Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Going Gonzo: Four Years After Seton Hall, Gonzalez Reflects On Coaching Life

Bobby Gonzalez likens the classic Allen Iverson Reebok commercial, in which AI is dribbling through city streets and suburban sidewalks and sustaining his prodigious handle throughout, to his youth days in Binghamton's low-rent district.

Before he emerged into one of New York City's most aggressive recruiters, before Gonzalez' volatile style wore out his welcome at Seton Hall, before Gonzalez taxed the pride and patience of an always vindictive, sensitive and hard-hitting mainstream Metropolitan area media, Gonzalez was an innate gym rat who took pleasure in bettering his teammates.

On the blacktop of inner city Columbus Park, which Gonzalez has anointed the "Rucker Park of Binghamton," Gonzalez' coaching acumen grew.

A point guard is always an extension of the coach. Gonzalez' ability to visualize a play before it unfolded and locate cutters accelerated his feel for the game.

Rarely spotted without a rock in his hands, Gonzalez earned street credit on some of Binghamton's toughest proving grounds. He was a baller who paled by comparison, always the lone white guy in a five-mile radius.

He remembers playing 10-11 straight games in "winner stays on" fashion. The simplest desire in his heart to win his last game before returning home for supper.

 The former Seton Hall coach vividly recalls knifing through double teams, kicking in no-look passes, and sparking the souped-up attack fresh off a clean defensive rebound.

 Gonzalez still harks back on his late-night workouts, many of which he spent dribbling in his basement with the lights off, a la Pistol Pete Maravich.

The workload paid dividends as Gonzalez evolved into the all-time assists leader at Binghamton High.

Former teammates describe him as one of Binghamton's legendary schoolboy talents. They vividly recall him methodically luring in defenders and whipping it to an open teammate.

He took pride in bagging that huge 3-pointer or permeating the teeth of the defense when the pressure heightened and the draping defensive coverage intensified.

A flair for the end game and the hyper-energetic Gonzalez' never-ending supply of fuel influenced many, including current Monmouth head coach King Rice.

"King was a great little player at a young age, he was advanced well beyond his years," recalled Gonzalez, noting constant one-on-one games with Rice, six years his junior.

On the playground, Rice and Gonzalez established a basketball brotherhood.

Gonzalez may have been tough and confrontational on his understudy, albeit he truly wanted to enhance each category of Rice's basketball package.

During his high school games, Gonzalez recalls glancing at the scorebook table and spotting Rice, then a smurf-sized middle schooler. He was always keeping tabs on his mentor's production.

While Gonzalez played at Buffalo State and kick-started his coaching career in New York City, Rice's  prep career soared at Binghamton.

The bond remained tight.

This was well prior to the days of social media and texting. And so the friendship was sustained through phone calls and visits.

"He becomes a McDonald's All-American and one of the nation's most hotly pursued players," Gonzalez recalled.

"I was involved in his home visits when all the college coaches went to recruit him--Dean Smith, Digger Phelps, and Jim Valvano, God rest his soul."

During Rice's recruitment process, Gonzalez worked a North Carolina camp alongside local NYC products Kenny Smith and Jimmy Black, an oil-smooth point guard who played under Dean Smith.

When Rice decided on the Tar Heels, Gonzalez was elated.

The young coach attended Rice's wedding, one of few non-Carolina guys in a sea of Tar Heel legends such as JR Reid and Rick Fox. Fox was later a guest speaker at one of Gonzalez' Manhattan basketball camps.

All of these years later, Rice is still tight with the point guard he grew up emulating.

The Mecca

Gonzalez got his coaching teeth cut during the early 1990s in New York City, the nation's unrivaled hotbed and Division-I factory at the time.

"Division-I players were coming off the bench," recalls Rob Phelps, the former Nazareth High star, who played at Providence College and professionally.

"You knew that Kenny Anderson was the man, that Kenny Anderson was going to get his numbers. You knew, when Rob Phelps walked in that door he was going to get his seven or eight three-pointers....Jamal Mashburn (Cardinal Hayes) was named Mr. Basketball and he wasn't even an All-American. Imagine that? You don't get much better than early-90's basketball in New York City."

Gonzalez assimilated to the sped-up lifestyle and constant hustle of the big city. He spent many of his summers working under Howard 'Garf' Garfinkel at Five Star Basketball Camp, coaching and assessing a surplus of talent.

He dipped his toes into the recruiting waters of Gauchos and Riverside, the premiere AAU programs during that era.

Some thought Gonzalez was high maintenance.

 Others thought he wanted to change the world by the weekend, delusional in this assumption that he could climb the coaching ranks in a day.

Others will tell you he was as ferocious a sideline coach as you'll find, dripping with overwhelming energy.

