Celebrating quintessential moments – D3hoops

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“Did you know Duncan Robinson played D3 basketball?!” He was the D3hoops.com 2014 National Rookie of the Year.
Photo by Eric Kelley, d3photography.com

By Ben Kaplan

The kind folks at D3hoops.com have agreed to let us squat on some of their cyber real estate and promote our new book, Pipeline to the Pros: How D3, Small-College Nobodies Rose to Rule the NBA.

The book, which comes out on April 16, charts the history of former small-college basketball players who, even though they may not have been able to cut it as pro athletes, still managed to reach the NBA as head coaches or general managers. It’s a phenomenon that stretches back to the very founding of the NBA, but has peaked in recent years, where as many as 12 of the 30 NBA teams have had a former D3 player serving as head coach and/or running basketball operations.

We’re excited to share the book with basketball fans everywhere, but especially the D3 community. We pitched it because we believed there was a large audience for D3 stories. The major publishing houses disagreed. Fortunately, one of the top sports publishers was willing to take a shot at us. The early returns have been promising. Nazareth University grad and former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy agreed to write the forward (which is fantastic), and we’ve already received endorsements from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, FS1’s Nick Wright, Turner Sports’ Adam Lefkoe, and Miami Heat forward Duncan Robinson .

I wrote the book along with one of my best and oldest friends, Danny Parkins, the award-winning radio host of Chicago’s Parkins & Spiegel Show. During the research process, we interviewed over 100 people – iconic NBA coaches, executives, and players, as well as current and former D3 players and coaches. Whenever we got the chance, we always made sure to ask the former D3 players one particular question. But before I share the details surrounding our favorite question to ask, I’d first like to provide a bit of background.

The chip on our shoulders

Those of us involved with Division III basketball, everyone from the athletes to the alums to the parents to the coaches to the fans, inevitably have to have the conversation.

You know the one.

Some ignorant outsider hears “D3” and responds with a scoff or a smirk. Then, with the enthusiasm of a reluctant superhero who would love a night off from fighting crime, you throw on the cape and start making the same-old case.

Running the Show

Former Division III basketball players who
are NBA head coaches or General Managers

Coach/GM Alma Mater Position
Koby Altman

Middlebury ’04

Cleveland GM
Chad Buchanan

Simpson ’95

Indiana GM
Steve Clifford Maine-Farmington ’83 Charlotte Head coach
Will Dawkins Emerson ’08 Washington GM
Chris Finch Franklin & Marshall ’92 Minnesota
Head coach
Will Hardy Williams ’10 Utah
Head coach
Sam Presti Emerson ’00 GM of Oklahoma City
Brad Stevens DePauw ’99 Boston GM
Raphael Stone Williams ’94 Houston GM
Tom Thibodeau Salem St. ’81 New York
Head coach
Frank Vogel Juniata ’94

Head coach

You hit all the highlights – about the level of play being better than people think, about how it’s not glorified intramurals for former high school benchwarmers, and hey you know that guy Duncan Robinson? On the Heat? Well, did you know he played D3?

Inevitably, the poor soul on the receiving end of your rant holds up two hands like the victim of a stickup. They back away, not so much because they’re convinced by your incoherent ravings, but because they just don’t want you to pop a blood vessel.

All these questions jackhammer away at the chip on our shoulders. We grow so committed to the cause of defending D3 at all costs that we’re often reluctant to share the very best parts of our little corner of the basketball world.

My first foray into D3-land came in 2005 at an Amherst College preseason pickup run. I was a 5’11” shooting guard hoping to walk on as a freshman. That first game, the “guard” I was supposed to defend had four inches and 30 pounds on me. He set up on the block and went to work with a series of drop steps. It was the basketball equivalent of getting repeatedly stuffed into a locker.

Mercifully, my team lost relatively quickly. It was quite the rude awakening for a kid from Big Ten country who thought D3 hoops, when compared to my high school experience, would be, quite literally, just fun and games. I promptly quit, never to return to that gym.

Or so I thought.

My junior year, I gave it another go. For some reason, future Hall of Famer David Hixon decided that, somewhere on that deep bench full of guys who could have started at many other D3 programs, there was a spot for me. We were the reigning National Champs and number one team in the country. With the luxury of my newfound front row seat, I immersed myself in the D3 game. The talent was undeniable, the coaching top-class.

To me, though, what made the experience so special were the little D3 foibles. The moments that left no doubt that everyone involved was in this for the love of the game. How else could you explain the willingness to endure long bus rides and soggy sandwiches and lumpy motel beds, all for the distinct pleasure of jogging onto the court on a Saturday afternoon to the polite applause of what was sometimes just a few dozen fans?

Out of a sort of necessity, the public D3 discourse has to focus on the packed crowds for rivalry games, the players who play professionally overseas, and the valiant TBT efforts in order to convince the rest of the world that we’re worthwhile.

But, at least among ourselves, I hope we can also celebrate those “love of the game” moments that are unique to our level.

Sharing the moment

Which brings me back to that one question we asked, whenever we interviewed someone who played D3 hoops: “What’s your quintessential D3 moment?”

Some of their answers fit into our overall narrative and made it into our book. Some of them didn’t. As opposed to letting those stories rot on our Google Drive, we decided to share them with you. Even though most of us move on to careers outside of basketball, we hope you see yourselves in these driven dreamers who, before they reached the top of the basketball food chain, lived many of the same experiences you all did.

For the next few months, we will pop up in this space to share some of our favorite stories from former D3 players who have gone on to basketball fame.

Coming up first – “The Wunderkinds” – featuring Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart, the young coaches who took March Madness by storm in the early 2010s. (As you may have guessed, Stevens – a DePauw alum who is now the President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics – features prominently in our book.)

We have a great deal of respect for the D3 world, and felt a tremendous responsibility to do this story justice. Hopefully we can help augment the work of Pat, Dave, Gordon, Ryan, and so many other dedicated writers and podcasters, and do our part to bring some more positive attention to D3 hoops.

If you’re interested in keeping up-to-date on the latest news related to our book, or would like to receive more sections that hit the cutting room floor directly in your inbox, please sign up for our free newsletter here. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and if you purchase the book through a link provided later in the series, a portion of the proceeds will help support D3hoops.com.

Thanks for reading.

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