EDITOR’S NOTE: Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated for Kids, Horns Illustrated, Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications and his personal blog, 360 Sports.
For Kendre Talley, basketball has always been a vehicle, and a strong Christian faith has been his GPS.
The first-year head coach for the men’s basketball team at NCAA Division II Oklahoma Christian has gone through quite a journey, starting in his small hometown of Spencer, Oklahoma, across the ocean to Germany, and back to the Panhandle State, where his successful coaching career began.
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Talley’s strong faith in the Lord has always gone hand in hand with his passion for basketball. The combination has led to a humble mentality regarding his success early on in his coaching and playing career, and a constant desire to glorify the Lord in both the wins and the losses.
When Talley walked into the “Eagles’ Nest,” the home of Oklahoma Christian basketball, for the first time as freshman in November 2010, he never foresaw himself walking into the same gym nearly a decade later as the head coach for that same team. Even as he chatted with Sports Spectrum over the phone on a February morning, he acknowledged that it was only because of God’s divine plan that he’s accomplished so much in such a short amount of time.
As a young middle and high schooler, Talley developed an undying passion for the game of basketball, originally playing because it was a fun thing to do with friends, before his competitive spirit took over and drove him to become the best he could be. Early on, he remembers, he wasn’t the best, and standing now at 5-foot-9, he wasn’t the tallest, but hard work quickly made up for that. A guy who spent many hours in the gym as a young player, his skill set began to emerge at Star Spencer High, drawing the attention from schools all over, including the Oklahoma Christian (OC) Eagles. During Talley’s senior season, they made it known just how interested they were in this young point guard, attending nearly every one of his games.
“They showed a lot of dedication in recruiting me,” Talley said about Oklahoma Christian’s coaching staff. “My last few years of high school, they didn’t miss a lot of games. I would see them in the stands, just letting me know how much they wanted me to be a part of the program. So that made my decision a lot easier.”
Ultimately, Oklahoma Christian was where God led him.
“The education [at Oklahoma Christian] was big for me,” Talley said about his decision. “I didn’t want to just go somewhere where they had the best basketball team or the best facilities. Also, being a Christian university with me and my faith, it felt right at home. “
Once he got onto campus, it didn’t take long for Talley to feel comfortable, quickly making his mark with the then-NAIA school. He saw action in all 30 games and scored more than 10 points on five occasions. His stats only became more impressive as the years went by. By the time the 2013-14 season had come to a close, Talley had put together a phenomenal four years as an Eagle. He had developed more talent and finished his senior season as a standout leader of the team, and he earned several honors as well.
He played a vital role in the Eagles’ improbable run to a Sooner Athletic Conference title and National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) title game appearance, an overtime loss to Shorter University, in 2013, their final year in the NCCAA. The following season, as a senior, he guided them through their first year at D-II, helping them to a 10-18 record on his way to NCCAA second team All-American honors and becoming the only player in Heartland Conference history to lead the nation in points, assists and steals per game.
His spectacular performances didn’t go unnoticed by teams at the pro level, but not the typical American pro teams. Instead, Talley ventured out in the fall of 2013 on a path less traveled, across the Atlantic to Germany, where he’d see his first pro action with BBG Herford.
The game itself isn’t much different over in Europe, Talley says, but pretty much everything else is. As with most American players who go overseas, Talley experienced quite a bit of culture shock when he arrived in Herford, with a completely different language and culture. On one particular occurrence early on, he remembers having trouble at the grocery store.
“When I first got there, the culture shock was pretty heavy,” Talley said. “I would go to a supermarket and it would be hard for me to figure out which meat was what, because it didn’t just say it like it would back home.”
Despite these early difficulties, Talley settled into life as a pro player, breaking into the starting lineup after a month of being on the team, and accomplishing his dreams of playing at the pro level. It was an uphill battle, but an opportunity that was “priceless,” he says. That first time he was announced in the starting lineup was a moment that’ll stick in his mind forever, because it wasn’t just a landmark day in his basketball career, but also a symbol of how far he’d come since he arrived in Herford.
“When I first got my number called in the starting lineup, the warmth and praise that all the fans showed me, because it was more personal at that point, it was just amazing,” he remembers. “You don’t have family or anything over there, so it made me feel a part of the city and it was a special moment for me.”
