LOS ANGELES — Fifteen years into his service with the Air Force, longtime fuel specialist David Grace decided he wanted to pursue an unlikely new career path once he was ready to retire from active duty.
He hoped to become a college basketball coach.
Launching a coaching career would be challenging for anyone in their mid-30s, but Grace's background made his goal even more difficult to attain. He had no college degree, nor did he play basketball beyond high school. The only coaching experience he had at the time was as a part-time assistant for a local 12-and-under club team.
"So many people laughed at me and told me it was never going to happen," Grace said. "That was my motivation. I get told 'no' all the time, but I'm the type of guy who only needs one 'yes.' Very few people thought I could do it, but I tried to surround myself with the people who did."
Those who once laughed at Grace's ambition years ago certainly aren't chuckling at his expense anymore. Grace has made sure of that with his improbable rise from little-known club coach, to state championship-winning high school coach, to assistant coach at one of the most tradition-rich college programs in the nation.
Ten months into his tenure as an assistant under Steve Alford at UCLA, Grace has used his affable personality and relentless work ethic to entice several of the nation's most coveted prospects to come to Westwood. Grace was unable to help the Bruins land any of their top point guard targets, but he was the lead recruiter responsible for signing McDonald's All-American big men Kevon Looney of Milwaukee and Thomas Welsh of Los Angeles and for securing a commitment from elite Class of 2016 guard Lonzo Ball.
It's a splashy enough recruiting haul to both earn praise from his new boss and perhaps make him an attractive candidate for West Coast programs with head coaching vacancies this spring.
"David has been tremendous," Alford said. "I've been fortunate in my 23 years to not just hire people who understand basketball but who are also really good people, and that's what David is. He's a great guy and he's a tireless worker. He's always on the phone calling or texting recruits. Our first class is shaping up to be a top recruiting class, and he has played a big part in that."
There were few signs Grace would ever become a college basketball coach during a childhood that spanned two countries and four states.
The son of a mechanic and a beautician who both worked long hours, Grace grew up in Aberdeen, Md., but he moved roughly once a year after his mother remarried an army serviceman when he was 12. Basketball was a life-long passion for Grace, but seldom remaining in the same state for consecutive school years made winning the trust of his high school coaches difficult, let alone drumming up scholarship offers from Division I colleges.
Unable to either pay his own way to college or to land a basketball scholarship, Grace considered going to work or enlisting in the military after he graduated high school in 1983. He chose the Air Force when his mother employed reverse psychology and told him he wasn't smart enough for that branch of the military.
"When someone tells me I can't do something, that gets my blood flowing," Grace said. "I wanted to prove to her I was smart enough, so me and my friend went down and took the test and we both passed. I thought I'd only be there four years, but after a while, I realized it was a pretty good life."
The experiences Grace had during his two decades with the Air Force prepared him for coaching even if he didn't realize it at the time.
In 16 years as a fuel specialist and fuel accountant, Grace shuttled between air bases in Turkey, Germany, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Georgia and Virginia among others, learning never to get too attached to one city the same way assistant coaches who bounce from job to job must. The importance of discipline, teamwork and following the chain of command became ingrained in Grace. Three months in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm also taught him to appreciate the difference between the life-threatening pressure of a combat zone and the day-to-day challenges of a job.
Grace earned a promotion to human relations specialist his final four years in the Air Force, a job that required him to handle discrimination cases and to teach servicemen how to get along in the work force. It was surprisingly effective preparation for the recruiting trail, where Grace must be comfortable selling himself and his program to families from different regions of the country and different backgrounds.
At that point, however, basketball was still only a hobby for Grace rather than a potential career. He played intramural ball wherever he was stationed and he dabbled in refereeing to make some extra money on the side, but coaching was never something he considered until he met his new supervisor at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va.
Air Force sergeant Carl Harris coached a 12-and-under team in the Boo Williams AAU program. Harris first invited Grace to work under him as an assistant coach after they bonded over a mutual passion for basketball. The following summer, Harris got assigned to a base in Korea and asked Grace to take over as head coach of the team.
"David's work ethic and willingness to learn really impressed me," Harris said. "He studied how I did things, he asked questions and he had a few ideas of his own. With David being so personable and with us having the same vision, I felt comfortable turning the team over to him."
It was around that time that Grace had his first brush with major college basketball at a prominent AAU tournament that Boo Williams organized each year. The sight of dozens of Division I coaches milling around the bleachers evaluating prospects, chatting with family members or networking with one-another inspired Grace to wonder if he might be suited for that line of work.
