Imagine that it's 1981. You’re a young father with a 5-year-old son and you’re an assistant basketball coach in the storied Atlantic Coast Conference. Now imagine that your son’s a ball boy for your team, the University of Virginia, which is ranked No. 1 in the country and features the best player in college, 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson. To your boy, the players are giants and every home game is a party with thousands of people cheering for your squad. If you wanted your son to get bitten by the basketball bug, there are few better scenarios to conjure up.
For Jim Larranaga, the current head basketball coach at University of Miami, the above hypothetical was his son Jay’s reality several decades ago.
"Jay's first introduction to the players on our team was when we were at Virginia," Jim Larranaga says. "He was a ball boy and when we’d have players over the house for dinner and he’d interact with them, they’d tell him stories about their childhood and how they played basketball. Then Jay would be at the gym every chance he got. There was so much excitement surrounding that team he wanted to be around it."
Virginia was one of the earlier stops on Larranaga’s basketball career, which began with his days as a star player at Providence. After Providence, he took a coaching job at Davidson, then a coaching job in Belgium, then Virginia. After seven successful years at UVA, he took his first prominent head coaching position at Bowling Green State.
"Jay was in sixth grade," Larranaga says. “We lived in a small town and he often rode his bike to school, but after school was over he’d come directly to the gym and he’d play during practices on a side basket with one of my managers. After practice I’d have a chance to work with him and teach him the game of basketball."
When the family moved to Bowling Green, Larranaga was surprised to learn that the university had yet to establish a youth basketball program. They did, however, have an excellent hockey program, so Jay’s younger brother, Jon, joined the hockey team.
"Jon would go to the ice arena around 5 a.m.," Larranaga says. "My wife would drive him. The first five years in Bowling Green he played more hockey than basketball."
Then Larranaga decided to capitalize on one of the perks of being a head coach and decided to start his own youth program, called the Junior Falcons. This enabled his son and other kids interested in basketball to play. After all, what better way to share your love of basketball with your offspring than to create a youth hoops program that he could play in?
“We ran it on the weekends and my players coached the young kids in town," Larranaga says.
By this time, Jay had fully fallen in love with the sport and was ready for his high school team.
“Jay’s high school had no fall or spring programs, so my wife and I would take turns driving him up to Toledo so he could play in their open gyms,” Larranaga says. “He liked it so much that he decided to go to school in Toledo, which had one of the best high school programs in the state of Ohio. Jay led them to a state championship game and had a tremendous career."
In addition to a love of the game, Coach Larranaga passed along a gym rat work ethic that only a coach could truly appreciate.
"I remember one day Jay’s high school coach came into my office and said that Jay is really effective in and around the basket and that they need him to play inside, like a post player,” Larranaga says. “Jay was a great perimeter shooter, but I knew that he’d do whatever he needed to do for the team to win. I started working with him on his post game right way, but he never stopped working on his perimeter shot as well.”
When asked if his son’s desire to improve and the determination to continue to work on all facets of the game came directly from being the son of a coach, Larranaga says that is part of it, but also a sort of sports osmosis takes place.
"Whenever you're around basketball a lot, you learn mentally and you apply it physically,” he says. “You see a kid make a move and then you go to your own driveway and start working on it. In our driveway we put up two baskets. One was on the side of the garage and the other was at the end of the driveway. The boys would shoot on one basket and then drive and score on the next one."
The driveway work and the time in the gym would eventually lead both sons to an opportunity to play for their father, Jay at Bowling Green and Jon at George Mason. Where this might be a problem for some parents and coaches, Coach Larranaga made one thing clear from the start.
"I explained to both Jay and Jon when they played with me that my responsibility to the team is to help us win,” Larranaga says. "All the decisions I make will be about what’s best for the team, not what’s best for my son. It’s very, very hard to be objective, but you have to be."
Speaking to that point, Larranaga recalls Jay’s freshman year when he was telling his son how thrilled he was with his performance in practice, so Jay asked why he wasn’t starting. Coach Larranaga explained to him that the guy ahead of him was a junior and was playing just as hard and just as well and he deserved the spot.
Later in that season, against Michigan State, Larranaga put his son in when the team needed some help defensively and he outworked the starter who was ahead of him on the depth chart against the same opposing player. The rest of the team saw the same thing and Jay earned his way into the starting line-up. No special favors were given.
The flip side to this is the pressure that a son feels when playing for his father. In a 2008 interview with the Toledo Blade, Jay said the following about playing with his dad:
"There always was pressure to play well, because if we lost people would say I played badly and my dad was a terrible coach. But I have so many great memories of my time playing for my dad, spending time with him on road trips and practice and such. But the positive times are accentuated when you share them with the people who mean the most to you in your life."
Jon and Jay, who is now an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics, both left college with enough talent to play professional ball in Europe, which is a testament to their father’s coaching.
“Actually, playing for my dad did help me prepare for the pressure of playing in Europe,” Jay told the Blade. "That was the greatest pressure I ever felt in my life."
Regardless of the pressure, his love for the game stayed strong and Jay has followed in his dad's coaching footsteps -- just the way you’d have imagined it would turn out if your son was that 5-year-old ball boy for Virginia.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.