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Attention to detail goes beyond the court for Milford Mill's Holley

No. 1 Millers' coach has dealt with symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder — and used some to his advantage

By Glenn Graham, The Baltimore Sun

6:32 PM EST, February 20, 2012

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Milford Mill boys basketball coach Albert Holley begins knocking out his checklist the night before a big game.

The clothes are washed and neatly folded. The dishes are clean, and the kitchen's granite countertop is free of fingerprint smudges. The rest of the house is just as spotless.

In the morning, he feels the need to stick around until his wife leaves for work and their two daughters are off to school, making sure no last-minute messes are left behind. As he heads to the front door, Holley passes through the foyer where the frills on the rug have to be perfectly straight.

"Then," he says, "I can go about my day."

The extensive routine isn't an over-the-top superstition that he thinks will help assure a win for his two-time defending state champion basketball team, which is 19-2 and ranked No. 1 in the area heading into the regional playoffs.

This is a part of his life.

Although never diagnosed, Holley has symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), an anxiety condition in which people have unwanted thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations or behaviors (obsessions) that make them feel driven to act on (compulsions).

The International OCD Foundation, based in Boston, estimates that about 1 in 100 adults in the United States — between 2 to 3 million total — have the disorder, which ranges from mild traits to a debilitating dependency. It has many different forms with familiar symptoms, including excessive hand washing, repeated checking, extreme hoarding and nervous rituals.

'I have to create order'

Holley's form of OCD deals with order and symmetry.

And, also a teacher in Baltimore County's AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program, it affects every facet of his life.

"It causes you to focus on things that most people don't care about," Holley said. "Walking into my classroom, if there is no order, then I have to create order before I can go on and start something else. The chairs have to be straight, the desks are a particular way, all my books are lined up and my chalkboards are clean. I just have to make sure everything has its proper place before I can move on."

A graduate of Randallstown High and the University of Baltimore, Holley, 40, was raised in a tidy household. And while he always considered himself a "neat freak," he didn't recognize he had the condition until his early adult years. He would visit a friend and see a typical young man's place — a bit dirty and unkept. He began to wonder why his pad had to be immaculate and why fingerprint smears bothered him so much.

After marrying his wife, Melissa, and having his daughters, Nyla, now 8, and Alissa, 4, Holley became even more aware of his disorder when it came to the challenge of living with his family.

"I just thought this was the way people were supposed to live. You're supposed to have everything in order, you're supposed to clean everything." he said. "You sort of see that everybody isn't the same, but you still think people are just different and there's nothing wrong with me. But as I got older, I started to realize that I couldn't function unless certain things are in order. That's when I realized I had a problem."

Despite describing his condition as "often taking on another job," Holley has never sought medical attention. He's apprehensive about taking medicine and believes he's been able to manage his OCD to a point where it's never gone overboard. With it, he has a beautiful family, a job that enlightens youth and plenty of success as a basketball coach.

In his sixth year at Milford Mill, he has led the Millers to 121 wins and the past two Class 3A state titles. On Friday night, they won their fourth straight Baltimore County championship, and they have now won 67 consecutive league games dating back to December of 2008. More important to him is the fact that 23 of his 25 graduated players have gone on to college.

"I've seen people who are incapacitated by [OCD]," Holley said. "So with me, it may be not to a varying degree or it may just be the form that I have. I try to think of it as the focus it gives me helps me to be successful. A lot of times, success makes you feel like you have the answers, so you don't look elsewhere for them a whole lot."

'He looks at every last detail'

Dr. Gerald Nestadt, director of the Johns Hopkins Medicine OCD Program, said many aspects of the disorder remain a mystery.

"As far as the cause, we have not the slightest idea," he said. "The only indicator is that it does appear to be familial, and therefore we're studying genetics to see if there's genes involved."

Nestadt said the disorder affects men and women equally in different cultures, and it's usually a lifelong condition. When first diagnosing cases at Johns Hopkins, a scale consisting of five questions is used to measure the severity of a person's condition.

"There's some people that can manage their lives with it, and there's others that absolutely can't do anything. They can't leave their house," Nestadt said. "The question is, how does someone do it? Well, they make changes in their life. This coach, who I don't know, probably wakes up an extra hour or two earlier than he needs to in order to do the stuff so that he can leave. He does his job and he functions adequately. Is he imposing on himself? No question. But he's still able to function very well."

Holley's players quickly learn to accept the way he does things. Practices rarely include scrimmages (Holley cringes at the sight of sloppy play and thus tends to stop it frequently), drills have to be completed perfectly or are repeated, and the game plan is always precise.

"In drills, he looks at every last detail," senior point guard Chase Cormier said. "It can be something as simple as a three-man weave where you have to run your lanes. The lines on our court are green, so you have to run outside each time. Some people don't make it outside the lanes. They may think so, but everybody has to make it outside the lane each time until the drill is completely over."

During games, Holley credits his disorder for helping him make quicker adjustments.

"It helps me see the whole picture, and within that whole picture you see how everything should be," Holley said. "So on the basketball court, I know where all my players should be, and if something is out of order, it allows me to see it quickly and then get it right back in order."

When the Millers were trailing then-No. 1 Dunbar by four points earlier in the season, Holley recognized that one of his players was consistently late when sliding over in the team's zone press. The problem was addressed, and the Millers forced a couple of key turnovers soon after. They went on to hand the Poets their first loss of the season.

'A father figure'

Holley's work with his players goes far beyond the X's and O's. He says he's a teacher of life first and a basketball coach second.

And his players attest to that.

"Coach Holley is a father figure on and off the court," said Isaiah McCray, a team captain in the Millers' past two championship seasons who now plays atIndiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne(IPFW). "He teaches young men everything they need to know to get ready for the real world. It's all about working hard and seeing that it can pay off. Just following everything he says, you know it can lead you to be a successful person."

At home, there are concessions that help Holley and his family coexist.

Holley has his own office and Melissa, a nurse practitioner, has her own. The kids are allowed to play and make a mess, and only after they are completely done will Holley start cleaning up. They also have learned to make light of the situation, like when Melissa deliberately throws a shirt on the floor to see how long her husband can hold off until picking it up.

"Our counters have to have a certain shine, so I may take my finger and smudge it from time to time right after he cleans it," Melissa said with a laugh. "He gets mad!"

Holley tries to understand and reinforce to himself that not everybody sees things the same way. He's also aware that others may have more extreme cases of OCD and should look for outside help.

As for himself, when asked one of the questions on the scale from Hopkins — How upset are you personally by having it? — he comfortably replies, "Not at all."

But what about the two hours he has to spend cleaning up the night before a big game? Couldn't that extra sleep help?

"Yeah," Holley said laughing. "We might have won that Lake Clifton game — I blew that one."

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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