As the NCAA Tourney winnows down to the Sweet Sixteen, the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Niles can visualize himself someday working the sidelines in a tourney.
But all Jim Les can do for now is coolly study player and coaching styles in every tourney game he watches. Absorbing those trends and tendencies, his goal is to implement them as he tries to build the University of California, Davis basketball program from the ground up.
Les just completed his first season coaching UC Davis, a few miles west of Sacramento on Interstate 80. The former Notre Dame College Prep guard, NBA three-point-shooting specialist and Bradley University coach never wants to experience the tribulations of winning just five games (while losing 26) in a season again.
“I don’t like to not have too much to do when March Madness rolls around,” Les said. “I want to be busy preparing my team.”
The self-described "student of the game" has not always had to sit out the tournament.
“It’s one of the greatest sporting events out there,” Les, 48, said of the tourney in a wide-ranging phone interview. “That’s what makes the prize so special. It’s so hard to get there. It’s so elusive. That’s every coach’s goal, every player’s. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience it as a player, fortunate enough to experience it as a coach.
“My goal coming out here to UC Davis (was) setting our sights with that being the end road. It’s so special, that’s what makes it so tough. That’s why you see the emotion of those teams, those kids, those coaches when they hear their name called (on Selection Sunday). You know the effort and commitment and sacrifice it took from so many.”
There’s a lot to learn, from both a coach’s and player’s perspective.
Learning winning ways from tourney games
“You’re always trying to get better,” Les said. “There’s no cookie-cutter method to coaching. I’m always interested in what other teams are doing, how they’re playing, how they’re coached. I’m really on my team to get caught up in the March Madness of watching games, get caught up in the energy and enthusiasm.
“I want that energy and enthusiasm to propel their work ethic when they come back (from spring break). Teams that are playing in March, they’re made in the off-season. That starts in the spring, summer and fall. I want them to get so excited for the goal they're ultimately trying to reach. It will fuel their fire when they walk into the weight room, walk onto the track for conditioning and walk into the gym for individual workouts.”
If winning just five games -- “probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to go through,” said Les – wasn’t a big-enough challenge, moving cross-country to set up his family from their familiar digs in the Midwest was a chore after he was fired as Bradley coach in March, then hired at UC Davis two months later.
Starting a new job after dealing with personal sorrow
The biggest burden of all, though, was working a new job right after the death of his father, Richard Les, from Parkinson’s Disease.
“I was able even through the move and the busy times to get back a number of times to comfort him as he was going through tough times with his health,” Les said. “My father was the rock of our family. He was the guy who set the tone for all of his kids to be successful, a right way for handling ourselves and our business, and treating people. We miss him dearly. It was not easy for any of us.
“I feel he’s with me every day. I carry a picture of him with a poem in my pants pocket in my wallet every day. I don’t have the luxury of picking up the phone and talking to him and get his advice, like I’ve done in the past. I feel like he’s still with me and watching over me and guiding me.”
Balancing out that grief was the pleasure of coaching Tyler Les, his son, who already had been enrolled at UC Davis when his father arrived.
“He was a joy to coach and probably was one of the most consistent performers all year,” Les said. “That made it easy and a lot of fun.”
And if Les and family had to move 2,000 miles, the Sacramento market was a home away from home. Les carved a distinction in the NBA four years after he was first drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, leading the league in three-point shooting percentage in 1990-91. He played with the Hawks, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. Les also made his coaching debut as an assistant with the Sacramento Monarchs of the WNBA in 1993.
“The fact we had lived out here before was a tremendous advantage,” Les said. “But we still had to go through a lot of hurdles.”
He figures he’ll go through at least four seasons of hurdles to make UC-Davis tourney-worthy.
“To do it the right way, it does take time,” Les said. “You’ve got to bring in your types of players and establish your type of culture around your program. It takes a village, and that includes administrators who are committed to building a winning program.
“I could just go off my experience at Bradley. In our fourth year, we went to the tournament and ultimately went to the Sweet Sixteen. I’d like to think here at Davis within a four- or five-year period, we can reach the similar goals. I was hired last May so you lost a recruiting period so we’ve lost one year of recruiting. We’ll have a substantial turnover this year. It still takes some time when you get that group in to develop chemistry and do what it takes to win at the college level.”
Luring ‘em to the Sunshine State
Although Les must heavily recruit talent-rich California, he won’t forget his roots, and in the worst weather.
“The allure of California, especially when you go into Illinois in December and January, that sounds pretty good to some kids,” he said. “We don’t go on the 80-degree days, we go when it’s cold and windy and try to entice the kids.”
Les always has had to pay attention to the game’s finer points and his coaches without great athleticism and crimped by lack of height. At 5-foot-11, he played in the land of giants, first at Bradley, then in the NBA. He hoped not to be embarrassed when caught in a mismatch against Michael Jordan.
“The goal was don’t get poster-ized and make him shoot a jump shot,” Les said. “I gave away seven inches and a lot of other things to him.”
He now is part of a coaching family. Older brother Tom, who preceded him as a Notre Dame College Prep star, is the school’s head coach. His prep alma mater remains a rock in his life, along with childhood memories of playing “an inordinate amount of time” a few blocks away at Grennan Heights Park, which he makes sure he checks out every time he returns to Niles.
“I think the greatest (high school) moment, and it’s probably plural, is my experience at Notre Dame, and the people who took an interest in me and helped me,” he said. “It was a tremendous springboard. The priests and the teachers – I just have a fond memory of how they went out of the way to help Jim Les, not only in basketball, but in the classroom and in life.
“There are relationships I have today that started and flourished at Notre Dame. I’m trying to give back some of those same impressions that were given to me by others.”