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Many Sides to the story

History tells many stories. Some are judged by their cover. Others are told by the pages within. When the final buzzer sounded on March 10, 2018 the Forest Hills High School Men’s Basketball Team had won their first 2A Championship in school history. And while that may be the title sprawled across history and the gym walls, this story is much deeper than its cover.

Nowadays if, between the months of October and February, you have ever been to Jim and Judy’s Kitchen in Wingate, N.C. for an evening meal, you may have caught a glimpse of this story-- teenage boys from different backgrounds eating family style meals at the same table, elbow to elbow, with their coaches. Tables often tell our stories. Sometimes, they also help make them.

Coach Matt Sides in the Hargett Gym. This is a story that got its start 54 years ago. When people in Marshville and Wingate talk about basketball, usually one name comes up: The late Ralph Hargett. Coach Hargett led the Yellow Jackets to nine conference championships, earning five district titles. He was also the one who took Forest Hills to the 1964 2A State Title game only to fall short to Hildebran 65-70. His success as a coach (over 500 career wins) now dawns his name on the school’s original gym as “Ralph’s House.”

For the last six years, a new name has been brought up in conversation: Matt Sides. If Coach Hargett built the house, Matt Sides is its new caretaker. However, Sides does more than just take care of the basketball facility; he takes care of his coaches and his players while honoring the memory and program Hargrett started so many years ago.

“I witnessed firsthand his demeanor, genuine love for his players, and desire to do things the right way,” said former Jackets head coach and Athletic Director Warren Taylor.

So, how does a high school basketball coach turn a program on its head and begin to develop a strong community presence as well as court presence? He does it by going for the heart, the coaching staff. He does it by using the same values that were taught to him by his father. In fact, since he began his coaching career as the head JV coach at Concord High School over 12 years ago, Sides has had his father, Keith, coaching right alongside him.

Keith Sides coached many of the soccer and basketball teams Matt played for growing up at the Boys and Girls Club. But unlike many of today’s parents who are extreme sideline coaches, Keith Sides didn’t put his main focus on Xs and Os-- he taught Matt and his siblings the importance of being committed, working and playing hard, and mainly what it means to be a team. To be a family.

“He can teach the family concept because he lives it. His faith keeps him grounded and his purpose is to serve,” said Taylor.

No surprise Matt uses those same concepts with his teams.  

When his dream of being offered a college scholarship to play basketball didn’t come to fruition, Sides set his focus to be a walk-on at Furman University. For him it wasn’t about being a star player; it was being part of something bigger than himself, a team. His freshman and sophomore years he didn’t log much playing time, but he did soak up as much from the experience as he could. He played in many historic arenas and broadened his global perspective making friends with teammates who were on scholarship from other countries: Croatia, Brazil, France, and Senegal.

While at Concord High School, the Sides family got a taste of the State Championship when Matt served as an assistant under head coach Andy Poplin: First in 2006 when the Spiders reached the final game and lost. The second was the following year when they claimed the 3A state trophy. Brooke Sides, Matt’s sister, was a senior cheerleader that year at Concord, making it truly a family celebration. However, it was also bittersweet. That was also the year tragedy struck the Sides family. Prior to their trip to earn the championship title with Concord, Matt’s brother, Andrew, was killed in a terrible accident while attending Western Carolina University, a tribulation the family is still working through. This is where Matt’s childhood lessons would come into play.  

“Matt recognizes what it takes to build a successful program. He takes the talent that he is blessed with and using the family model of high expectations and holding each other accountable, has established a cohesive group of young men. They know and accept their roles. They work hard. They work together. And if an individual isn't willing to uphold the highest standards, he doesn't allow that individual to infiltrate and destroy the family.”

At Anson High School, Sides took the seat at the head of the table for the 2008-2009 season; Keith took the seat next to him. In his first year as head coach, he led the Bearcats to more than triple their win record from the previous season where they had only two wins. In his second season, he pulled the Bearcats out of the deficit column and into playoff contention with the first double digit win season they had seen in five years along with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen of the the 3A/4A State Playoffs.

State Championship Trophy with locker room banner reading Family, Pride, Commitment It was at Anson that Sides developed the team’s mantra: “Family. Pride. Commitment.”-- the same words that appear on the backs of each Yellow Jacket player.

Current Forest Hills assistant coach Danny Bailey, played for Sides at Anson from 2010-2012. “[Sides] is a family man; he instilled that from day one: It’s all about the brotherhood. It’s all about loving on your brother, being with him and taking up for your brother and looking out for him. Take pride in the community. Take pride in the gear that we have. Take pride in coming to practice and working hard every single day. As far as commitment, it’s a big commitment to play for our program because we spend so much time putting into it. Before going to a game, I always know no matter who we are going to play, I know we have put more time getting ready for it.”  It’s not a motto; it’s a lifestyle.

While at Anson, Sides also added Garrett Malone to his staff and introduced him to the same belief system of Family, Pride, Commitment. “I thought is was an amazing slogan. We wanted to be like a family, treat each other like brothers-- some seemed more like sons. When he introduced me to that, I took it all in; it became ingrained in me as well,” remarked Malone.

In four years at Anson, Sides accumulated a 57-48 record and  one conference championship--a feat no coach has had at Anson since Sides came to Forest Hills in 2012.

“When it became apparent to me that the newly added duties of being the Athletic Director was adversely affecting my coaching duties, I knew that there was only one person that I thought would be able to take the program where I wanted it to go,” said Taylor. “Matt had successfully turned the program at Anson around, so the prospects didn't look great-- until I heard through the grapevine that he desired to move closer to home. One thing led to another and we were fortunate that he applied for the job.”