"I remember saying to myself, 'I think i can do that,'" Grace said. "I made it a goal of mine to be in their shoes someday."
Whereas others chuckled at Grace's naivete, Williams wasn't so quick to discount him. The former St. Joseph's star turned youth basketball ambassador appreciated the way Grace obsessively studied the game, built relationships with parents and other coaches and peppered him with questions.
"I've been doing this for 33 years and I've had people come up to me and say what they would like to do many times, but this guy was different," Williams said. "I saw his work ethic. This guy was willing to work. I thought he had a chance just because he was so excited about the job and he worked so hard at it."
The faith Williams showed in Grace encouraged him to persevere even after he got assigned to a base in the Phoenix area. He'd work from before dawn until the early afternoon, run practice for the high school and AAU teams he coached in the afternoon and early evening and then spend a few hours every night working toward his degree in management and human resources.
It took a few years, but Grace eventually built a reputation as one of Arizona's premier coaches.
He took over the Arizona Magic club program in 2000 and helped develop future college standouts Lawrence Hill (Stanford) and Christian Polk (Arizona State/UTEP), among others. He also led South Mountain High School to a state championship in 2005 even though the school was 4-17 the year before he arrived.
Those accomplishments put Grace on the radar of college coaches, but he had to make sacrifices to finally secure a foothold in Division I basketball. The first job offer he received from then-Sacramento State coach Jerome Jenkins required him to take a $20,000 pay cut to accept it.
"I got a studio apartment in Sacramento with a mattress about this thick," Grace said, his hands only inches apart. "I had two VCR decks and that was the only other thing in the whole place. I remarried two days before I left [Arizona] to my current wife. She was able to take care of my kids and stay back in Arizona. A lot of times I just slept in the locker room because it was more convenient than going home."
One year at Sacramento State and a tumultuous season at San Francisco helped Grace earn enough credibility to latch on at Oregon State, first as Craig Robinson's director of basketball operations and later as an assistant coach. Grace quickly became Robinson's top recruiter, landing former all-conference guard Jared Cunningham and current Oregon State stars Roberto Nelson and Eric Moreland.
The success Grace enjoyed recruiting the West Coast and the ties he had to some of Southern California's most prominent AAU programs made him enticing to Alford when UCLA hired him last spring. Alford needed an assistant who could help make UCLA a destination for top Los Angeles-area prospects again, but he was wary of hiring Grace since the two hardly knew one-another.
Grace had an offer to join Craig Neal's staff at New Mexico and an opportunity to interview with USC coach Andy Enfield when Alford called and asked him to meet him for an interview at an Atlanta hotel during the Final Four. One of the things Grace did to win Alford over was standing up and shaking the hand of the UCLA coach's teenaged daughter when she entered the room mid-interview.
"We were having dinner a couple nights later, and [Alford] said, 'the young lady at the end of the table, she really liked you, so she's the reason we're going to hire you,'" Grace said with a chuckle. "I'm waving at her, thanking her. And we're still close to this day."
Questions about whether Alford hired the right staff arose this fall when a UCLA program in dire need of a point guard swung and missed on targets Jordan McLaughlin (USC), Josh Perkins (Gonzaga) and Quentin Snider (Louisville). Grace helped alleviate those concerns later in the fall with his success addressing UCLA's other position of need, a thin front court that will lose both the Wear twins after this season.
Looney, Rivals.com's No. 13 recruit, chose UCLA over Duke, Florida and Michigan State. Welsh, Rivals.com's No. 52 recruit, heavily considered Stanford and Cal before selecting the Bruins. And another top 100 Class of 2014 recruit, 6-foot-8 forward Jonah Bolden, could also be an impact player someday in the UCLA frontcourt.
"He loves when people say he can't do something," said Etop Udo-Ema, founder of the Compton Magic AAU program and a good friend of Grace's. "There's a lot of people who didn't think he could get stuff done at UCLA, and that just made him sick to his stomach. He's non-stop. I don't even know what kind of hours he logs, but I would bet he's on the phone by 5 or 6 in the morning and he won't stop until after midnight or 1 a.m."
At some point soon, Grace hopes to parlay that fierce work ethic into a head coaching opportunity. He's in no rush to leave UCLA, but he considers that to be the final step in his unlikely career path.
"It would mean everything to me," Grace said. "I've really enjoyed my time at UCLA. I think the world of my head coach and the administration here. It's 75 and sunny every day. Who wouldn't want to recruit to here? But to become a Division I head coach would be a dream of mine."