MISSOULA — Jamar Akoh has been the underdog himself plenty of times.
The former Montana men’s basketball star played scarce minutes on his high school junior varsity team his freshman year, appearing in garbage time late in blow-out games. He started his college career at Cal State Fullerton where they won a combined 19 games in two seasons.
He transferred to join the Grizzlies after the 2015-16 season and became a key part in Montana's two straight NCAA Tournament appearances in '18 and '19.
“I love a good underdog story,” Akoh said during a Tuesday phone interview. “Big Sky is the underdog I think and I’ve always been an underdog. … I felt like I can actually have an impact on the program and help the coaching staff grow.”
It’s fitting then that he's now an assistant coach for the Missoula Big Sky boys basketball team, a program that has seen its share of struggles but has recently been eying newfound success with its most talented group in head coach Ryan Hansen’s tenure.
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Akoh hopes his years of basketball experience helps the Eagles players and coaches all be better. He said it's his way of giving back to the game, which took him to France and Iceland playing professionally after college, and that has been so influential in his life.
Beyond the game, though, he wants to give back to the Missoula community. The one that supported him as a Grizzly and welcomed him to the Garden City with open arms and excitement around those dominant Montana teams he was a part of.
“Coming up I had a lot of help,” Akoh said. “I had a lot of people guide me and mentor me so it always has been in the back of my mind that I want to give back to the game because the game has given a lot to me. … I think God brought me here and I want to give back to the community. Missoula has done so much for me and supported me so well. Shout out to anybody that has ever interacted with me or anybody that has touched me.
“I saw an opportunity to give back and it was just right,” he added.
Akoh has been back in Missoula for a bit since he returned from Iceland, where he said playing basketball became more like a job than anything else which he never wanted to allow to happen. So he took a break, used his degrees in business and marketing that he earned at UM, and began working at a start-up in town for a spell.
Now he is building up his own business while taking the time to coach and see where basketball continues to lead him. For now, it has led him to Big Sky.
Road to Big Sky
Akoh initially looked towards Missoula Hellgate for a possible gig as an assistant, but ultimately decided it wasn't the best fit after all.
Later Zach Murphy, a friend of Akoh’s and an assistant at Big Sky, told Akoh to stop by an Eagles practice. Akoh did and that led to him spending time as a volunteer assistant.
From Hansen’s view, Akoh’s experience has been massive for the budding Eagles’ program that, at 2-2, is just four points against Billings West and some mistakes against on the road Belgrade away from being 4-0 and an upstart team in the Class AA.
“It’s been awesome,” Hansen said of working with Akoh. “Part of what made him want to work with us is we have a lot of similar philosophies as a staff where we are defense first and I think he likes that. … The kids are really enjoying him and I’m enjoying his extra eyes and obviously he has a lot more knowledge than a lot of people.”
Akoh had done one-on-one training with hoopers here and there, helping hopeful basketball players improve their skills in an individualized setting. So coaching wasn’t new to him, but it’s been an adjustment after having been away from the high school game for a while.
Still though, Akoh knows a thing or two. He’s been through the highs — NCAA Tournaments and Big Sky titles — and the lows — single-digit Big West Conference winning marks — of college basketball.
The Eagles coaching staff has been open to what Akoh has shared, taking some lessons of their own from the former Grizzly. Akoh praised their openness to new ideas, and that they welcomed him as a key part on the bench.
Watching and learning
Spending a few seasons with Travis DeCuire, who has had a few former players start coaching post college, isn’t a bad way to learn some coaching styles.
Akoh did just that. He watched the Grizzlies coach from the bench and whenever he could to soak in knowledge of the game.
“I learned a lot from Travis,” he said. “I watched the way Travis prepared and our whole coaching staff honestly (with) the way they coached the game, the way they prepared and the way they held us accountable.”
But he knows that the exact ways DeCuire coaches a college basketball team is not the same as high school. Lessons can be applied, but not in the same way.
Akoh knows how a successful program looks compared to an unsuccessful one, going from a losing program to a winning one in college. That experience, Akoh said, helps him give the Eagles program more to build on.
DeCuire noted that many former college hoopers end up coaching, and he likes Akoh’s fit with Big Sky as he starts his coaching career.
“It’s typical for basketball players when they’re done playing to stay attached in one way or another,” DeCurie said after the win over SAGU American Indian College. “Some continue to play in men’s leagues and things like that and some coach. He’s got the personality of someone who likes to be around basketball and I think he will be beneficial for Big Sky. … He’s got good feel for the game. He understands basketball; he understands concepts and he communicates well so I think he will be helpful for them.”