DAYTON, Ohio Jim Les grew up in the suburbs outside Chicago, so the windy, snowy conditions that greeted the Aggies upon their arrival Monday was a day at the beach. The UC Davis coach has made a career of overcoming obstacles, dressing for the occasion, going places others only experience while spinning a globe.
Saskatchewan. Salamanca. Costa Rica. Rochester. Omaha. Anchorage. Somewhere along the journey that included several NBA cities, Les logged extended Midwestern stays in Peoria, Ill., first while sharing a backcourt with former Bradley Braves standout and NBA All-Star Hersey Hawkins, and later, as the head coach at his alma mater.
So this is not new. Think old hat, worn shoes. Unlike his Aggies, who will take their first NCAA Tournament steps Wednesday against North Carolina Central, Les has been to the Big Dance twice – once as a player and later as coach of a team that reached the Sweet 16 in 2006. That Oakland regional that spring was quite the talk of the tourney, with enough theatrics to fill out an entire bracket.
The 13th-seeded Braves lost to a Memphis club headed by current Kentucky coach John Calipari. A UCLA team featuring Kings guards Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo overcame a double-digit deficit and stunned Gonzaga, leaving Bulldogs star Adam Morrison sprawled on the middle of the court, sobbing uncontrollably.
The NCAA Tournament will do that, make young men and women cry. Les, 53, took his whupping with a quick handshake and a forced grin, then went on to produce winning records in four of his remaining five seasons. When he was released by Bradley officials in April, 2011, former UCD athletic director Greg Warzecka hustled to his phone. Would Les be interested in returning to northern California? Enough to oversee the basketball program’s ongoing transition from Division II to the major college level?
Though Warzecka did not know Les well, he knew the pedigree and who to call: Current Kings television analyst and one-time general manager Jerry Reynolds.
“I signed Jim up as a free agent when Dick Motta was the coach,” said Reynolds, “so that was kind of his start here in Sacramento. I remembered him as a player with the Utah Jazz, as John Stockton’s backup, which obviously meant he wasn’t going to get a lot of minutes. But he was one of those guys who worked and played hard, and as a result, he had a nice little run in the league. He had a longer career than a lot of guys who were drafted well ahead of him (third round in 1986).”
Les, who was generously listed as 5-foot-11 in NBA media guides, also played for the Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers and minor league teams in Canada, Spain and Santa Barbara, but spent half his NBA career with the Kings (1990-94). After rejoining the Omaha Racers of the now defunct Continental Basketball Association a year later, he took his ball and went home. But, no, not back to the Midwest. He returned to Granite Bay with his wife, Jodi, and two children, and became a stockbroker with a downtown firm.
Five years later, Reynolds, the general manager of the WNBA Monarchs at the time, asked if Les was interested in helping out head coach Sonny Allen. Though the assistant coaching position offered few benefits – Reynolds said he couldn’t even offer a salary – it introduced Les to a powerful, influential group of female athletes who changed his life.
Les essentially bought everything Reynolds was selling. He was quite the sight, really. For the better part of two seasons (1999-2001), the future Aggies coach arrived for practices at Arco Arena, hurriedly change from his business suit into sweats and sneakers, and lead drills, participate in scrimmages, challenge stars Yolanda Griffith, Ruthie Bolton and Ticha Penicheiro to shooting contests. Then, as now, the game was a passion play. He was engaging and fun-loving, but also edgy and intense, and never reluctant to use his wide shoulders and superior strength to position for rebounds, show off his play-making skills with an occasional no-look pass on the break, convert jumpers from well beyond three-point range, and banter with the best of them (usually, it was Yo).
“Jim was still young enough to play,” Reynolds recalled, with a chuckle, “and while the women more than held their own with the ex-college players we’d bring in sometimes for practices, they couldn’t deal with Jimmy. He would tattoo the nets pretty regularly.”
Afterward, Les would race back into the locker room and shower, put on his business suit, then return to a life of stocks and bonds, to the routine of a day job. But as it turns out, he missed the night shift. When Bradley officials offered him the head coaching position in 2002, he was packed before completing the paperwork.
During his almost decades-long return to Peoria, the popular former Braves star revived a dormant program and helped raise funds for construction of a new facility. The job description at Davis would differ only slightly; the Aggies already played in the Pavilion, but the program struggled with the move to Division I.
The breakthrough that occurred in 2014-15 was directed by the familiar backcourt of Corey Hawkins, a prolific scorer and son of Hersey, and Tyler Les, a deep shooter and son of the Aggies’ head coach. Tyler, coincidentally, had accepted a scholarship to Davis while his father was coaching at Bradley. The talented, if athletically challenged Aggies claimed their first Big West Conference title, but lost to Hawaii in the league’s postseason tournament.
After dipping to 11-19 the following year, they regrouped and responded with a highlight reel for the history books: Consecutive come-from-behind victories over Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine in the semifinals and finals of the Big West tournament to earn the first NCAA tourney berth.
The party was on, finally.
“This is kind of who we are,” said Les, still trim and youthful looking with a full head of white hair. “Part of being a good team and a good player is understanding what your strengths are, understanding what your weaknesses are, and we have to play to our strengths. We’re athletic and we have a really good defense that allows us to get in the open court and get some easy baskets. Get stops. Keep the game close until Brynton (Lemar) gets hot, Chima (Moneke) gets going.”
Les? Though the sweats and sneakers have given way to tailored suits and ties, he paces the sideline with enough zest to soak through his dress shirts, hands clasped behind his back, his posture as straight as that of a commanding general. He routinely engages in polite, if high decibel conversations with the referees. He is similarly verbal with his players, though perhaps reflecting his own athletic experiences, displays an intuitive sense of when to chide, when to encourage, when to turn sharply and walk back to his seat.
“Jim is a fantastic fit for Davis,” said first-year athletic director Kevin Blue, the school’s fourth AD since Les’ hiring in 2011. “Certainly every coach has their uniqueness and idiosyncrasies. I think his ability to combine his technical expertise and his passion, intensity and enthusiasm is certainly noticeable. He’s very a competitive person who is always striving to do what’s best for the university and his players, and that is coming through when you look at what he has been able to achieve.”
As the garrulous, under-recruited Moneke has often said, he is forever grateful that his coach studied stocks and bonds, yet isn’t afraid to take a risk.