KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Taking the reins of the Pacific Tigers has been 'a lot of fun' for ex-Wilson High, Trail Blazers star

COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC - Damon Stoudamire returned to Portland to coach against the Pilots in his first year as head of the Pacific Tigers men's basketball team.The Pacific Tigers are near the end of their game-day shootaround at Chiles Center, and the coach is growing impatient as they work on an inbound play.

"Way too slow," he says. "Way too slow."

With greater sense of urgency, the Tigers sprint through their screens and cuts and finish the play with a dunk off a lob pass at the rim.

The coach nods his approval, then moves to the next task.

This is Damon Stoudamire's life now, as first-year head coach of a lower-echelon West Coast Conference program located in Stockton, California, once named the most miserable city in the United States by Forbes Magazine.

No matter. Stoudamire is a head coach, running his own NCAA Division I program after seven years as an assistant coach in the college ranks.

"Feels good," says the Wilson High grad before the Tigers' 76-65 victory over the Portland Pilots on Thursday night. "I'm trying to figure things out — seeing things the way they are right now, and seeing things where they're hopefully going to get.

"It's been a process, but it's been a lot of fun."

Fun is relative. The Tigers are 10-18 overall, 4-11 in WCC play and 2-10 on the road. They had lost eight of their previous nine games going into the Portland contest.

Not so bad, though, for a team that went 8-20 a year ago and lost six scholarships over three seasons through self-imposed sanctions after an NCAA investigation for academic improprieties.

Coach Ron Verlin lost his job through the scandal, which opened the door for Stoudamire, eager for a chance to run his own show at a D-I school.

Two years earlier, Stoudamire had spoken to officials about openings at Oregon State and Houston.

"With Oregon State, you got the feel they wanted a guy with (head-coaching) experience," Stoudamire said, and indeed, the Beavers hired Montana's Wayne Tinkle. "With Houston, I knew they were locked in on Kelvin Sampson. That was Kelvin's job to lose.

"But going through the process, you learn a lot for the next time."

The next time came last March, as Stoudamire was completing his second stint as an assistant with Josh Pastner at the University of Memphis.

Pacific is in its fourth season competing in the WCC after leaving the Big West following the 2012-13 season.

Stockton, population 315,000, lies in San Joaquin County, 50 miles south of Sacramento and 85 miles east of San Francisco.

The basketball team plays in Alex Spanos Center, capacity 6,150, built in 1981.

There is no glorious tradition. The Tigers' biggest names over the years are John Gianelli, Keith Swagerty and Michael Olowokandi.

"A lot of people asked me, 'Why are you taking this job?'" Stoudamire says. "This is what I say: It's hard to get a (head- coaching) job. It's easy to say what you think (the job) should be, or who should get it, but it's another thing to actually go in there and get the job."

Stockton's murder rate per-capita is higher than Chicago's. In 2012, Stockton became the largest U.S. city ever to have filed for bankruptcy. But Stoudamire says he is not bothered to call the city home.

"It's solid," he says. "My whole life, I've always adapted to where I'm at. I'm in the offices pretty much all day, anyway."

The best thing Pacific basketball has had going was Verlin's predecessor, Bob Thomason, who compiled a record of 437-321 with 19 winning seasons in a 25-year run as head coach. He was Big West Coach of the Year five times before retiring in 2013.

"When Coach Thomason had it rolling, (Spanos Center) was a tough place to play," Stoudamire says. "I feel like if we're winning and can get back to that point, the city will really get behind us.

"Stockton reminds me a lot of Memphis. There's an underdog mentality. Memphis takes pride in their sports. Stockton wants our team to be successful."

After an outstanding four-year run as point guard under Lute Olson at Arizona, the 5-9 Stoudamire — "Mighty Mouse" to his followers — embarked on a successful 13-year NBA career, which included a Rookie of the Year season in Toronto and 7 1/2 seasons with the Trail Blazers (1997-2005). Stoudamire always was a student of the game of basketball, but he envisioned a career in broadcasting after his playing days were over.

"I coached on the couch watching games," he says with a smile, "but honestly, I never really thought about coaching."

The first year of his retirement, though, he was living in Houston. He knew the Rice athletic director, Chris Del Conte, from his time as an associate AD at Arizona. Del Conte introduced him to Rice coach Ben Braun, and they became friends. Braun brought in Stoudamire as the Owls' director of player development, and "I was kind of hooked," Stoudamire says.

