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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Excellent Article on Josh Pastner from the Commercial Appeal - The Prodigy: For coach Josh Pastner, basketball bug bit early

The Prodigy: For coach Josh Pastner, basketball bug bit early
At age 9, he knew he wanted to be a basketball coach. As a high school sophomore, he was one, for an elite-level Houston AAU team. As a college sophomore, he applied to coach the NBA's L.A. Clippers.

By Scott Cacciola /
Sunday, April 12, 2009

By the summer of 2002, Prairie View A&M had cemented its status as one of the worst programs in college basketball. The Panthers had won 29 games in four seasons, their coach had been fired and athletic director Charles McClelland knew the team faced major hurdles to reach respectability.

"At that point in time, the program was so down that we knew we needed to make the right hire," McClelland said. "My thing was, the guy could be green with antennas coming out of his head -- he could be from Mars -- and I wouldn't care as long as he could coach."

McClelland received 85 applications for the position, and one candidate in particular was relentless. He called McClelland every three days. He sent self-designed fliers and brochures and scouting reports. He outlined his plans for the program. He was excited, enthusiastic, jacked!

Josh Pastner made himself impossible to ignore. He was just 23, a Jewish kid from the suburbs who was working as the recruiting coordinator at Arizona, but he believed he could build something special at Prairie View, a predominantly black school about 40 miles northwest of Houston.

Pastner had visualized the possibilities -- top recruits, conference championships, packed gymnasiums. And he had spent 14 years preparing for such an opportunity.

"He was so ambitious, so knowledgeable, so convincing," said McClelland, now the athletic director at Texas Southern. "He was one of five finalists. I think at one point he said, 'Hire me now, because you don't want to wind up playing against me.' I definitely don't want to play against him now."

In the week since Pastner was hired by the University of Memphis to fill the crater-sized void left by John Calipari, he has been praised as a 31-year-old wunderkind who knows everyone in the business, as a recruiting cyborg who can go days without sleep, as a fresh-faced source of hope in a dire situation.

"I believe to have success, you have to be a visionary," Pastner said Thursday morning in his new office, two cell phones on his desk, his walls bare. "I really believe that. A visionary is someone who sees things that you want to happen and then makes them happen."

He was working on two hours of sleep -- since Monday, when his life changed. Unkempt and wearing sweats, he had been packing up so he could join Calipari in Kentucky when athletic director R.C. Johnson called. Two hours later, Pastner agreed to a 5-year, $4.4 million contract to coach the Tigers.

Everything had been designed for that moment, which might sound like an exaggeration until you consider that he landed his first recruit at age 14. Or that he coached his first AAU team at age 16. Or that he applied to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers at age 19. Or that he graduated from Arizona in five semesters, in part to bolster his case that he cared about academics when college jobs opened up.

"I believe in myself," he said. "I've prepared my whole life for this."

* * *

He planted himself in front of the television at his family's home in Kingwood, Texas, and here was the seminal moment: Josh Pastner, age 9, watches the Houston Rockets defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs, and he realizes what he wants to do with his life.

He was a precocious and energetic little boy, and his mind was made up: He would become a basketball coach. It became his great ambition, and when he relayed his feelings to his parents, they had no choice but to believe him. He spoke with such conviction. His father, Hal, began to dream right alongside him.

AAU basketball was still an emerging concept back then, and Hal Pastner -- a businessman who worked for manufacturing companies -- launched the Houston Hoops so his son would have an opportunity to cultivate his passion year-round. The team grew into a power, year by year. Josh found games to scout each weekend, and he recruited the best players to join the Hoops. At 14, he discovered a rare talent at a gymnasium in Port Arthur.

"He goes, 'Dad, that kid's going to be a great player,'" Hal Pastner said. "So he goes up and talks to him and talks to the mother. 'We've got to have him on our team.' And the mother goes, 'Who are you? Is there an adult involved?'"

Stephen Jackson's mother relented, and he spent parts of the next four summers with the Pastners. When Josh was old enough to drive, he would tackle the 204-mile roundtrip to Port Arthur in his Toyota Corolla twice each weekend, first to pick Jackson up and then to drop him off after a full slate of games.

