The Alabama men’s basketball program has a job. In normal times, the team is supposed to provide casual winter and spring entertainment for Southerners with no football to watch. It would be nice if the hoops team won a few games, too, and for a few extended runs in Crimson Tide history, it has. Basketball isn’t as irrelevant to the institutional identity at Alabama as it is at, say, Georgia, but it’s close enough. The Crimson Tide have missed the NCAA tournament in 12 of the past 16 years and only breached the second round once, when they made the Sweet 16 in 2021. The basketball team has at least held up its end of the bargain, amid all the losing, by not doing anything to attract too much attention to itself.
These are not normal times. Alabama is incredible at basketball now. Better than ever. In February, they got to No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 for the second time ever. Fans packed the old Coleman Coliseum, the building Bama would be replacing by now if it had gotten the money, which it hasn’t, because this is still Alabama and still basketball. Nonetheless, the Tide won the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament championships and locked in the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament on Sunday. When March Madness tips off this week, Bama will be a frontline favorite.
But it’s all happening against a backdrop that makes the success feel hollow. In January, police say, Tide bench player Darius Miles, 21, allegedly participated in the murder of Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother who was sitting in a car in Tuscaloosa. Police charged Miles with capital murder the next day, along with another suspect, 20-year-old Michael Lynn Davis, who they say pulled the trigger. Alabama rapidly kicked Miles out of school. It was a heinous tragedy, though not one that looked likely to embroil any of Miles’ teammates or the athletic leadership at Alabama. It wasn’t inevitable that the case would come to so thoroughly overshadow anything Bama did on the court for the rest of the year.
Jamea Harris died at around 1:45 a.m. Tuscaloosa time on Jan. 15. Court records say Miles admitted providing a gun to Davis, who police say shot into a car in which Harris was sitting. Miles, who had played in six games for the Tide this season, was the basketball program’s only connection to the case, as far as the public knew for more than a month. His head coach, Nate Oats, knew more, as Oats would tell reporters when the case developed further in February.
On Feb. 21, a police investigator testified that Miles had gotten the gun from Brandon Miller, a freshman forward who is by far Bama’s best player and one of the top prospects for this year’s NBA draft. Miles, who police say owned the gun, had left it in Miller’s possession, and asked his teammate, in those wee hours of the morning, to bring it to him. When Miller arrived, a detective said, Miles told Davis, “The heat is in the hat,” meaning a gun was present, and, “there’s one in the head”—a round in the chamber. Then the shooting began. Police said another Bama player, guard Jaden Bradley, was at the scene, too. Police said that Miller’s and Bradley’s cars blocked the one Harris was in from leaving the area. The New York Times reported on Wednesday night that a fourth Alabama player, walk-on Kai Spears, was at the scene. The Times cited a review of surveillance footage, and Spears declined comment. Alabama refuted the Times’ story and said only three players were at the scene.
Prosecutors apparently did not discover criminal intent on Miller’s part, and no law enforcement body has charged him with a crime. “There’s nothing we could charge him with,” Tuscaloosa’s chief deputy district attorney told AL.com. Miller’s lawyer said the player had no idea Miles’ gun would be used in a crime, that he was already on his way to pick up Miles when the text arrived about the gun, and that Miller’s car had not blocked the one carrying Harris. The gun was in Miller’s car, according to his lawyer, because Miles had left it there when Miller dropped him off at a nightclub earlier in the evening. Miller’s lawyer says his understanding is that clothing in the backseat of the car obscured the gun, and that Miller never saw or touched it in the course of driving it to the scene.
On the day of the testimony revealing Miller’s connection to the shooting, Oats sat down to talk with the media. Asked about Miller’s involvement in the case, Oats said, “We knew about that,” something nobody at Alabama had acknowledged as Miller had kept playing over the previous five weeks. “Can’t control everything anybody does outside of practice. Nobody knew that was going to happen. College kids are out. Brandon hasn’t been in any type of trouble, nor is he in any type of trouble in this case.”
Oats summed up Miller’s role thusly: “Wrong spot at the wrong time.”
That was an odd descriptor for a person promptly delivering a firearm upon request to someone who had just exited a club in the late hours of the night. Oats faced a public dragging for his ineloquence, lack of feel for the seriousness of the situation, or some combination. Some wondered how Oats could’ve felt comfortable keeping Miller, his best player, in the lineup in recent weeks if the coach had known these details.
