Hilda Hankerson’s experiences on the Mercer women’s basketball team set the stage for her successful career and gave her strong examples to follow. Now a nationally recognized girls basketball coach, she strives to help her own students master the fundamentals of the game while also broadening their horizons.
Hankerson came to Macon from Atlanta in 1974 and played basketball for four years for the “Teddy Bears,” founded in 1970 and first coached by Peggy Collins.
“We were one of the top teams in the nation at that time,” Hankerson said. “That national recognition and being able to travel and play different places was something that was different from what I had experienced in high school. It was so new for women to even play basketball at that level. That to me was a new situation to be embarking on. I had a grand time, and those friendships have lasted a lifetime.”
As graduation approached in 1978, Hankerson began to ponder her next chapter. She wanted to teach health and physical education, her major at Mercer, but working with a women’s basketball team also interested her. Collins had left Mercer for Mississippi State in 1977, and Hankerson spent some time catching up with her former coach after Mississippi State played at Mercer her senior year.
“She said, ‘Come work with me.’ I went to Mississippi State as a graduate assistant, and after I received that degree, I became her first full-time assistant coach,” Hankerson said.
Collins taught Hankerson how to run basketball camps, and that’s where she learned that success starts with a solid understanding of the fundamentals. The camps were for kids in elementary through high school, and she recalled being irritated when Collins made her work with the youngest kids. But words of wisdom from the coach stuck with her.
“(Collins) told me, ‘If you can teach them the fundamentals, you can teach anyone.’ When they master that, the wins come. It wasn’t about winning. It was about teaching the fundamentals of the game.”
That mindset has led to success after success for Hankerson and her teams. After Mississippi State, she coached at three different high schools in Miami, where her husband was stationed in the Air Force. When Miami was hit hard by Hurricane Andrew, the couple returned to Atlanta to await repairs but ended up staying.
Hankerson became the girls basketball head coach at Camp Creek Middle School, a feeder school to Westlake High School, where she later became assistant coach and then head coach. She’s now been at Westlake for 27 years. She is also the health and physical education department chair and served as athletic director for a decade.
When she arrived at Westlake, the girls basketball team had won three games the previous season. Just three years later, the Lady Lions made it to the final four.
The team now averages more than 20 wins each season and has won the Class 6A/7A State Championship the past four years. This past spring, the Lady Lions won the GEICO National Championship, the first time a Georgia team won the title. Hankerson was named the 2021 National High School Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
“We’re just thankful that God put us on the platform for this opportunity. We don’t take it for granted,” she said. “I enjoy teaching and watching the kids move from stage to stage to become successful.”
One of Hankerson’s most memorable career experiences was serving as a court coach for the 2019 USA Basketball Women’s U16 (16 and Under) National Team trials in Colorado Springs.
“I had the chance to work with the girls who were trying out to make the team,” she said. “To be given the opportunity to help train the athletes that could possibly one day be Olympians was very powerful for me.”
When Hankerson was at Mercer, Collins always made sure the team saw more than just the gym, and Hankerson has followed that example. Her students have been to tournaments in Hawaii and the Bahamas and played games in other states, and they always get a chance to see a little of those new cities.
Hankerson remembered her team stopping by the beach before a game in Florida. It was a cold day, but the girls put their toes in the sand and water anyway.
“That seems like a minor thing for some people, but that’s huge for some kids,” she said. “I enjoy taking my kids out to be exposed to things that they may never have been exposed to if not for athletics. I try to put the kids, when I can, on the stage to see the world.”