And others will tell you he was simply a fiery coach with unbridled passion that got the best of him at times.

Gonzalez savored his first "prove it" opportunity at now-defunct St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

It was a superpower amongst powers, containing beasts amongst boys. Gonzalez became an assistant under Bob Mackey.

The team possessed three All-Americans in the late and legendary Malik Sealy, Brian Reece, and a viable scoring cyborg in Adrien Autry.

Both Autry and Reece catapulted to the top-5 of NYC's scorers, joining Anderson, Phelps, and Mashburn.

Gonzalez started with Tolentine's J.V., inheriting an all-freshmen team paced by a rugged 5-foot-10 guard in Kareem Reid.

Quick, deceptive, and armed with a deadly left-handed floater, the playmaking Reid and a deep supporting cast went 28-1, concluding the season with a JV city championship at Fordham University.

"You could say they were unsung, you could say they were playing second fiddle to the varsity team, but it was a driven core of young men who believed in each other and mastered the team concept," Gonzalez said.

That team identity was ingrained in Gonzalez years later. He took an assistant job at Rice High School in Harlem after Tolentine closed its doors.

 At Rice, Gonzalez learned under the hyper-intense Lou DeMello, an all-or-nothing disciplinarian who preached accountability with an iron fist.

You'd be hard-pressed to scavenge for even the slightest ounce of bullshit in DeMello, known for taxing and tiring workouts.

Gonzalez soon became the good cop to DeMello's bad cop during games, a balance DeMello deemed necessary.

 DeMello's players were on a short lease. He once benched Felipe Lopez during a city championship, simply for showing up minutes late to the pre-game practice.

"Bobby always had tons of energy," recalls DeMello.

 "We fed off it. He was very very demanding, but he had a way of always getting the best out of the kids. His interest from the get-go, was to become a college basketball coach. The few years he spent with me, he tried to help himself get in that market."

The Raiders were ranked no.1 in the country.

The backcourt was fortified by Gary Saunders (Georgia Tech), but it was high-flying Lopez whose game contributed to crime stoppage in bullet-laced Harlem.

Owners of in-house drug emporiums trekked to see the Raiders play.

DeMello suddenly had love and loyalty from drug dealers and corner bookies throughout the city. Harlem was an accurate depiction of a war zone in the 1980s. Rice's basketball team provided the youth with a safer alternative from the hardscrabble streets, where the drugs were rampant, the robberies were nightly, and the stick-up kids knew no fear.

Blessed with an immeasurable vertical (DeMello pointed to pictures of Lopez palming the ball three feet above the rim during a dunk), Lopez averaged 25+ points and electrified gyms across the world.

Lopez' star power attracted a massive local following.

DeMello recalls folks from all across the city stopping in to see the Raiders practice. During away games, random fan cliques would pack into cars and follow the bus as it chugged out of Rice High's parking lot.

 Nicky Barnes, the fabled New York gangster who the rapper Cam'ron references in his rhymes, sat behind Rice's bench during home games.

"I had no idea who he was at the time," DeMello said.

Everyone knew who Lopez was.

Felipe became a poster boy for New York City basketball, simultaneously shouldering the burden of hero for the Dominican community.

 Jim Boeheim stopped by Rice, a stroll past the Apollo Theater on Harlem 125th St., to recruit him.

 Bobby Knight, known to never travel East to see a player, ended up making the long trek as well.

The nation was suddenly swept by this basketball deity that was Felipe Lopez.

DeMello, quiet by nature, can tell Felipe stories for days.

"He was playing in a pickup game once in the Dominican Republic, and you know, the people really arrived in droves to see him play," DeMello begins.

"On one play, Felipe goes up hard and gets fouled, bangs his elbow and it starts bleeding. A lady next door to the court comes by, gives Felipe a few paper towels to wipe the blood off with. Then, she asks him if he can sign the paper towel for her. You can't make this stuff up."

Gonzalez regards Lopez as "family."

 During one of Gonzalez' recent clinics at Hooperstown in Mount Vernon, it was Lopez who served as a guest speaker.

"Bobby always had a great rapport with the inner-city kids," DeMello said.

In Phelps, DeMello's words resonate.

"Bobby G was a real positive presence," said Phelps, now the dean and head basketball coach at academics-crazed Bedford Academy in Brooklyn.

"He was trying to help us get better and really trying to help players develop. It's easy to get caught up in the negative. From my own experience and a lot of players of that time, it was all positive."

Bronx Buzzing

The countless connections Gonzalez established in New York City's rich basketball real estate established the lifeblood of his recruiting.

 It helped him net recruits such as God Shammgod, Corey Wright, Jamel Thomas, and a slew of NYC guards while at Providence under Pete Gillen.

