Former Wildcat basketball star Stoudamire returns to Arizona as assistant coach
When Arizona basketball’s newest assistant coach Damon Stoudamire arrived at McKale Center, the hallways seemed the same as they had 21 years ago when he was a freshman guard for the Wildcats.
The 40-year-old building hasn’t changed much and the numb feeling Stoudamire said he gets when he sees the historic court is still the same. But things are different.
He’s not an 18-year-old kid and he’s no longer the 22-year-old first-team All-American, either. Stoudamire is now a grown man and a father.
“I’m here as a basketball coach right now,” Stoudamire said. “I’m not here as an 18, 19, 20-year-old young man playing for coach [Lute] Olson anymore. My responsibilities have changed, I’m here to help this program compete at the level that it’s been and try to make it even better.”
After being an assistant coach for four years (two with the Memphis Grizzles and two with the University of Memphis), Stoudamire returned to his alma mater. He’s an Arizona great, a Pac-10 Player of the Year and the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1996.
Yet, he wasn’t hired because of his accomplishments as a player. Head coach Sean Miller said he hired Stoudamire because he was the best possible coach for the job.
“His relationship with players, his ability to teach, his ability to connect with today’s student athletes, whether it be in the recruiting process or the guys who are here,” Miller said. “He’s been there and done it at the highest level. And to me, the credibility that he has, the passion that he has, who he is as a coach speaks way louder than what he did many years ago at the University of Arizona.”
While at UM, Stoudamire developed a reputation as a top recruiter. He was part of the Tiger’s No. 3 overall recruiting class for 2013 and his former boss, Memphis head coach Josh Pastner, said people naturally gravitate toward Stoudamire.
“He’s soft-spoken but he’s got a great way with players and people,” Pastner said. “He’s obviously an expert of the game of basketball — he knows the game, he’s played at the highest level.”
But for Stoudamire, recruiting is second-nature. It’s just about building relationships and talking basketball, something he said is easy for him. Stoudamire’s goal is to become more than that.
“I want to be well-rounded in this thing. I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” Stoudamire said. “Everybody talks about the recruiting piece but that’s just natural. I want people to see the skills I really have and I feel I’m going to be a very good coach here at the UA and I’m only going to get better being with Sean.”
Just as it was last time, Tucson is a place to learn and grow before Stoudamire takes on the next challenge — becoming a head coach.
Jumping into the coaching ring wasn’t because he needed money or just something to do, Stoudamire said. It’s about giving back.
“This game has been good to me,” he said. “So I figured that since it’s been so good to me, I can give back some of the knowledge that I got from all the great coaches and mentors that I had along the way.”
His mission first came into focus when Stoudamire was an assistant for the Grizzlies. Memphis drafted Xavier Henry 12th overall in 2010 after one season at Kansas. Stoudamire said the 19-year-old Henry was a good player and a great kid from a great family. Henry thought he was ready for the NBA. He wasn’t.
In his three seasons in the NBA, Henry started just 18 games in his career and was traded to New Orleans as part of a cash dump in early 2012.
“What I told myself at that time was that I think I can impact college because these kids need some help,” Stoudamire said. “It wasn’t that I could do it, I’m not trying to save the world that I’m trying to save every kid. But from that point forward I felt I could impact college more than I could in the pros.”
It’s been 18 years since Stoudamire’s last game for Arizona — a 71-62 loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Miami (Ohio), a team where Miller was a young assistant coach. Since that loss, Stoudamire has grown into a man and tried to put his past behind him, both the good and the bad.
This time when he enters McKale Center it’ll be as an assistant coach. Everything might seem the same, but it’s all completely different.
“I’ve got butterflies, but for different reasons,” he said. “Not as a player, but as a coach.”