By Ross Forman
Bryant Stith never envisioned transitioning from a college and NBA player to basketball coach, at any level. And even when the principal at his high school alma mater asked if he’d be interesting in coaching the team, he rejected the offer. Well, the first offer, at least.
The principal asked a second time, and after discussing the offer with his family, Stith accepted the head coaching job at Brunswick (Va.) High School.
“I just love the game of basketball, and I knew that I wanted to be involved in it in some capacity when I retired from the NBA; I just didn’t know in what area,” said Stith, who played for three teams in his 10-year NBA career – Denver, Boston and Cleveland. “When I retired from the NBA, I didn’t want anything else to do with basketball because I was so burned out mentally, and my body was so worn down physically that I just had to step away.”
But coaching has proved to be Stith’s calling. With the Bulldogs, the Stith-coached team went to seven consecutive state championship games, winning each of the past three years (2011, 2012 and 2013).
“I was the Marv Levy of high school basketball; that was the running joke,” he said, smiling. “It was a great experience, and for us to be able to return the program to a pinnacle, that was very rewarding. It was a great run, and even more special because my sons were on those teams.”
Brandan, 18, is now a freshman at East Carolina University, playing on a scholarship. Broderick Jamal, known as B.J., is a senior in high school at Oakhill Academy and has verbally committed to the University of Virginia.
“I kept everything from my playing career. I’m like a pack rat, so I had all of my old scouting reports, all of my preseason conditioning notes – for every team that I had played for,” Stith said.
So when he started the high school coaching job, Stith put together a program based on his playing past, including the team’s preseason conditioning program, the game day offense and defense, etc.
“That gave us a lot of structure, and I’d like to think it gave us an advantage over our opponents,” Stith said. “I played for some great coaches in my career, including Mike Krzyzewski, Terry Holland and Jeff Jones, among others. I also got to play with some of the greatest NBA players of all time, such as Dan Issel. I learned a lot from Bernie Bickerstaff, who drafted me and later coached me. I also played for Rick Pitino, John Lucas and Dick Motta. These guys formulated the coach that I became. All of the things that I enjoyed about playing for those coaches, along with those things I disliked, I formed together and built myself into a coach through them.”
Coach Stith has a new home this fall as the assistant coach at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
“I’m not nervous, though there is a bit of anxiety because of the unknown. But I’m very excited to be here; I look at it as a new challenge,” Stith said. “One day I have aspirations of hopefully being able to run my own college or NBA program. But in the meantime, I know that there are steps that I have to be able to manage in order to get to that point.”
So, is the dream job in the college ranks or the NBA game?
“That’s a tough question,” he said, pausing before answering that he is “intrigued” about college coaching “because you have the opportunity to mold young men into what they will become later in life; you don’t have that same affect at the NBA level. The NBA is more about psychology and motivating men.
“Being able to work with young men who are hungry and have ambitions to reach that next level is more appealing to me. So if I was forced to choose, I think I’d be more inclined to stay at the collegiate level.”
Stith had quite a run in college as a player at the University of Virginia. He was the Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Rookie of the Year in 1989 and ultimately finished his career in 1992 as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,516 points.
Stith was a first-team All-ACC honoree three times and was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1992 National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
“When I came out of high school, nobody really gave me a chance of having much success at the ACC level. Everyone thought I was a good player, but not a great player. Everyone thought that I would go in and contribute, but not make an impact. People thought that I would be a solid player, but not have my jersey retired at the end of my career. So, it was very rewarding for me to go in and put in a lot of hard work and be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor,” said Stith who, as a college freshman, played for the Cavaliers’ team that upset Oklahoma that featured Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock. And as a college junior, he scored the last 21 points in a game at Notre Dame.
“Those are probably the two best memories I have from the University of Virginia,” he said.
Stith jumped to the NBA with the 13th overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft, selected by the Denver Nuggets. He played eight seasons with the team before being traded to the Boston Celtics. He also played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and retired before ever playing for the Los Angeles Clippers.
“Amazing,” he said when asked to reflect on his NBA career.
The most amazing moment for Stith in the pros was upsetting Seattle in the playoffs, becoming the first No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed in NBA history.
“Being able to play against some of the greatest players of all time also was amazing, players such as Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars,” Stith said. “To think that I was on the biggest stage in the world, playing against the world’s best competition, it was a great experience.
“Some players have been so good for so long that they always have been tabbed as being a future NBA player, but that wasn’t the case for me. No one was beating down my door in the eighth grade, labeling me as the chosen one. I was the one who always traveled under the radar. I played the game with a chip on my shoulder, and I think that allowed me to be able to maximize my potential.”
Stith’s NBA career spanned 586 regular season games, averaging 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. He was a 42 percent field goal shooter, shot 33 percent from three-point range and was an 84 percent free throw shooter.
Stith once nailed eight three-pointers in a game against Phoenix.
“I’m a basketball junkie, so I still follow the game,” he said. “I root for the Denver Nuggets because of my allegiance to the Mile High City, but I just enjoy following players. I love watching LeBron James compete. I love watching Kobe Bryant, as well as Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan. They have a great work ethic and I appreciate that. They donate so much time to the game, to their game – and it shows.”
Stith appeared on more than 100 basketball cards – and he thinks he has collected at least one of each.
“It was fun collecting a keepsake for my kids and grandkids, to let them know what Daddy accomplished,” said Stith, who has a booklet at home with all of his cards. He has no particular favorite because, “I’m proud of all of them,” he said. “I pull that book off the shelf every once in a while, look through it and just kind of reminisce, savor the moment.”
Stith has framed jerseys at his Virginia home from his playing career. He also has trophies, plaques and more.
His favorite award was as the MVP trophy from the Orlando Classic, a pre-draft camp.
“I still remember my agent asking if I wanted to go to that camp because if I didn’t play well I could lose stock in the NBA Draft,” Stith said. “I asked my agent what the upside of that camp would be and he replied, ‘If you play well, you could play your way into the lottery – and that would mean a couple million dollars.’ I didn’t have any money at the time, so just figured, what do I have to lose?!
“I went to Orlando and left everything on the court. When I walked on that plane to head home after the event, I cradled that trophy in my arms. I even fell asleep on the airplane, and the flight attendant had placed pillows under my head and blankets over me, and yet I still was hugging the trophy. That was an indelible moment that I’ll never forget.”
Stith has signed countless autographs over the years and always includes his favorite Bible verse – Romans 12:2, “because (with that verse), it gives me a chance to impact others’ life.”
Stith is not an autograph collector, however, and never has been.
“I never really got into autograph collecting, especially while playing; I never could see myself walking up to Michael Jordan and asking for his autograph,” Stith said. “To me, if I’m competing against him, I would be bowing down to him by asking for his autograph, and I didn’t want to give him that mental advantage over me.”
Would you want Michael Jordan’s autograph today?
No, Stith said. He’d prefer to play Jordan in a game of one-on-one.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.