Gonzalez incorporated the same limitations-free recruiting energy during his time in Charlottesville, Va.

 Under Gillen at the University of Virginia, Gonzalez came up with the nation's top-ranked recruiting class.

 He landed stallions such as NBA veteran Roger Mason and Oak Hill Academy product Travis Watson.

 Gonzalez kept his city roots intact, scooping up Majestic Mapp, an All-American and four-year starter under Gary DeCesare at St. Raymond's. Gonzalez was named the nation's top recruiter in 1999 and 2006.

His stock as a coach, however, ballooned atManhattan College.

Behind a gritty, high-scoring guard in Luis Flores, the Jaspers pulled off a shocking upset of David Lee and Matt Walsh-led Florida in 2004.

Picture the high expectations, hype, headlines, and hearsay which enveloped Shaka Smart during Virginia Commonwealth's upset binge of 2011.

 Think of Brad Stevens when he became the youngest coach to earn two Final Four berths, helping vault Butler into national supremacy following years of obscurity.

That was the level of sudden stardom Gonzalez experienced.

He recalls Spike Lee approaching him, imploring him to interview for the then-vacant St. John's job.

Alex Rodriguez, then a newly-acquired slugger with the Yankees, publicly endorsed Gonzalez for the head coaching job at his hometown University of Miami.

Michael Kay created a song for Gonzalez on his 41st birthday, the day the Jaspers pulled off that riveting Florida upset.

"That was my lottery ticket, that Manhattan run," Gonzalez said.

"The people in the Riverdale/Bronx area called us rock stars. It was incredible. We were so well known. We got invited to the David Letterman show. I started doing radio shows. I did an event at Times Square with ESPN zone with Dan Patrick. People were chanting in the street."

Gonzalez continued, "I couldn't believe the attention. That's one thing about New York. People say New York is tough and it is. It's a tough place to lose. It's also just as great a place to win. There is nothing like winning in New York City."

Just two and a half years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Manhattan became media darlings.

 They were an old-school team, devoid of big NBA prospects and built on sturdy defense and New York City-branded toughness.

 With the Knicks in a dismal state, floundering until Stephon Marbury sparked a late playoff push (they were swept, 4-0, in the first round by the Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin-headlined New Jersey Nets), all eyes were pasted on the Jaspers' run.

"Being New York's team was a big deal," said Gonzalez.

So was Flores, who Gonzalez describes as a son to him.

A transfer via Rutgers, the severely under-recruited Flores struggled to earn playing time behind Dahntay Jones and Todd Billet (both of whom ended up transferring) his freshman year with the Scarlet Knights.

 When he arrived at the doorstep in Riverdale, Gonzalez ripped the straightjacket off Flores' back.

His scoring engine was put into immediate use. A well-built guard who initially drew Joe Dumars comparisons, the 5-foot-11 Flores was more of a two-guard entrenched in a point guard's build.

 Gonzalez is quick to acknowledge that without Flores, he never would have received a Big East job at Seton Hall.

"It's kind of a cliche but when your best player is your best leader and not only is he your best player but probably the best player in the conference and the metropolitan area, you've got something pretty special."

Flores' 44-point eruption at Fairfield during the 2002-03 campaign was proof of this.

Flores went off for 38 points during a win against Niagara, establishing a new high-water mark in Draddy Gymnasium at the time.

He scored 52 points and grabbed 19 boards during two MAAC tournament games, never leaving the floor.

 In the aforementioned Florida upset, Flores dropped 26 points on a steady compilation of 3-pointers, pull-ups, and drives.

Seton Hall Days

Gonzalez' penchant for discovering "diamond in the rough" guards continued at Seton Hall, when he penned one of the Pirates' program greats in Jeremy Hazell.

Derm Player, Gonzalez' assistant and co-assistant dating back to his Rice High days, stumbled upon the Harlem-bred 6-foot-5 3-point assailant during a street tournament.

Known then as "The Cab Driver" for his ability to launch from distances, Hazell evolved into a 2,000-point scorer.

He averaged 22.7 points during the 2008-09 campaign, routinely dialing in from NBA range.

For 30 years, Gonzalez was a media darling, a close friend of Rick Pitino and Jay Wright.

When Gonzalez developed a habit of recruiting high-risk players at Seton Hall, the golden boy image faded.

His relationship with the media exacerbated and his every move was scrutinized.

The quick-triggered NY media went into Private Investigator mode. His protection of his players led to turmoil and flare-ups with the media that covered his every game.

Gonzalez beefed with reporters such as Adam Zagoria (oddly enough, the two are now friends) and Pete Thamel.

 Seton Hall has done its best to revitalize the system.

