When I get older, I want to follow in his footsteps. I want to run his plays. I looked up to him, he was my role model.”

The pregame ceremonies for Poles might bring up some emotions that some of the people on the team have not yet fully confronted or experienced.

“No words can describe what this game is going to mean for us,” senior forward Eliana Santana said. “It is going to be very sensitive. Just because I know it has not hit a lot of us. It definitely means a lot to us, but it also means a lot to his family.”

After honoring the legacy of Poles, the most important thing for the team is to win that game against Stockton. With Poles’ competitiveness, the team knows he would want nothing more than for them to beat Stockton. 

“It is very important to get the win on Tuesday,” Holt said. “I know he is looking down on us, he sees how much potential we have. He wants us to win because he wants the best for us even though he is no longer here. Just playing in that game, it is gonna be good. We are gonna be playing on fire.”

Not only is this next game going to be in his memory, but guard/forward Kristina Johnson wants the team to accomplish the one thing Poles always wanted during his coaching career.

“I am going to be playing every game like it is my last,” Johnson said. “We are playing for his memory. He wanted to win a national championship. That is our biggest motivation for the rest of the season.”

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