Hiring of assistant is exciting for players

By David Carducci Record-Courier staff writer Published:

With his new team standing just to his right, Jim Christian spent his first official minute as Kent State's head men's basketball coach remembering the day he realized coaching was in his future.

"It goes back to when I was a freshman in college, and these guys will appreciate this," Christian said, motioning to his players as he addressed a standing-room-only crowd that had gathered in a second-floor meeting room of the Kent State Student Center to witness his introduction as the Golden Flashes' coach. "I was at Boston University and we were playing at the University of North Carolina. They had Michael Jordan and a bunch of other players on their team. They threw an alley-oop pass (to Jordan) and I'm under the basket. He jumps and I jump, and I'm about at his knee level as he dunks the ball into the basket. I figured my career as a player would be short lived. I better find other things to do with the rest of my life."

As the crowd chuckled, Christian glanced to his right, looking for one player in particular _ sophomore guard Eric Haut.

"E. Haut, don't laugh over there buddy, because I can still jump higher than you," Christian said with a straight face.

"We'll see about that," Haut shot back.

In that moment, Christian showed why Kent State thinks he is the perfect man to take over the reins of a basketball program that is just a little over a week removed from a season of unprecedented success.

Christian already knows his players, and in many ways he is one of the guys. He is a young coach who as an assistant under former coach Stan Heath, was more than willing to "lace up his shoes and ball with the rest of us," said senior guard Demetric Shaw.

After just one year as an assistant at Kent State, Christian so won over the team that his name was the only one the players thought of as a possible replacement when they learned Heath had taken the head coaching position at the University of Arkansas last week.

"I couldn't see anybody else coming in here," said junior power forward Antonio Gates. "He's a lot like coach Heath. He's a great coach. He really knows the game. He knows the X's and O's, but then he has the same offcourt ability to communicate with his players."

When Heath accepted the job at Arkansas, he offered his endorsement of Christian as Kent State's next coach. The fact that Gates also endorses the choice of Christian should come as music to the ears of Kent State fans.

Gates' 15.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game were a big part of the Golden Flashes capturing the Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament championships, posting a 30-6 record, and making an NCAA Tournament run that ended in the "Elite Eight."

After a nomadic college career that included stops at Michigan State, Eastern Michigan and College of the Sequoias in California, Heath convinced Gates to come to Kent prior to the season. Heath's departure led to speculation that Gates, who is already considering playing football at Kent State next year, might choose not to return to the basketball court for the 2002-2003 season.

The promotion of Christian solidified Gates' decision to play basketball again.

"It would have been a tough decision for me if they brought in someone else," Gates admitted. "It took me a while to learn the system here and get comfortable, and it took coach Heath, coach Christian and the other coaches to learn about me and what I can do. It might have been difficult to go through that again."

Gates and his teammates all said Christian's promotion allows for a rare chance at maintaining continuity in a program set to begin its third consecutive season with a different head coach.

"I think it's going to be an easier transition for us," said sophomore center John Edwards. "It took us a while to adjust to the new system when coach Heath came in. Coach Christian will have us doing some new things, but I'm sure he'll also have us doing a lot of the things that were successful for us this year. The fact that we know him and we are so close to him will make this transition that much easier."

With a big chunk of this year's team leaving in seniors Shaw, Trevor Huffman, Andrew Mitchell and Eric Thomas, Christian has the advantage of knowing the abilities of players like Haut, Edwards, Anthony Wilkins and other reserves who figure to play more prominent roles next season.

"Coach Heath would spend most of his time with the starters in practice, and really coach Christian was our coach," said freshman guard Bryan Pellegrino. "He'd get us excited in practice, and he'd push us so that we'd be at our best to give the starters some competition and really get them ready for games. At the end of the games when we would go in, coach Heath would often stand back and let coach Christian take over because he had been working with us. Coach Christian just has so much enthusiasm. I have no doubt he's the right choice."

More than just the enthusiasm and continuity Christian brings, Kent State's players are confident in the rookie coach's ability to coach the game of basketball.

"Coach Christian is the best scout there is," said Shaw. "He did most of the scouting before games. He is the guy who watched most of the (opponents') films. He is the guy who came up with the gameplans for what we did (beating Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pittsburgh) in the NCAA Tournament. Coach Christian is a brainiac. He knows this game. You are always confident he'll come up with a gameplan that will win. But when all else fails, he'll even surprise you. He'll throw out the X's and O's and say 'let's just go out and ball. It's us versus them.' He'll get you excited to go out and do whatever it takes to win."

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E-mail: dcarducci@recordpub.net

Phone: (330) 678-5460

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