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School Spirit: NBA Mainstays Head Back to College

Four former NBA players have traded in the comforts of being a pro athlete for head-coaching positions in remote NCAA outposts

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He watched the video. He completed the assignment. He just hadn’t filed the attendant paperwork. That nearly cost Damon Stoudamire $10,000. Well, not him, exactly.

“The other day, I got an email from our associate athletic director,” Stoudamire said. “He was saying, ‘Damon, you have to finish watching the referees tape.’ I was like, man, I already watched it.”

The 44-year-old former NBA star is in his second season as head coach of University of the Pacific, and he’s still wrestling with the adjustments. Stoudamire had to email a certificate to prove he’d completed the required homework about referees’ new points of emphasis, otherwise there would have been 10 grand worth of discipline. He caught his share of fines in the league, but Stoudamire is learning that is one of the many differences about his new job in basketball.

“They don’t fine me,” he said with a laugh and more than a little relief. “They fine the school. It’s a little different. But those are the little things I deal with every day. The little things add up.”

It’s why he’s developed a routine. The alarm goes off most mornings at 4:30. He gets in a workout, has something to eat, attends to personal affairs. The early-hour respite usually lasts until around 8. That’s the stretch he reserves for himself, if only because the rest of the day belongs to everyone else.

“That’s just my time,” he said. “After that, that’s when the phone starts burning. And the email. And it doesn’t stop.”

Stoudamire played for four NBA teams over 13 seasons. He was the Rookie of the Year back in 1995–96. He still follows the league and catches a game from time to time, like when he took the drive up to Sacramento from Stockton two months ago to watch the Kings beat the Sixers on a game-winner by rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox. That was a rare occasion, though. Stoudamire’s life still revolves around basketball, but these days he’s an old pro teaching young amateurs.

Like Stoudamire, the Tigers still have a lot to learn. They weren’t very good last season, going 11–22 and finishing next to last in the West Coast Conference. That’s part of the reason why Stoudamire overhauled the roster. He told the players he inherited that he would honor their scholarships — but added that many of them wouldn’t play if they stayed. Most fled. Three former Tigers transferred together to Alaska Anchorage, which is very far and very cold. As a result, all but three of the players on this season’s team were recruited by Stoudamire, and one of the holdovers is a walk-on.

But stitching together a new roster and sewing those players into a team that can compete with Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary’s, and the other schools that are the fabric of the WCC is only one of Stoudamire’s many challenges. What he’s come to understand, and the reason he wakes up so early, is that basketball is only part of being a head coach in college.

Talking to boosters. Talking to faculty. Dealing with the budget and travel. Sitting in on academic meetings that involve his players. Marketing (which frequently means marketing himself). Stoudamire is involved in all of it. It goes with the job, which he didn’t fully realize when he left the University of Memphis, where he was an assistant coach, to take over his own program.

“I knew it was going to be a lot of work — how much work I didn’t know until I actually got here,” Stoudamire said. “College is different. It’s a lot different than the pros. There’s a lot of administrative work. It’s a lot of getting out in the community and helping raise money. In college, I’m the owner, I’m the CEO, I’m all of that. I’ve got to do things as I see fit. Everything comes through me. It’s made me be more accountable in a lot of areas that maybe I wasn’t accustomed to.”

It’s a process, one that he isn’t alone in figuring out. Stoudamire is among a handful of once-prominent NBA players now commanding relatively remote college outposts. Former Blazers great Terry Porter is in his second season as head coach of the University of Portland. Donyell Marshall, who spent time with eight different NBA teams over 15 years, is in his second season as head coach of Central Connecticut State University. Onetime Suns star Dan Majerle is in his fifth season as head coach of Grand Canyon University.

“Obviously, it’s not all basketball,” Stoudamire said about the job. “In a lot of respects, it’s babysitting. It’s staying on top of people. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about collegiate sports in general that, if you haven’t been down here, you wouldn’t know.”

Pacific’s best player is probably point guard Kendall Small. The redshirt sophomore transferred from Oregon. Stoudamire tried to recruit him to Arizona and stayed in touch with his dad. When things didn’t work out with the Ducks, the Smalls called Stoudamire.

After practice in Stockton one afternoon, Small explained what a thrill it is to play for Stoudamire, whom he said “you have to respect” because “he’s done it at the highest level.” Small said Stoudamire tells the team stories now and then about his days in the league. Which Small, who was 11 during Stoudamire’s final NBA season, only sort of remembers.

“I watch his highlights on YouTube,” Small said.

Donyell Marshall can relate to the generational divide. Like Stoudamire, Marshall is 44 now. CCSU won just six games last season, his first as a head coach, and finished ninth in the Northeastern Conference. When he was out recruiting, Marshall said some of the kids remembered him playing in the league, but “the hardest part” is that they recall him “toward the end of my career, where I was strictly a 3-point shooter, not like the beginning of my career when I played inside-outside and was a very good rebounder, things like that.”

“Shoot, if they question Damon, I came before Damon,” Porter said when I relayed the story to him. Porter is a two-time All-Star who played in 124 playoff games over 17 years in the league. “Yeah, not many of my kids ask about it. On a couple of occasions, they asked me what it was like going up against MJ or Magic or something like that. Sometimes they want to hear a story about playing back in the day or saying the game is soft now compared to back then. But most of them don’t ask.”

