Coaching a Star

by Tommy Dempsey (Binghamton)
Coaching a Star

This column was written when Tommy Dempsey was the head coach at Rider.

We are all out there in search of the next great player for our programs. What are we looking for? The answers on the surface include size, speed, athleticism, and a soft touch. But while on the hunt for all these qualities we should never lose sight of some others that may be even more important. They are character and work ethic.

When Jason Thompson decided to play for us at Rider we got the whole package. Four years later we have a player that has a chance to go down as one of the all-time greats at Rider and in the MAAC. As happy as we are to have Jason in our program I think most coaches would agree that coaching a star player is not always as easy as it sounds.

The thing that I have found most challenging is trying to find a balance between what is best for Jason and what is best for our basketball program. When you coach a star in a mid-major college program and he has success early in his career there immediately becomes talk that he should transfer to a higher level. You start to feel like you have to re-recruit a player in your own program because people on the outside start to fill their heads with nonsense. Once you are comfortable that your guy is not going anywhere you have a whole different set of problems on the horizon.

Let’s start with the amount of media attention. Anywhere we go or any time I talk to a reporter the first question is, “How good is Jason Thompson?” You have to answer this question knowing that Jason along with his teammates, will be reading your answer. At the same time you have to let people know that this kid is very special. If you are constantly telling everyone how great he is it can then become harder to coach him. You have a job to do as a coach to promote your players and to promote your program, but you don’t ever want your other players to feel like they are not important to you or that everything you do revolves around your star player.

Summer II, as we call it, is the second summer school session at Rider. Each year we have all of our players and incoming freshman attend Summer II so that we can get ahead academically as well as come together as a team through workouts and strength and conditioning sessions. Last summer Jason had some unique opportunities to attend camps with some of the very best college and NBA players. So during Summer II we were all here except Jason. Again we needed to do everything we could to help put Jason on the NBA radar, but we also needed him here at school with his teammates being a leader and bonding with the new guys.

When school started in September we created a personal website for Jason and now we are launching an All-American campaign for him as well. We have NBA personnel in for practices most days and we are flooded with media requests for interviews with Jason. Jason has what every kid in your locker room wants and you have to work hard to make sure that jealousy does not tear your team apart. I am sure that the coaches in the major conferences deal with this type of attention for their players all the time, but at Rider it is unique to have a player get this much national exposure (Jason is a finalist for the Wooden Award) and NBA interest.

How do you make it work for your star player and for your program? This is where the character and work ethic of the player come in. The most important thing you can do is to communicate. Most importantly, you have to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your player. Because of all the media attention he gets there will naturally be some walls that form between him and the rest of your team and he has to work hard to break those walls down by being “one of the guys”. People will constantly be putting him in front of the team so it is extremely important that he never puts himself first. Also, people will always want to talk to your star about the future and the NBA. To counteract this, I talk to Jason about living in the moment. I tell him to focus on being here and having fun with his teammates, to concentrate on having a great senior season, and to try and lead his team and school to the NCAA Tournament. I tell him that his life is going to change after our season ends and the business side of basketball will become a big part of his life.

Right now it should be fun, he is the big man on campus, he is going to earn his degree in Communication in the spring, he is playing on the same team as his younger brother and some of his best friends, and we have a chance to be very successful. Everything else will fall into place if he has a great senior year. Second you have to communicate with your team. You have to put it out there that you recognize that your star player is getting a lot of attention, but that he has put himself in that position by working his tail off during his time at your school. You have to tell your team that they can’t be jealous and let that tear us apart. You have to use Jason’s success as a motivator especially for the young players in your program. We talk to our players and tell them that no one knew who Jason Thompson was a couple years ago, but he worked hard and was coachable and now he is on the radar of every NBA team.

Coaching Jason has been a learning experience for me as well. We all know that you need great players to be successful. But we can never lose sight of the fact that player development is almost as important as recruiting, especially at a place like Rider. We can’t go out and get a McDonald’s All-American to come in and lead us to the NCAA Tournament. We have to develop the players in our program over four years to the very best of our abilities. If we are going to get the most out of the players that we recruit we have to ask some very important questions during the recruiting process about the character and work ethic of those players.

We have all coached the guys with all the physical tools in the world that year after year let us down. Most of the time it is because they either have some character issues or because they just don’t want to work at it. If you can combine character and work ethic with the physical skills that you are looking for in a recruit you never know when you may get a chance to coach the next Jason Thompson. When you get him trust me you will be happy to deal with any of the distractions that may come with coaching a star player.