At the same time his pro career was taking off, God began working in Talley’s heart to get into coaching, as he coached a youth team along with playing. After just one season in Germany, his heart was set on becoming a coach and he returned to the States to begin what has now been a four-year coaching career. In fact, on his road to head coach, he held three different roles at OC: a player, graduate assistant, and finally a full-time assistant. Then he was rewarded with a promotion in April 2019 to interim head coach. Even with a whirlwind of change, Talley didn’t lose his faith or let his pride influence his thankfulness even after promotions, great recruiting years and wins. Instead, he’s stayed grounded, something he attributes to his foundation of faith, and mentality to always strive for improvement, something that was fostered early on his career.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t very good at basketball, so I had to work that much harder, just because of my size and everything. I had to put in a lot of time. I always wanted to be better; good just wasn’t good enough for me. Even though I was performing well, I always felt like there was something more I could be doing,” Talley said.
He’ll never forget that first time he stepped onto OC’s home court for an exhibition against York University this past November. All in one moment, it hit him — he was the leader of this program, the head coach. Understanding the tradition behind Oklahoma Christian basketball, it meant that much more. There were nerves, there was excitement and there was a sense of love and appreciation from the community. That had always been there in some way or another, but it felt different now in this new position.
“Just being able to walk out there for the first time, all the nerves, it was surreal,” Talley remembered about that first game. “This is a dream job for me, and for it to actually come to life is amazing. Right before the game started, when they said my name, the OC community showed so much love to me. It meant a lot.”
Talley has taken over a well-established, yet previously inconsistent team, and led it in a transition to the Lone Star Conference (LSC) this past season. The LSC consists of 18 teams and only 12 make it to the conference tournament. His team has faced challenges that come with change, but the players respect their young coach and have responded with a maturity and eagerness that every coach desires.
“A lot of these guys want to go play overseas, or be all-conference, and they respect that and they respect me because I’ve done that before,” Talley said. “So I think they do lock in a little more into what I tell them to do because I’ve done it as well. It’s a huge advantage in being able to relate to them.”
For Talley and his team, punching their ticket to the conference tournament has been a goal they have been working toward all season. With only three games left in the season and an 8-12 conference record, winning the whole thing is likely the only way they’ll make the NCAA D-II Tournament. To even have that chance, the Eagles will first have to make the conference tournament, not an easy task in a super-competitive conference that features two top-10 nationally-ranked teams.
In the words of sportscaster Al Michaels, though, miracles do happen, and Talley believes it. If they do accomplish their goal and sneak in as one of the higher seeds, it’d be the first time any OC team has ever played in the LSC tournament, with it being the Eagles’ first year in the conference, and it would give them a chance to play in the national tournament. Currently slotted for the No. 9 seed, the LSC is so competitive that just one game can be the difference in making it or missing it by the narrowest of margins. This will truly be one of those seasons for OC where it all comes down to the final game. In fact, of 20 conference games thus far, seven have been decided by four points or less.
However, Talley understands the nature of this conference well, and keeps a strong mentality that all he wants is the best out of his players. That’s all he can ask for.
“I work as hard as I can, they work as hard as they can, just day in and day out, and I’ll be OK with the results,” Talley said. “I know we all want to win, we all want to make the conference tournament, but all you can do is your best because you can’t worry about what you can’t control.”
Because of his strong foundation of faith, he’s able to keep things in perspective even with the obvious pressures of being a head coach. He remains in constant tune with the Lord, especially this year as he’s gone through new challenges on a new leg of his journey. Looking back, he says that if God has taught him one thing in particular this season, it’s to become more selfless.
“I could easily be hard on myself all the time and be in my feelings after a loss, but one of the hardest things is going through some adversity and not worrying about yourself at all,” he said. “I think that’s the main thing this year, is to be more selfless and care for others as I would myself. That’s been big for me.”
So while OC’s unwavering goal to make the LSC Tournament is hanging in the balance, a fight to the finish that just might come down the the final game of the season on Saturday against UT-Tyler, the Eagles can be certain they have a leader in head coach Kendre Talley, who cares about his players both as athletes and followers of Christ. He gets the most out of his players every time they step onto the court.
Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kid reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications, his personal blog 360 Sports, and now Sports Spectrum, having been a longtime fan of the magazine.
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