"He and I would always battle, because he'd blast the radio," Pastner said.

Jackson, now an NBA veteran with the Golden State Warriors, has given Pastner a lot of credit for his success. He never would have gotten so much early exposure without him, and his game might not have matured. Pastner was coaching the Hoops by then, his father having handed him the keys to the team.

He also had begun to publish "The Josh Pastner Scouting Report," a freakishly detailed 50-page booklet that he sent to every Division 1 coach in the country. Whenever the Hoops hit the road for a tournament and had an off day, most of the players would head to the mall or back to the hotel. Hal Pastner would drop his son off at the gym at 8 a.m., then return at 10 p.m. to pick him up. In the meantime, Josh would scout games and make evaluations.

"He never got more excited than when he saw a great player nobody knew about," Hal Pastner recalled.

As for his own game, Josh developed into a solid point guard at Kingwood High, where he averaged 16 points and eight assists as a senior. This he owed to hard work, to countless hours practicing with his younger sister, Courtney, a future star who revered him. They often worked out together at 5 a.m.

"We'd sneak into the gym, sometimes we'd set the alarm off," said Courtney Pastner, Texas' high school player of the year in 1999. "He was just my role model, someone I idolized. He always told me, 'Friday nights, when your competition is out having fun, that's when you get ahead.'"

* * *

His first week at Arizona, he called home. Pastner had enrolled because he wanted to be mentored by coach Lute Olson, who had recruited him as a sort of player/coach (more of the latter, less of the former). Pastner was living in an athletic dorm, and the football players were giving him a hard time. Plus, he was taking eight classes. His father offered some familiar advice: Just work harder.

"Josh is a carbon copy of his father," said Jim Rosborough, a former assistant at Arizona. "Three cell phones on the interstate, driving with his knee? That's father and son. We've all kidded Josh about being obsessive, a little compulsive. But he learned everything from his dad."

Josh Pastner has long referred to his father as his "best friend," and his advice resonated that first week of school. Buoyed by some tough love, he befriended fellow freshman Mike Bibby, a McDonald's All-American, and they started shooting baskets at 7 a.m. Pastner then recruited Michael Dickerson, the team's high-scoring guard, to work with him at 11 p.m. He assured both that the extra time would pay off.

"A lot of the guys were like, 'Who does this kid think he is?'" said Justin Wessel, a backup forward. "Here's this 5-10 walk-on getting Mike Bibby out of bed. But everything he did was so perfect, so he wanted everyone else to be perfect. The fact that the two stars bought into it so fast changed everything."

Pastner believed the team could win a national championship, and he shared that opinion. He was so positive all the time -- here comes Mr. Sunshine -- that some of the veterans thought he was corny, even phony. Never a sip of alcohol? Not a drop of caffeine? No cussing? Then they realized something.

"That's really him," Wessel said. "I've known him for 15 years now, and he's never changed."

Pastner studied film, went to class, practiced, worked with teammates and slept little. He scored 12 points all season, and Arizona won the national title.

"He was absolutely one of the keys to our championship run," said Miles Simon, another teammate. "All he wanted was for us to get better."

During his four years as a student, he earned two degrees -- his bachelor's in family studies and his master's in teaching -- and started work toward a Ph.D. But he never lost sight of The Goal. To that end, he somehow unearthed two hours each afternoon to man the pay phone outside the locker room at the McKale Center with a jar full of quarters. These were the days before he owned a cell phone, and Pastner would dial and dial and dial.

Asked whom he was calling back then, Pastner said: "Just people, staying in touch. Keeping up on calls."

Pastner understood better than most the power of networking, the importance of reaching out to coaches, associates, players, friends, former teammates, distant cousins -- anyone and everyone. He sensed that maintaining those contacts would prove valuable someday.

He worked his way up the ladder, from player to undergraduate assistant to video coordinator to recruiting coordinator to assistant coach. His reputation as a top-tier recruiter ballooned. He helped land and develop Chase Budinger, Nic Wise, Jordan Hill and Jerryd Bayless.

