EKU hoops coach Hamilton attributes success to goal-setting habits

Published 11:44 am Friday, December 1, 2023

A.W. Hamilton, current head coach of Eastern Kentucky University’s men’s basketball team, might be well-known to basketball fans throughout the commonwealth.

On Wednesday afternoon, he became even more well-known to the citizens of Clark County.

Hamilton spoke to the Rotary Club of Winchester at the Winchester Country Club.

Email newsletter signup

“We [have] got a purpose as Rotarians. We’re servant leaders,” said Hamilton. “That’s what we’re doing here. That’s [why] we all gathered here.”

Hamilton, a Georgetown native, is no stranger to success on the basketball court.

After helping lead Scott County High School to a state championship in 1998 and a runner-up finish in 1999, he played collegiately at Wake Forest and Marshall University.

Hamilton later became the Head Coach at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, VA, where – winning more than 90% of his games during six seasons – he helped the Tigers capture a National Prep Championship in 2016 following a 47-1 record.

After serving as an assistant coach at North Carolina State University for one season, he became head coach of the Colonels in 2018.

Yet, following two seasons, an unexpected circumstance created a challenge beyond anything encountered on the hardwood floor.

In June 2020, at age 39, Hamilton was diagnosed with Stage II Melanoma, a type of skin cancer that forms when melanocytes – the cells that give the skin its tan or brown color – start growing uncontrollably.

Interestingly, Hamilton only saw the doctor for a physical examination after a fellow assistant coach fell victim to a stroke.

Coach Hamilton, who would eventually have a tumor surgically removed, acknowledged that the experience unnerved his usual positive nature.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” he said. “All I could think about was ‘poor me.’ I’ve got a dream job. I’ve got three kids. I’ve got two little kids. Am I [going to] be able to walk them down the aisle?’ ‘Am I going to be able to teach my son how to play basketball?’ ”

Yet, following a conversation with his mother, Hamilton was offered perspective.

“[She said], ‘You’re [going to] be okay. God’s got a bigger plan for you,” Hamilton stated. “I said, ‘You know what? God does have a bigger plan for me. He does have a bigger purpose for me.’ ”

Acknowledging that he is big on goal setting, Hamilton stated that the three goals he set following this discussion were to defeat cancer, tell his life story, and save another person’s life.

“I [have] got to tell my story. I [have] got to make sure people are getting their screening. I’ve got to make sure people are going to get a physical,” he said. “I changed my way of thinking, and I said, ‘You know what? This adversity is not a setback. This is a stepping stone to do something impactful.’ ”

From there, Hamilton – who has continued to serve as a public speaker – set toward continuing to build a winning formula both on and off the basketball court.

One area of focus has been overcoming adversity.

“I walked into my team, and I said, ‘Look, guys, how we handle adversity will be how this team will be defined’ ” Hamilton said. “No matter what happens … we can’t stop [fighting].”

The will to fight came up big for the Colonels in the postseason.

During their run to a runner-up finish in the 2023 College Basketball Invitational (CBI) Tournament, the 8th-seeded and underdog Colonels won three consecutive postseason games against Cleveland State, Indiana State and Southern Utah.

Impressively, all three victories came in overtime.

“We had the most postseason wins in the last seventy-eight years at Eastern Kentucky. We just would never quit,” he said.

Hamilton also noted that – through activities such as having players memorize the school fight song – he has helped build a strong, family-like culture.

“You [have] got to be invested if you’re going to be a servant leader. You’ve got to be invested [in each other] if you’re going to become a real family,” he said.

A strong-knit group, the 2023-24 edition of the Colonels’ basketball team is one of only six Division 1 basketball schools throughout the country not to have a player transfer via the transfer portal after last season.

Speaking to those in attendance, including a pair of GRC athletes, Hamilton also emphasized building solid habits, referencing the successes of athletes such as Michael Jordan and Tom Brady.

“In the most clutch situations, that’s when your habits come out,” he said.

The successful coach expressed gratitude for the opportunity to speak.

“I just hope they feel the appreciation I have for what they do,” he added. “Rotarians and rotary clubs are doing so many great things for our community.”