Jim Les enjoyed a productive NBA career as a journeyman guard who shot three-pointers, bruised and battled the starters in practice, and willingly moved from city to city for the next opportunity.
But after twice playing for the Kings and digging in down on the Farm, the UC Davis men’s basketball coach doesn’t want to pack up again. The area has become his home. The Aggies have become his team. From the moment he was hired, he shrugged off the naysayers, colleagues who said he was crazy for taking over a program in its Division I infancy.
The thing about Les, though? A few things about Les? He is stubborn, intense, determined and surprisingly unconventional. Before he accepted the job four years ago, he analyzed the (scholarship) numbers like the stock broker he once was, and in a bit of an upset, envisioned the very scene that transpired Thursday at the Pavilion.
The Aggies, winning the Big West Conference. The students storming the court. The players cutting down the nets.
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“I even broke out the bling,” Les said with a grin, displaying the ring he received for coaching his alma mater, Bradley University, to the 2006 NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. “I wanted to show the players what they’re working for.”
While the immediate goal is to defeat UC Irvine in tonight’s conference finale before fixating on the Big West Tournament next week in Anaheim – the winner earns an automatic NCAA Tournament bid – the long-term challenge is more nuanced. Who wants a one-time fling? A return to the days of apathy and a near-empty Pavilion instead of long ticket lines, packed bicycle racks and parking lots, and the sight of Les and his coaches tossing doughnuts and pizzas to the students on game nights as they inched toward the entrance?
Sustained success, of course, requires hiring and retaining a coach whose recruits meet the institution’s stringent academic requirements, who graduates his seniors, who remains competitive, and who wants to stick around. And UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi says she is making her list, checking it twice, and already meeting with Les about extending his contract before it expires next year.
“Jim has done a great job,” she said. “I watch him, the way he connects with the players, with all the students. He has a wonderful future here. While I do worry about making sure the program has the operating budget to remain competitive, we have to find a way to make that happen. Athletes need tutoring. My next focus is updating the training room. It’s not right to ask the students to pay more, but with the alumni support we have, my plan is that we will raise what we need through fund-raising and our community.”
With adequate funding and administrative support, why would Les want to leave? He doesn’t. He won’t. His Northern California roots have deepened through the years. His son, Tyler, an Aggies backup guard, was born in Sacramento. Upon Les’ retirement from the NBA in 1995, he was a stockbroker by day and an assistant by night with the Monarchs, the now disbanded franchise that won the WNBA championship in 2005.
Despite taking his alma mater in Peoria, Ill., to the Sweet 16, reviving the program, assisting fund-raising efforts for a modern on-campus facility, Les became available when he was released by Bradley after nine years (2002-11). UC Davis and athletics director Greg Warzecka pounced.
Tyler Les was already on the roster on scholarship, Jim Les was given a job, and so it began, this Aggies’ journey that includes a leap from last to first place in the Big West in a matter of months.
“We have maturity, depth and talent,” said Les. “In the past we had injuries that derailed us, or foul trouble. This year we have really good balance and the chemistry is tremendous.”
Thursday’s comeback victory offered glimpses into the Aggies’ success: Corey Hawkins led the late rally with steals, pullup jumpers and free throws. Tyler Les drilled a crucial three from the left side. Reserve Josh Fox pursued rebounds and converted 10 of 14 free throws. Josh Ritchart, one of four fifth-year seniors, collected eight boards. And Darius Graham, who is more of a defender than scorer, sank a go-ahead three as his coach stalked the sideline, furiously chewing gum, the intensity and desire etched on his familiar, still-boyish features.
“When I got here, a lot of my friends in coaching asked, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You can’t win at Davis,’” Les related. “But I thought, ‘Why not here?’ When I bought into that vision, it was about getting a group of character players to buy in. I said, ‘You know what? We don’t have a tradition as a D-I program, so how about you come with me and we build one? Let’s put our stamp on it.’ Tyler, Josh, Corey, all the guys bought in.”
So here they are. Atop the Big West. Heading to the conference tournament. Eager for that first step at the Big Dance.
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