When Sides, and his father, came to Forest Hills, he entered a program that had been at or above even for at least eight seasons, much better than at his former school. But winning wasn’t what was missing in Marshville. It was winning the right way and changing the way the players and community looked at Forest Hills.

“Matt teaches his young men that life is bigger than them. We are put on this earth to serve others. When the team supports the middle school team, reads to elementary school children, invites and includes the community in the journey, it bonds the community towards a common goal. In this day and age where hate and distrust are being explicitly promoted, it is so special to see a good community enjoy rallying behind a common goal,” expressed Taylor.

The Jackets finished a game above .500 in each of the first two seasons with Sides. His wife, Alicia, remembers those first years when Matt would beat himself up game after game, struggling to turn around the program.

“It was always upsetting to see him so upset about a loss. I just kind of told him, ‘You can’t get down on the losses; the losses are what make the kids better.’ The kids will realize, ‘We’re not invincible. We need to work on things.’ You need to look at the losses and say, ‘What can we do better?’”

What she said must have struck a chord. Sides devoted himself to studying more game film and bringing those issues into the next practice. He also put more emphasis into forming and maintaining relationships with his players, breaking bread with them several times a week and holding team building exercises. Sides, his father, Coach Malone and Coach Bailey, each spent time talking to them about the importance of education and taking control of your circumstances-- if you don’t like something, you have the power to change it.

“I don’t know if he picked this up from me, but one of the things I used to do was script my practices. Matt is meticulous when he plans. Our practices are down to the minute. I used to do that when I was coaching him in AAU just because I was busy, not because it made basketball better. We were in it for an hour and a half, here are the twelve things we are going to do,” remembered, Keith.

“Since college he has wanted to coach high school basketball. Honestly, I wanted him to come into our business. That’s what I thought he would do once he got his degree.He didn’t want to do that; he wanted to go into coaching. I actually tried to talk him out of it. However, when he made the commitment to go into it though, Cindy and I were fully onboard to help him, just like Andrew and Brooke.

“No matter what we did, just do it with everything you got-- don’t just do it to be doing it. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Commit the time. If not, move on to something else. He’s taken that to heart. One of the reasons he wanted to come to Forest Hills six years ago is because he thought he would have an opportunity to win a state championship and to, not so much build a program-- Coach Hargett had a phenomenal program here-- but to recreate the program.”

Forest Hills' basketball team at their Senior Night

It didn’t take long after that for the players to see that Sides and the coaches were modeling the same lifestyle they expected of them: Family. Pride. Commitment.

When Senior Jaleel McLaughlin moved up to the varsity squad his Sophomore year, he wasn’t happy about his playing time and felt that he deserved more. He took this personal and his attitude began to reflect that in the hallways as well as on the court. That’s when McLaughlin heard something he was never told before: “You have to get better.” Those weren’t the cliched words of a coach dismissing a player. They carried weight. They were a full portion of self accountability that many teens don’t get enough of these days.

“I had to get better as a person. I never had someone tell me that before. That made my attitude change so much; it made me want to go get the things I wanted in life and just go get it--don’t sit back and think things are going to come to you. He face-to-face told me-- as a man-- what I had to do. Nobody has ever done that before. It was big,” explained McLaughlin-- who recently signed a letter of intent to continue his education and play football at Notre Dame College in Ohio.

“The biggest thing was hearing that it doesn’t matter how good you are at something if you aren’t good as a person you’re not going to make an influence in life. Period. So that’s what made me want to get better as a person and on the court.

“Coach Sides and I are real close. Ever since he told me that. I go to Coach Sides about anything now. Just knowing that he really cares about me, he cares about the person I am. If there is something going on at home, I can tell him face to face and he will try his best to help me out at that point. He’s going to help me out with it. I don’t have a father in my life. If I need anything, I just text Coach.”

Building relationships with the players is natural to the Sides family. Cindy, Matt’s mother,  instantly became the team mom. She packs the team “goody bags” for their away games. Prepares meals. Provides bottles of Gatorade. Keith and Cindy open the doors to the use of their beach house for the team to stay at during summer camp tournaments in Wilmington. To Cindy, the players are an extension of her son. They are her family.

The teams Sides coaches follow suit within the community. They visit the cluster schools and welcome students during their morning arrival with cheers and applause. They read to students. They help coach and support the middle school basketball teams. No wonder the community has taken notice. It’s hard not to rally behind that.

Maybe that’s why so many fans from the community traveled to the Final Four in Greensboro and then made the trek to Chapel Hill a week later for the title match. It was there after the game that so many waited to embrace the team as the exited the Dean Dome: Matt’s mom, his wife, and Ella Hargett, wife of the late Ralph Hargett, wearing her vintage Forest Hills Cheerleader jacket and famous black and yellow boa around her neck. It’s hard not to get emotional about that.

Maybe that’s why at around 8:30 pm on March 10, a bus carrying those tired players was escorted through Marshville by police and greeted in the school parking lot by the Forest Hills community. Teachers. Parents. Elementary students. They watched and cheered as each player and coach got to cut a piece of the net. It’s hard not to see a story in all of this.  

A son and his father. A group of coaches and their team. A team and its community. This is a story about a brotherhood that sits around the same table. Although their story will often be told, it is still being written.

Matt Collier teaches English and Journalism at Forest Hills High School. He wrote and took all the photos for this article which was originally published in Forest Hills High's digital newspaper, The Stinger. Click here to view the story in its original format.