Prodigy Pastner rises
MEMPHIS – He abandoned a date in the movie theater to take a call from a prospect and once mailed a recruiting letter to an unborn child.
Still, the kookiest of all the stories involving Josh Pastner unfolded on a spring evening in Port Arthur, Texas – the city where he landed the first oral commitment of his career.
After traveling 90 minutes to watch Stephen Jackson play in a ninth-grade game, Pastner approached the future NBA star’s mother in an attempt to convince her to let her son join his AAU squad, Houston Hoops.
“Well, ummm …,” a confused Judy Jackson said, “are there any adults involved? Where are your parents?”
Reasonable questions, to be sure.
Pastner was only 14.
– Josh Pastner
“It all worked out, though – we got him,” says Pastner, who two years later took over for his dad as Houston Hoops’ head coach. “For the next four years, Stephen worked his tail off. Look where he is now.”
Even better, look where Pastner is now.
That first recruiting coup still fresh in his memory, the guy who’s been called a “wunderkind” and a “prodigy” is lounging in his new office at the University of Memphis, where he was hired April 6 to replace John Calipari after Calipari left for Kentucky.
For Pastner, 31, the story of how it all happened will never get old.
Following a seven-year stint on Arizona’s staff, Pastner spent the 2008-09 season as an assistant under Calipari and had accepted an offer to join him in Lexington.
Dripping with sweat after packing up his office, Pastner was driving home in his friend’s Toyota Corolla – he had already turned in his university-issued automobile – when he received a call from Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, who asked Pastner to stop by his home.
Moments later, an unshaven-Pastner arrived in sweat pants, sneakers and a T-shirt dotted with holes. When Johnson offered him the Tigers’ head coaching job, he immediately began to scan the room for pranksters lurking behind a curtain or in a closet.
“I was like, ‘Where’s Ashton Kutcher? Where’s the candid camera?’” Pastner said. “I thought I was on that MTV show, Punk’d.”
This was no hoax. After discussions stalled with USC’s Tim Floyd, Baylor’s Scott Drew and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, Johnson decided to offer the job to Pastner, who needed only to get the blessing of his former boss before accepting.
“I asked to step outside to call Cal,” Pastner says. “He laughed and told me, ‘Josh, you’re fired. You can’t come with me to Kentucky anymore. You’re taking that job. It’s your only option.’ ”
Just like that, college basketball’s winningest program over the past four seasons – a team just one year removed from playing in the NCAA title game – had a head coach who had never been higher than a No. 3 assistant, a guy who looked younger than most of its players.
Hiring head coaches in Pastner’s age range certainly isn’t unprecedented. Brad Stevens was 30 when he took over at Butler in 2007. Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel was 31 when he got his first head coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth.
But this is different. This is Memphis – the home of Derrick Rose, the always-sold-out FedEx Forum and four straight Conference USA championships.
“It’s a destination job,” Pastner says. “It’s a job you could be happy with for an entire career.”
Pastner leans forward in his chair.
“Listen,” he says, “I know I caught an unbelievable break. I know there are plenty of other great people and coaches that have worked hard for a long time and deserve a shot like this. I know that.
“But for some reason, I was blessed with this opportunity, and I’m going to do the very best I can to make this city and these Memphis fans proud.”
The more they learn about Pastner, the more they already are.
Long before he became one of the hottest names in the coaching profession, Josh Pastner was pudgy. Or, as his classmates called him, fat.
That was the taunt Pastner heard during elementary school and junior high days, when a lack of athleticism and a few extra pounds kept him from excelling at the level of some of his peers.
“I was overweight and people made fun of me,” Pastner said. “I’d go home feeling hurt. I always knew that I didn’t want to treat people like that. I didn’t want to make someone feel two feet tall. Words are very powerful. They can affect people.”
Sometimes in a positive way.
Pastner had told his father, Hal, as a fifth-grader that his dream was to be in the NBA, either as a player or a coach. Now, partly because of the name-calling, he was more motivated than ever.
To help his son realize his dream, Hal Pastner started the Houston Hoops AAU program. Thanks to Josh, it didn’t take long for things to flourish.
Although he was never one of the team’s best players, Josh was the one who made the program go. Before he could even get into an R-rated movie or drive a car, Josh was traveling with his father across Texas and Louisiana, scouting games and making recruiting visits to the homes of players they felt could help Houston Hoops become one of the premier travel teams in the country.
Emeka Okafor, Daniel Gibson, T.J. Ford, Chris Owens, Rashard Lewis and Desmond Mason all became a part of Houston Hoops because of Josh. So, too, did David Boston and Marcus Spears, who went on to become standouts in the NFL.
Still, one of the most prized pupils was Jackson, now an all-star with the Golden State Warriors. Once he was old enough to drive, Pastner would make the 200-mile, round trip drive from Houston to Port Arthur twice each weekend to take Jackson to and from games.
By that point he had also began publishing the “Josh Pastner Scouting Report,” a 50-page book of observations that he sent to college coaches across the country. Pastner compiled the information during AAU tournaments in which Houston Hoops was competing.