Oats apologized in a written statement that night. He said law enforcement “has repeatedly told us” that Miller and Bradley were only witnesses, not suspects. He left unsaid when the police had first cleared the players in conversations with the school, or if any games elapsed between Oats learning of their proximity to the shooting and police giving those assurances. Also uncertain is whether Miller bringing Miles a weapon used in a killing could violate any internal policies for either Alabama students or athletes, or if it violated an ethical code that Oats might have for his program. The statement from Miller’s lawyer also left open questions. The attorney said Miller “quickly left the area when gunfire erupted,” and that he cooperated immediately when he learned someone had been injured and that police had questions. Whether Miller made any effort to contact police or medical aid before then is not said. Alabama’s position on Miller’s actions, other than that they didn’t warrant a suspension, is unknown, too. The school has not imposed any apparent discipline. Miller will start in Alabama’s opening tournament game on Thursday, just as he’s been starting for Bama all season. Miller has not spoken in detail about the case. A reporter asked him for comment last week, and Miller said: “I never lose sight of the fact that a family has lost one of their loved ones that night. This whole situation is just really heartbreaking. Respectfully, that’s all I’m going to be able to say on that.”
Oats probably would have done well to keep his comments as limited as Miller’s. In addition to the wrong-place-wrong-time comment about Miller and his characterization that “college kids are out,” Oats sought maybe the weirdest possible expertise in getting his team beyond the shooting. In the days immediately after Miles’ arrest, Oats called Ray Lewis, the Hall of Fame NFL linebacker. “Just thought he has been through a tragic situation,” Oats said, referring to the early-2000s case in which Lewis was charged with participating in a double murder before pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. “One of the more mentally tough athletes in my time.”
The weekend after the police testimony about Miller’s role, Alabama had a home game. Miller got a thunderous cheer from the crowd during pregame introductions. After walking through a line of his teammates, Miller stopped and received a mimed pat-down from a Bama walk-on. That was their normal pregame routine, and nobody in Oats’ office had decided that perhaps it was time for a new handshake. Oats said he doesn’t watch the intro line because he’s off drawing up plays. “Regardless, it’s not appropriate,” the coach said. “It’s been addressed and I can assure you it definitely will not happen again for the remainder of this year.” A few days later, Oats elaborated: “They explained to me that it’s like when TSA checks you before you get on a plane, and now Brandon’s cleared for takeoff.” In the most helpful thing Oats had said in a while, he added, “We, as the adults in the room, should have been more sensitive to how it could have been interpreted. I dropped the ball. That’s it. I dropped the ball on it.”
With his words, Oats has seemingly aggravated an already unbearable situation for Harris’ family. “There was only one person in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was Jamea,” her stepfather, Kelvin Heard, told AL.com. “When I heard him say that, my heart hit the floor. His words cut so deep. It’s just downright disrespectful.” Of Oats’ call with Lewis, who has admitted obstructing a murder investigation, Heard said: “It just made everything clear, because we could not comprehend why he would reach out to Ray Lewis. I’m not trying to rehash the situation with Ray Lewis, but I’m old enough to remember, and now it makes sense. He has time to call Ray Lewis, but he doesn’t have time to call Jamea’s mother.”
Alabama’s communications decisions have been a web. Remember that when Oats first fielded a question about the additional Bama players being at the scene, the coach started his defense by saying, “We’ve known the situation.” Acknowledging that his coach had erred in his comments, Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne stressed to reporters what his coach didn’t know. “Coach Oats only has so much information as well,” Byrne said. “Only law enforcement knows all the facts of the situation. The rest of us are still learning things.” He’s not wrong on that, but it’s interesting how Bama’s head coach and athletic director emphasized such different degrees of certainty at such ideal times for each. One can see what Bama was getting at when its sports information director tried to prohibit Miller-related questions at one presser. One can also see why the university president, Stuart Bell, has been a church mouse about the matter.
Aside from whatever’s in his own heart and a continued requirement to sit for questions that must feel tedious by now, Oats is not going to suffer for his handling of the killing’s aftermath. Industries exist where someone might lose a job or take some other serious punishment for not just speaking callously about a murder case involving his subordinates, but for the other self-inflicted errors Oats has made of late. Oats is not in one of those industries, or at least he’s not one of those coaches: He is tremendous at recruiting players and drawing up plays, so devoted to that craft that he hones it while he could be watching introductions. The university finalized a big contract extension for him in the weeks between Harris’ death and the testimony that crystalized the extent of Alabama basketball’s connection to it.
Oats made the Tide a compelling enough hoops product that football spring practice isn’t the only discussion point around their city right now. The fanbase, judging by its roaring for Miller and also common sense about how sports fanbases act, has no collective desire for Oats to go. The incentives don’t work for Alabama to do anything but hold its position. There is, at this point, a tournament to play. With every game Alabama wins will come an opportunity for anyone inclined to frame the events of the past month and a half as adversity for a team to overcome. And if the Tide do not advance deep into March, their leaders will at least get a break from people asking them how they managed to make such a mess.