Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
It’s the middle of March Madness, circa 1993, and a splendid sharpshooter named Rex Walters is playing for the Kansas Jayhawks. “Seinfeld” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” are prime-time hits on U.S. television and music icons Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra are still performing regularly.
Those memories also include this factoid: The Roy Williams-coached Jayhawks enjoyed a trip to the Final Four.
Walters helped make the trip possible, scoring 24 points in KU’s 93-76 Sweet 16 triumph over a University of California team starring Jason Kidd.
It’s a game that is still recalled vividly by college basketball aficionados at barber shops and watering holes in the Midwest and Northern California.
Walters, who is believed to be the first Japanese-American to play in the NCAA Men’s Tournament Final Four, has seen his career come full circle. Fifteen years after one of his signature college games, he is now back in the Bay Area, having been hired in mid-April to coach the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team.
“It’s a tremendous honor and blessing and I am excited about the opportunity,” Walters told The Japan Times by phone from Florida on Wednesday.
He has his work cut out for him. The Dons, who play in the West Coast Conference, are coming off a 10-21 season in which coach Jessie Evans was fired in December and Eddie Sutton was lured out of retirement with a chance to vie for his coveted 800th coaching victory (he got it, but went 6-13 along the way).
Indeed, it was time for a fresh start for the USF program, which had powerhouse teams in the 1950s led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.
Russell, the future Boston Celtics great, led the Dons to a pair of NCAA championships before embarking on his legendary pro career.
The team won a then-record 60 consecutive games, starting with a 60-34 dismantling of Oregon State on Dec. 17, 1954, and, as was noted in a retrospective piece in The Sporting News in 1996, “Russell blocked shots like he had invented a new art form.” One possible rational for that is this: “If your opponents can’t shoot,” San Francisco coach Phil Woolpert said, “they can’t score.”
Walters, 38, brings energy and passion to his new job after spending the previous two seasons at Florida Atlantic University, where he posted a 31-33 record in his first Division I head coaching job.
For Walters, whose wife Deanna recently gave birth to the couple’s fifth child, son Ace Jordan, in Florida, the next several weeks will involve spending a lot of time away from his family.
He characterized this time as one in which he’ll be “all over the place” — Arizona, Southern California and Philadelphia, to name a few places.
“It’s going to get crazy,” Walters decided.
This hectic time is known as the 2008 evaluation period, providing Walters and his coaching staff a chance to identify potential building blocks for the program’s 2009 recruiting class.
“It never stops, never ends,” Walters says of recruiting.
“You’ve really got to take a real hard look at each of these kids . . . not only as a basketball player but as a person to make the best decision for your basketball program.”
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During his two-year stint at KU — Walters first played two seasons at Northwestern University — the Jayhawks won 56 of 68 games. In that time span, he solidified his reputation as one of the best pure shooters in the nation, averaging 15.6 points per game and making 50.7 percent of his 2-point shots and 41.8 percent of his 3-point attempts.
The New Jersey Nets selected Walters with the No. 15 pick in the 1993 NBA Draft. He played seven seasons in the league, suiting up for Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat and appearing in 335 games (67 starts).
During those seven seasons, Walters received some of the best coaching in the business — three Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame mentors Chuck Daly, Larry Brown and Pat Riley. (Williams is also a Hall of Fame coach).
“I have been really blessed. I have been around some great, great people,” said Walters, who attended Independence and Piedmont high schools in San Jose, Calif., and also played for the San Jose CYS and San Jose Zebras, part of the city’s Japanese-American youth programs.
“There’s no question you want to draw upon people you’ve learned from. It’s a wealth of knowledge that I am fortunate to have access to.”
For instance, Daly is scheduled to be involved in a coaching clinic at War Memorial Gym on the USF campus on Aug. 30.
“I’ve worked hard, no question, but that has opened up some doors for me. Fortunately, I’ve done the work that has prepared me (for a coaching career).”
So what are some staples of Walters’ brand of coaching?
“Obviously I’ve got a simple philosophy: to work hard and make our players better basketball players and compete for championships — and try to outthink and outwork the competition,” Walters said
With that in mind, what type of player is he looking for on the recruiting trail?
Walters wants guys that can “pass, handle and shoot the basketball, guys that understand how fortunate they are to play basketball at the University of San Francisco and get a great education.”
Defensively, his principals are simple to understand.
“We are going to guard the basketball, really protect the paint and be a hard, physical basketball team,” Walters told me.
“That is how we are going to play defensively.” By doing so, “the shooting percentages go down and we get the basketball in our hands more and have an opportunity to score.”
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Walters’ ties to the Bay Area’s Japanese-American sports community are well-chronicled in the Nichi Bei Times. On this side of the Pacific Ocean, his on-court exploits are less famous.
He has, however, been to Japan to play hoops. As a high school senior in 1988, Walters was selected to play for a California All-Star squad, recalling in our conversation that he played in Niigata and six other locales in Japan. He said he enjoyed the experience.
Walters’ USF coaching staff includes first-year assistant Danny Yoshikawa, who worked for the UC-Santa Barbara team last season after a five-year stint as head coach at West Valley College, where he had a 144-47 record.
Naturally, Walters and Yoshikawa are open to the possibility of recruiting players from Japan.
“There are no boundaries about where we look,” Walters said. “The great thing about the University of San Francisco is that everybody knows where it is and where it’s located, and you are going to get a great education. There are no places we can’t go.
“Obviously, with his background and my background, if we find out about him, we’ll recruit him.
“If he can pass, handle the ball and shoot, I don’t care if he’s from Japan, Calcutta, wherever, I’m going to recruit him.”
The Dons have yet to play a game under Walters, but they have a strong foundation for the future, according to Williams, who now coaches the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
“He is truly one of the greatest competitors I have ever been around and he will do a great job as USF’s basketball coach,” Williams told the San Jose Mercury News. “His determination and work ethic will lead his players by example. They will work hard in the classroom and will be a great representatives of your university.”