“Most of the players would go back to the hotel or to the mall after games,” Hal Pastner said. “But Josh never left the gym. I drop him off there at 8 a.m. and pick him up at 10 p.m.
“I started getting calls from coaches saying, ‘This stuff is great. How do I subscribe?’ I’d say, ‘It’s free – and it’s published by a teenager.’ They couldn’t believe it.”
By the time he was 16, Josh’s father had given him total control of the Houston Hoops program. Along with being the player/coach, Josh was also in charge of fundraising, scouting and team travel. So confident in Josh was his father that he stopped going on trips. It was just Josh, the players and usually a few mothers or fathers to pick up the rental cars at the airport.
When Houston Hoops started a girls program, Josh ran it, too. His sister, Courtney, was the Gatorade Texas High School Player of the Year in 1999.
“It was a lot of time,” Josh says, “but I loved it. It’s all I wanted to do.”
Pastner was equally devoted as a player.
Before his senior season at Kingwood High School, Pastner established the goal of making the all-district team.
On weeknights Pastner convinced the janitors to let him stay in the gym until they locked up the building at 11 p.m. In September he skipped the fall dance in favor of getting up shots.
“The dance was in the big gym and I was shooting in the small gym next door,” Pastner says. “A few times the ball bounced out the door and into the foyer, so I had to run out there and get it. I’m sure all of the people standing around in tuxedos and dresses were thinking, ‘What is this guy doing?’”
For his Senior Prom, Josh flew into Houston on Saturday morning from Indiana, where the Hoops were in a tournament. After attending the dance, Josh wished his date farewell as she and rest of the class boarded a bus for an all-night party in Galveston. Then he sped to the airport and caught the red-eye back to Indiana.
Think that’s extreme? How about this: To this day Pastner has never taken one sip of alcohol, a puff of a cigarette or a hit of an illegal drug. He swears he’s never even had caffeine.
“I don’t even know what carbonation tastes like,” says Pastner, who also doesn’t curse. “With me those decisions were always a personal thing.
“I think we all have that responsibility to be someone that people look up to. You don’t have to be an entertainer or a movie star. If you’re just a friend to someone, a brother or sister … people’s eyes are always on you.”
For Pastner, the eyes watching him most heavily belonged to legendary Arizona coach Lute Olson, who signed Pastner to a national letter of intent knowing he might never play a game in his career.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be,” Olson said, “but I just knew that, in some way or another, that Josh was going to add something to our program. I had seen him coach and I’d seen him interact with the players on that AAU team.
“It was obvious there was something different about him, something special.”
In the fall of 1996, shortly before Arizona conducted its first official practice, freshman Josh Pastner stood before his new teammates during a meeting in the Wildcats locker room.
“He tried to give this fiery speech,” Olson says. “He was like, ‘We’re going to win a national championship!’ Most of the players were looking at one another and probably thinking, ‘Who is this kid?’”
The Wildcats would soon find out.
Just as it did with his Houston Hoops teammates, Pastner’s positive attitude and work ethic began to rub off on Arizona’s players.
Suddenly a freshman averaging less than a point a game was coaxing Mike Bibby into extra shooting drills after practice. On Friday nights, instead of partaking in the Tucson nightlife, Pastner lured Miles Simon to the gym for shooting drills. New Year’s Eve was spent firing up 3-pointers with Michael Dickerson at the McKale Center.
“I was a big believer in outworking the competition,” Pastner said. “If I’m in the gym on a Friday night and someone else isn’t there because they’re at a party … I always felt like when we met on the court, I’d have a better chance because I’d prepared myself better.
“Miles and those guys got on board with that [mentality] early on, and it made a difference.”
Indeed, just as Pastner had predicted in that preseason meeting, Arizona went on to win the 1997 national championship, defeating three No. 1 seeds in the process. One of the lasting images of the title game victory over Kentucky was Pastner jumping up and down on the sidelines, elated to be a part of something so special.
Pastner only ended up averaging 0.9 points during his career, usually only seeing the court when the score was out of hand.
“I never played in a losing game,” he jokes now.
Still, his teammates grew to respect him so much that they voted him team captain prior to his senior season. By that point Pastner had already begun to gear toward a career in coaching, a quest that began when he applied to become the head coach of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
They turned him down, probably because he was 19.
Even without taking summer school courses, Pastner earned his undergraduate degree in Family Studies in just two-and-a-half years. He was enrolled in 33 hours during his final semester. After that, while still on the team, Pastner earned his Master’s degree in teaching.
Free time was often spent with a cup of quarters in the McKale Center concourse, where he used the pay phone to keep in touch with all of the contacts he’d made across the college basketball landscape.
After his second year as a graduate assistant under Olson, Pastner was one of five finalists for the head coaching job at Prairie View A&M, an almost all-black school about 40 miles from Houston.
Pastner didn’t get the job, which might have been a mistake considering he spent the next five years as a full-time assistant bringing in top-flight recruits to Arizona such as Hassan Adams, Jordan Hill, Nic Wise, Chase Budinger and Jerryd Bayless.
