With so much of college basketball and its recruiting focused on getting to the NBA — and getting there as quickly as possible — Arizona’s Sean Miller understands why his college playing career may get overlooked.
“If you were a very good college player, and it's almost like, ‘Well, coach, you didn't play in the NBA,’ ” Miller tells USA TODAY Sports, chuckling. “The NBA is a different story, and obviously I didn't make it that far.”
So his players might not be intimately familiar with Miller’s career at Pittsburgh from 1987-92; every player on his current Wildcats roster was born after 1994, and though YouTube and Google are at their fingertips, not all players dig deep into their coach’s former college glory.
However, at least once a year, usually in the month leading up to March Madness, one of Miller’s players will come up to him and tell him he saw The Dunk, or the assist.
“Jerome Lane, when he shattered the backboard — I passed him the ball,” Miller said. “It’s a forever (thing). They can never question me. I have credibility from that perspective. So that almost takes care of itself.
“That's the thing that I have every year. I'll have it this year as well. It never goes away.”
Miller, whose Wildcats are 6-3, is not the only college coach to go through a process in which a prospect’s parents might be more familiar with his collegiate career than the recruit himself is.
Steve Alford of UCLA (7-1), for example, said that is almost always the case for him.
“I'm 52 now, so these kids have no idea,” says Alford, the former Indiana standout. “A lot of the parents do.”
Alford leaned on his own playing experience a lot last season, though, when he’d talk to his star point guard Lonzo Ball. Alford, a former Indiana Mr. Basketball, understood the pressure of playing for a blueblood program as a local kid, which was similar to the situation Ball himself stepped into last season in Westwood.
“I knew what it was going to be like in Los Angeles for him, so I just tried to help him,” Alford says. “He did just a phenomenal job of handling everything, but I just wanted him to know right from the beginning that I was there for him because I played in my home state, went to a home state school, and there's different pressures with that.”
Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley’s name is synonymous with Duke — for a certain subset of the basketball population, which may or may not necessarily include current teenagers. But Hurley has seen an uptick in awareness of his exceptional collegiate career which included two NCAA championships (1991, 1992) because of an unlikely source. In April 2016, ESPN debuted an E:60 feature about him. It’s called Hurley
Senior Arizona State guard Kodi Justice remembers the team gathering in the film room together to watch it air. Hurley watched with his players and talked, during commercials, about the different moments in his life depicted on the screen. He filled in some gaps.
Justice and most of his teammates, however, had done some thorough research prior to the documentary airing. Justice said when he found out the Sun Devils had hired Hurley back in 2015, his father, a Duke fan, was pumped.
“He was like, “that's Bobby Hurley,’ ” Justice says. “I was like, ‘I don't really know who that is.’ “
So Justice went looking, eventually finding the clip of college stars (including Hurley) playing and beating the Dream Team back in 1992. Then, Justice went to YouTube and watched some highlights from Hurley’s time at Duke.
He went back to his dad.
“I was like, ‘Well, that's pretty cool; I get to learn from one of the best point guards who ever played college basketball,’ ” Justice told him.
Hurley said he can tell when his players have Googled him, or the effects of his Duke paraphernalia in his office — photos of the Final Four games he played in, for instance.
“I want guys that are in my program to walk in there and strive to want to get there, in addition to the recruiting element of that,” Hurley says. “After they saw some highlight clips that I have, they were impressed with my passing ability,” Hurley says. “Everything I did was below the rim, but I had some nice footage of that. There's always a level of respect, additional respect, that you get from having done it, and having played at a good level.”
Hurley, whose Sun Devils are off to a hot start at 7-0, says he doesn’t often show off some of those crazy passes he’s famous for. But he played four-on-four with his players once this past spring.
“I still occasionally can do that; I pay the price the next day when I wake up,” Hurley says. “I can't move like I used to but your mind still sees the game and perhaps I had a few good passes. It's more the communication, too. Just, you know, the talking, because that's something that some of my players noticed, just how verbal I was as I played.
“So I'm trying. If you can still do it, there's not going to be many more years that I can do it … So, that's pretty cool.”
Players find that kind of thing entertaining but also helpful. Not that they weren’t listening to what their coach was saying before … but they may perk up even more. If your coach knows exactly what it takes to get to the NCAA tournament, a Final Four or the precipice of the NBA — even in a different era of basketball — why wouldn’t you want to follow his footsteps?
“Guys in my program are aspiring to do what I did, in not only terms of winning and going to an NCAA tournament, but also their next phase in life,” says Hurley, who was drafted seventh overall in the 1993 NBA draft and played professionally until 1998 despite suffering serious injuries in a terrifying car accident during his rookie season. “If they put the time in and the years in, they're hoping to continue to play beyond college and they know that I got to the NBA level which is where most guys want to go.
“So, they’re just constantly picking my brain about how I got there, and what it takes to get there, how you need to practice, what you need to get better on, how hard you have to work, all those things.”