"You know how people in the Army carry hand grenades on their belt? Josh would have cell phones," said George Kalil, a longtime Arizona booster and Tucson business owner. "I think at one time he had four phones, but I'm not sure. Maybe he had eight."

His dating life was a mess. Friends would set him up -- for failure. He was always fielding calls during lunch. Or at the movies. Or over ice cream.

"I was a bad date," Pastner said.

"Girls would come back and say, 'He's crazy,'" said Jack Murphy, a close friend and former Arizona manager who now scouts for the Denver Nuggets. "He's going to kill me for telling you this, but he'd take dates to dinner and he'd have a list of questions. He'd be like, 'Our son is 16 years old, and he wants to drink alcohol. What would you say to him?' Keep in mind, this is on the first date."

Pastner treated dating like recruiting: He was no-nonsense. His existence was so basic and devoid of frills -- borderline monastic, even -- that he slept on an air mattress for five years. He covered leaks with duct tape. He never cared enough to invest in a new one.

"I'd wake up on the floor every morning," he said, "because it'd be deflated."

When he first became part of the staff at Arizona, he asked Olson if he could drag the mattress into his office and sleep there. Olson vetoed the proposal. Pastner seldom turned on the air conditioning in his apartment. (Too expensive, he told friends who complained.) He never unpacked his boxes. Murphy, his roommate, owned all of their furniture, though Pastner did contribute by renting a dinette set, his lone concession to domestic life.

"I've always lived well below my means," Pastner said. "I guess I'm just a low-maintenance guy. I don't need much."

* * *

The basketball offices at Memphis were quiet last week, the second floor of the Athletic Office Building empty. Calipari had absconded to Kentucky with three of his assistants -- and even his office manager. Pastner must have felt like a listing dinghy on a stormy sea, and he pulled two straight all-nighters after Johnson hired him. He has friends who were Navy Seals, and they could go an entire week without sleep -- so no big deal.

Pastner sounded so upbeat when he said this, it was hard not to believe him. But his parents harbor some concern.

"He told me he's feeling some pressure," his father said. "He needs to take care of himself."

Pastner had to hire a staff, meet with his players, talk to recruits, embrace the community. He had so little mental preparation for what was ahead -- he had no idea he was even a candidate until Johnson called him Monday morning -- that he felt, for one of the first times in his life, disorganized.

"I feel really bad that I get this unbelievable opportunity, and I've gotten hundreds of text messages and calls that I haven't returned," said Pastner, who had joined Calipari's staff last summer. "I've always returned calls, because I just think it's the right thing to do. But I can't right now. And I don't want them to feel like I've forgotten them or gotten big time on them. I haven't. Everyone out there, please don't take this personally."

He continues to push forward, the only way he knows. His life has always been consumed by rigid discipline and mind-numbing extremes. Little sleep, all work. He spent 22 years working toward the past seven days, when the dream turned real and he became the second-youngest head coach in Division 1.

So now, after all that striving and planning, he has his own program, his own team, and he will continue to choke the minutes out of every day, burdened not by Calipari's legacy but by his own expectations, the life he always wanted.


A closer look at new University of Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner:

Age: 31

Hometown: Kingwood, Texas

Personal: Engaged to Kerri Lamas, who has a 10-year-old son, Ethan

Education: B.A., Family Studies, Arizona, 1998; M.S., Teaching and Teacher Education, Arizona, 1999

Career highlights: As a reserve guard at Arizona from 1996 to 2000, Pastner was often referred to as a player/coach. He appeared in 42 games and averaged 0.9 points, but he made his contributions during practice and in the film room. After two seasons as a graduate assistant and recruiting coordinator, Pastner joined Arizona's staff as a full-time assistant in 2002. He spent the next seven seasons in Tucson, where he developed a reputation as one of the country's top recruiters. He joined John Calipari's staff at Memphis last summer.

-- Scott Cacciola: 529-2773

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