Pastner even sent a recruiting letter to the unborn son of former Wildcats center Loren Woods.
“The mother was 6-1, the father 7-1,” Pastner told a reporter. “It was a boy. He’s going to be 7-3.”
So consumed with recruiting and coaching was Pastner that his social life often took a hit. It wasn’t until his final year at Arizona that Pastner bothered to buy a bed. Instead he slept on an air mattress that was usually deflated by the time he woke up each morning.
“The joke,” Olson said, “was that if you ever needed to get into the gym late at night, just call Josh, because he was always there.”
Pastner has been dating his fiancee, Kerri Lamas, for more than five years. But before that he often found romance difficult. Once, during a first date, he received a phone call during a movie from recruit Ndudi Ebi, who was trying to decide whether to sign with Arizona or another school.
“I stepped into the lobby to take the call,” Pastner said, “and the conversation just kept going and going. Each time I started to feel bad that she was in the movie by herself, I thought, ‘Who’s going to help us with the national title? Ndudi Ebi, or my date?’ ”
“She stormed out when the movie was over,” Pastner said. “Walked right past me without saying a word and headed for the parking lot. I haven’t spoken to her since.
“But hey, we got the kid.”
Back in his new office at Memphis, Pastner pulls a manila folder out of his travel bag. Inside are 17 pieces of paper filled with transcriptions from the thousands of text messages he’s received since being named head coach.
At his request, Pastner’s fiancee and secretary typed out each and every one.
“I don’t want people to ever think I’ve forgotten where I’ve come from,” Pastner says. “I don’t want them to think I’m big-timing them by not calling back.
“I’ve always prided myself in returning each and every message. It’s the right thing to do. I’ll get to it.”
If only he could find the time.
After his hiring on April 6, Pastner went the next 72 hours without sleeping. With players to rally and recruits to call and assistants to hire, there was simply too much to do. Things got so bad that Pastner had to ask someone to drive him to and from work because he feared he might doze off and “crash into a wall.”
Still, tiring as the last few weeks have been, Pastner said he couldn’t feel more energized about what lies ahead.
Memphis fans apparently feel the same way. Go to a bar on Beale Street or eavesdrop on conversations at Gus’s Fried Chicken, and the talk is not filled with angst surrounding Calipari’s departure, but with excitement about the future under Pastner.
After a Final Four, two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 appearance in the last four years, folks here seem ready to show some patience with their new coach.
“This city is truly in love with Tiger basketball,” Pastner says. “The support is equivalent to an elite school. This is an elite school. It’s the city’s team. I’m just the gatekeeper.
“Things aren’t going to be done overnight. We will not cut corners. We’ll do it the right way. We’re going to have a foundation built strictly from the deep roots. We’re not going to have a foundation built on sand, because it will crumble when adversity hits. It’s got to have a really strong base.”
With players such as Roburt Sallie, Wesley Witherspoon, Doneal Mack – and maybe Shawn Taggart – returning next season, the Tigers will have a strong chance to repeat as Conference USA champions.
What might happen after that, though, is anyone’s guess. Calipari had signed arguably the nation’s top recruiting class prior to his departure. All but one of those players asked for and were granted a release from their national letters of intent.
“When I was at Arizona,” Pastner says, “not once did I tell a kid to come play for Coach Pastner. At Memphis, not once did I say, ‘Come play for me.’ Every conversation I had with a recruit was centered around Coach Cal. I can’t just do a 180.
“We told all of the kids that if Coach Cal ever left, we’d let them out of their letter of intent. We could’ve held them hostage a little bit, but that’s not the right thing to do. We gave them our word and we have to follow through on that. If we didn’t it’d come back to bite in the rear later on.”
– Josh Pastner
Pastner, who agreed to a five-year, $4.4 million contract, has hired former Rice head coach Willis Wilson as an assistant along with former Kentucky and Texas A&M assistant Glen Cyprien. He said he’s confident he’ll be able to lure talented players to Memphis.
“I told people … if we lose all the recruits, it happens,” Pastner says. “There are so many good players out there. Forget all the rankings. It’s all about evaluating and finding kids that are going to be happy here, because if they’re happy here, they’re going to play better for you anyway.”
Back in Arizona, Olson hopes that’s the case. He wants nothing more than to see his protege succeed. He just hopes Pastner’s head coaching career isn’t beginning at the wrong time.
“I’m so proud of Josh,” Olson said. “But I’ll be honest, I have some concerns. He’s not much older than most of those kids he’s going to be coaching. He’s never had problems getting respect before, but these are new guys. These are guys that don’t know who Josh Pastner is or what he’s all about.
“I’m sure there will be times when players try to take advantage of the situation. How he handles that will be the biggest factor in his success. With everything else, though, I think he’s ready and that he’ll do just fine.”
Back in Houston, Hal Pastner agrees.
“Josh isn’t overwhelmed,” he said. “He isn’t in over his head. It’s just another day at work for him. He’s prepared for this his whole life.”