Before a basketball game, Oklahoma guard Je'lon Hornbeak receives encouraging messages from his lifetime coach.
“Only you can hold you back,” she tells him.
“Be a leader, not a follower,” she reminds him.
Sheila Hornbeak has been telling her son these messages since he was a young boy.
For a summer in between Je'lon's freshman and sophomore year in high school, Sheila was able to stand in the team huddle and share them face-to-face. She was, after all, an assistant coach on his AAU squad. Now, with Je'lon at Oklahoma, she calls her son and reminds him before each start.
Those messages and her time spent as a coach has helped the bond between Sheila and Je'lon grow into a mature mother-son relationship, but the summer they were on the same team that bond was stretched.
“There was a lot of tension,” Sheila said. “I knew what he could do, but he wasn't showing it.”
Sheila tried to explain to Je'lon that even though she last played basketball in high school, she still understood the game and understood what he needed to do to improve. Je'lon thought she knew nothing.
He rolls his eyes still sometimes when that summer gets brought up.
“Man,” Je'lon said. “That was a rough summer.”
His mom told him what he did wrong and tried to help him get better while trying to embarrass him as little as possible.
“I always understood him,” Sheila said. “He had to understand me. ... But I used to be the hated one.”
Now, she's the one he seeks advice from.
“After a game it's, ‘Mom, how did you think I did?” Sheila said.
Hornbeak, a freshman who has started every game this season, is averaging 23.7 minutes (third-most on the team), 2.7 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game. He also leads the team in steals with 16.
“I grew up in a family of women,” said Je'lon, whose grandfather died when he was a child and who grew up in a single-parent household. “When I get done with a game, all my grandmother wants to talk to me about is my free throws and how could I miss a free throw.
“My sister will talk to me about what I did wrong and right in my game, and my mom will tell me what I need to improve on.”
Going just 18 for 27 in free throws, Je'lon has heard a lot from his grandmother this season.
“‘How can you miss something that's free?'” Je'lon said. “That's what she always asks me. I'm like, ‘It's harder than that.' She goes, ‘No, it's not. It's free.'”
His mom critiques him the same way. Today, Sheila says their communication is better, but they believe he should listen to them.
After all, that summer Sheila spent as an assistant coach, the team went to AAU Nationals and ended up in the Top 25.
For Je'lon and Oklahoma, the road to the collegiate Top 25 and a tournament run will be fueled with encouraging messages from a mom who turned into a coach.