The next year, former Blazers guard Lionel Hollins hired Stoudamire as an assistant coach when he got the Memphis Grizzlies' head job in the NBA.

After two years, Stoudamire moved crosstown to work with Pastner.

Two years later, Stoudamire moved to Tucson to work under Olson for two years.

Then he returned to Memphis to serve on Pastner's staff for another year.

Now Stoudamire is at Pacific, drawing less on inspiration from his NBA coaches — Gregg Popovich, Mike Dunleavy and Mike Fratello among them — than from his time at Wilson under Dick Beachell and at Arizona under Olson.

Stoudamire won state championships with Beachell as a sophomore in 1989 and a senior in 1991, earning first-team all-state and all-state Tournament honors his last two seasons with the Portland Interscholastic League Trojans.

"High school and college is where you draw from when you're dealing with kids," Stoudamire says. "Coach Beachell and Coach Olson are the ones I go back to and think about the things they did as a coach. The one thing both of them stressed was consistency. You knew what you were doing every day. We worked on the same things every day until we perfected them.

"I was an attention-to-detail guy as a player. I'm big on that with my guys. I'll slow things down to get that point across."

Stoudamire says he realized something else as he began to work with his Pacific players: They're not on the same level as the ones he worked with at Arizona and Memphis.

"You have to be patient," he says. "You have to teach. There are going to be some ups and downs, but that's OK."

Stoudamire says he prefers college basketball to the NBA.

"It's more fun," he says. "You report to one person — your athletic director — control what (talent) you bring in and don't bring in.

"Your shelf life (as a coach) is a little bit longer. You're probably going to get a little more time to get things going, but it's still a pressure deal. And college is a grind. You don't get a month or two months off like you do in the pros. You're pretty much working year-round, whether it's dealing with your kids on campus or with commitments off campus."

Stoudamire knows he'll have to recruit to win at Pacific. He likes the practice facility (which opened in 2009) and is excited about a $1.45-million performance center that is scheduled to open this spring.

For the next two years, he'll be shy two scholarships, which won't help. But he believes he can overcome the odds.

"I have connections and some equity I've built up around the country through my years playing and coaching basketball," Stoudamire says. "I'm able to touch a lot of places that maybe (coaches) here before haven't."

Stoudamire already has tapped his connections. Freshman guard K.J. Smith is the son of Kenny Smith, the ex-NBA player now a studio analyst for TNT.

Maybe Stoudamire will one day use family roots. His oldest son, Damon Jr., 17, is a 6-1 junior guard at Suwanee High in the Atlanta area. Younger son Brandon, 14, is a 5-5 eighth-grader.

"They're good," he says. "It's been fun seeing them grow up. I never pushed them into playing ball. Coming behind what I did, that's a lot. But they're doing just fine."

Stoudamire's current players are a bit in awe that their coach is the man who scored 11,763 points and dished out 5,371 assists during his NBA career.

Freshman point guard Smith says Stoudamire is "100 percent" of the reason why he chose the Tigers.

"I was excited, him being a point guard who played the game," says Smith, who scored 10 points in 19 points off the bench Thursday night. "I've never had a coach like that, besides my dad in AAU ball. I took a lot of stuff from my dad, but also stuff that (Stoudamire) saw that I never would have thought about."

Is Smith, 19, old enough to remember Stoudamire when he played in the NBA?

"Oh, yeah — I used to play with him in video games all the time," he says.

What's it been like to play for Stoudamire?

"It's been fun, challenging, exciting, sad at times," Smith says. "He's a hard-nosed coach. He gets after us, but that's how he gets us to perform."

Sophomore forward Anthony Townes, from Modesto, California, says Stoudamire "has been trying to change the culture at Pacific, trying to give us the winning culture we need."

"He keeps it real with us," says Townes, who had 18 points and 16 rebounds against the Pilots. "He's always pushing us to be better."

Stoudamire's trip to Portland was nostalgic.

"Coming here today, we drove past Harriet Tubman (his old middle school)," he says. "I know all the landmarks. There are a lot of memories here. It always takes me back.

"Everything started for me at Matt Dishman (Community Center). I look back at the Dishman moments. I look back at the Wilson moments. Those are moments that helped me get to this point in my life.

"I mean, being a pro basketball player, it's a blink of an eye. Thirteen years — boom, it's over! You learn to appreciate it. That's what I cherish the most when I come back home."

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