The Pirates inked two of the city's top Class of 2014 seniors in All-American Isaiah Whitehead and high-flying Desi Rodriguez out of Lincoln High in Coney Island.

Since Gonzalez left, however, Seton Hall has struggled to keep the program above sea level.

The Pirates went 13-17 during the first season of the Post-Gonzalez/Derm Player era. They've mustered just one winning season (21 wins in 2011-12,  culminating with an NIT berth) since.

Under Pitino disciple Kevin Willard, the Pirates went 17-17 in 2013-2014, 6-12 in Big East play.

Gonzalez said he has owned up to his firing, acknowledging that he did recruit players with checkered pasts.

At the same time, however, Gonzalez maintains the incidents and events created the perfect storm for his ouster.

He declined to comment on player arrests.

Gonzalez reiterated that the Pirates had three winning seasons while in one of the nation's deepest and most physical conferences, then a launching pad for NBA talent.

 In Gonzalez' four years at Seton Hall, five players cracked the program record books.

 Eugene Harvey and Jordan Theodore each ascended the program's Top-5 in assists.

Herb Pope, another "Diamond In The Rough" but super high-risk recruit originally headed to Pittsburgh, became a boardsmith in the land of behemoths such as 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet (UCONN) and brick junkhouse-bodied DuJuan Blair (PITT).

The aforementioned Hazell, the Cab Driver, translated the street credit into Big East lore.

With a scoring pace Gonzalez hadn't groomed since Flores, Hazell emerged into the second all-time leading scorer in school history.

Severely underrecruited out of high school, Hazell entertained meager Division-I interest. He had commitment to Oral Roberts before catching the eye of Player and re-opening his recruitment.

Gonzalez would not get into detail about player suspensions or his rocky relationship with Seton Hall's athletic director.

 He did say, however, the program was built on discipline.

"Larry Brown used to always tell me, 'talent is a gift and character is a choice,'" said Gonzalez.

"We didn't recruit bad kids, some of them made bad choices."

One of Gonzalez' final recruits at Seton Hall, Fuquan Edwin, has solidifed his legacy as a double-duty player.

An unconventional and funky cockback jumper and presence in the passing lanes helped sell Gonzalez on Edwin.

A product of Paterson's hard-edged Alexander Hamilton houses, known as the "Alabama Projects," Edwin has become a program poster boy.

An instinctive, ball-hawking defender (SHU and the Big East's all-time steals leader) and 1,000-point scorer, Edwin is now a marginal NBA prospect.

Earnin' In Mount Vernon

Gonzalez' love for the game never dissipated. He's still the same guy he was at Five Star 20 years ago, talking at a motor-mouth pace about recruits and prospects and coaching legacies.

He is still molding young minds on the basketball court, with coaching clinics at Hooperstown in Mount Vernon.

 Flores and several local area coaches have been guests.

Gonzalez, who holds a 195-136 overall record, a 60 percent winning percentage, and has two NCAA tournament appearances and three NIT berths, has spent time working as an NBA consultant and motivational speaker.

While radio and television has kept him engaged, immersed in the area that's consumed the past 35 years of his life, Gonzalez said coaching is still his true labor of love.

It's evident from the intensity he reeks of during every drill, every in-your-grill demonstration at Hooperstown.

A simple discussion about old-school New York legends such as the aforementioned Kenny Anderson and Lopez is enough to jolt Gonzalez into a passionate, high-pitched conversation suited for a Queens barber shop.

 A horde of Westchester County's coaches have been at Hooperstown on a frequent basis, taking note of the former Manhattan boss. Inquiring minds have soaked up the teaching and experience factor gained over a basketball livelihood.

On May 29, Gonzalez will serve as the "celebrity guest coach" in the annual Frankie Williams Charity game in Greenburgh, N.Y..

The event, which has included household names such as Lance Stephenson, Kemba Walker, and burgeoning NBA prospect Sean Kilpatrick, features a unique blend of Westchester and New York City commits/prospects.

Gonzalez is looking forward to feeding his insatiable appetite for competition, rehydrating the competitive juices that spilled on courts all over Binghamton back in the day. Greenburgh is 15 minutes from Riverdale, where the apex of Gonzalez' coaching career took place.

"The thing I like about this game with  Tom Sampogna and Team Frenji, is that its a little step down from a McDonald's All-American game or a Boost Mobile Elite 24 Classic," Gonzalez said.

"I always prided myself on being a great recruiter and trying to get diamonds in the rough. This is a game for the kids who don't have as much hype. They're not on national TV, they might not all be All-Americans, they might not be on ESPN, but you've got all these great players and tough kids, like an Eric Paschall who's going to Fordham. That's what I love about this game. It's one of those under the radar type of games."

                                            Gonzalez with Felipe Lopez (left), and Luis Flores (right)