Like Stoudamire and Marshall, Porter has quite a bit of work to do to reshape his team. Portland was the only squad in the WCC with fewer conference wins than Pacific last season; the Pilots went 2–16 in the WCC, and 11–22 overall. Preseason predictions put them near the bottom of the conference again this season, though Porter was more optimistic about their prospects when we talked. He has four returning players and two returning redshirts, but of that group the highest individual scoring average last season was nine points.

“There’s not much expectation on us,” Porter said. “Which is fine. I’m trying to use my name to restart the program. It takes time.”

Dan Majerle is going through the same thing at Grand Canyon University, though he’s further along in the process than Porter. Thing is, he never expected to be. Majerle was an assistant under Porter when Porter was head coach of the Suns. After Porter got fired, Majerle stayed on as an assistant for Alvin Gentry. Majerle, a Phoenix legend — he played eight of his 14 seasons with the Suns and made three All-Star teams with them — figured he’d coach his entire career in the NBA. He thought he’d probably get a shot to coach the Suns one day, too. But when the organization fired Gentry during the 2012–13 season, then–general manager Lance Blanks turned to Lindsey Hunter. Majerle reacted to that perceived slight the way you’d expect Thunder Dan to.

“For whatever reason, Lance and Lindsey were tight and he went with Lindsey,” Majerle said. “That was obviously a ridiculous decision. Lindsey did a terrible job and he was fired after. But I was not gonna be treated like that.”

So he walked. Majerle figured he was “going to relax for a while.” Then he got a call from his friend, longtime Suns executive Jerry Colangelo. He wanted to know if Majerle would talk to people over at Grand Canyon University, which is also located in Phoenix. The school was in the process of transitioning to Division I, and it needed a coach. Colangelo’s request was a personal favor; GCU’s business school is named after him. That’s how Majerle ended up coaching a team that most of the kids he started recruiting had never heard of.

That changed pretty quickly. As Majerle noted, they don’t have football at GCU. It’s “all basketball all the time,” and the goal was to become the Gonzaga or Butler of the Western Athletic Conference. If that sounds a bit much, Majerle has at least set the program on the path. The Antelopes won 15 games his first season, 17 his second, 27 his third, and 22 a season ago. In each of the past two seasons, they’ve finished tied for second in the conference. They were picked to win it this season, and they’ve started 10–5. Majerle called it his best team yet, and said recruiting is getting a lot easier — which does not mean the rest of his job has, too.

Majerle said he loves seeing the players and program develop, but he echoed Stoudamire’s sentiment about being “responsible for everything,” particularly checking up on “academics and off-the-floor stuff.”

“I had four kids,” Majerle said. “Now I have [16 more]. I would wake up praying there are no problems in the morning. Because that’s what they are: kids. You just hope they aren’t getting into trouble.”

There are other adjustments that former NBA players turned college coaches can’t help but notice. Travel is a big one. As Stoudamire said, they “don’t go on 10-day road trips,” but they “don’t get that $131 per diem,” either. A Pacific staffer told me that when Stoudamire first started, he didn’t want to stay in Courtyard by Marriotts when the Tigers went on the road.

“I was like, ‘I’d give a nut to stay in a Courtyard,’” the staffer said.

“We don’t stay at the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton and all that good stuff no more,” Stoudamire said with a smile. “But we stay decent. It’s not like we’re staying in slums.”

But as Marshall explained, trading charter planes for bus rides and commercial flights presents certain challenges. “There are just more distractions in college,” he said. Instead of landing in a new city, practicing at a certain time, and then getting massages and treatment, there are logistical hurdles to clear — not to mention the usual college-kid concerns like “two or three tests in a week and a player might get stressed out.”

Porter said the way that college teams travel reminds him of his rookie days back in the mid-’80s, before the NBA had deep pockets stuffed with national television money. “Yeah, all that is different,” Porter said about traveling with the Pilots. “We’re not getting on any private planes. No food catered when we get there. No Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons. It’s Marriotts and Hyatts and stuff. It has a family vibe, too, at times with all the young kids. It’s really rewarding as well.”

The inevitable question with most college coaches is how long until they start to crave the finer things and, therefore, want to move up in the basketball world. Porter has already been a pro coach, and he’s older than Stoudamire, Marshall, and Majerle. The 54-year-old predicted his next stop after this will be the golf course.

Marshall and Stoudamire have other ideas about the future. Both said they’re happy where they are and hope to revitalize their respective programs, but neither ruled out making a jump to something bigger one day if they thought they could clear the chasm. Marshall said, “If it’s the right opportunity and situation, you have to look at it.” Stoudamire was more blunt: “I think about getting back into the league. It is something that I think about.”

As for Majerle, he insists he isn’t going anywhere. He said he’s “very loyal” to GCU for giving him the opportunity the Suns wouldn’t. “I have a great thing going,” Majerle said. He’s winning with his kids, even if most of them had to hear from their parents that they should “go play for the guy who played against Jordan and played with Barkley.”

“We’re getting closer and closer,” Majerle said. “This is all I want. Great people, great support from students, staff, school. I’d be crazy to leave now.”

Majerle went on like that for a while. It really did sound like he digs GCU. Before we hung up the phone, he added one more thing to underline the point. “Besides,” he said, revisiting a topic we’d discussed about 10 minutes earlier, “I don’t miss the Four Seasons.”