Clouded perception of Pastner comes from those who never met the young coachby Javier Morales on Mar. 15, 2011, under Sports
What good is Josh Pastner for the Arizona basketball program? Who did he recruit: Fendi Onobun? Mohamed Tangara? If he was so good why did Kevin O’Neill never seek his advice during a game? Why did former UA athletic director Jim Livengood never seriously consider him as a permanent replacement for his mentor Lute Olson?
All valid viewpoints of Pastner, now the head coach at Memphis, which plays Arizona Friday in the first round of the NCAA West Regional in Tulsa.
Chances are these comments — they have been said on radio talk shows and written in blog comments — are made by people who have never met him. They are said and written because they see Pastner as someone who is no longer a priority for Arizona’s basketball program, which is now in the very good hands of Sean Miller.
If Pastner was good enough, he’d still be at Arizona.
I’ve heard that comment more than once.
After the Tim Floyd fiasco, when Floyd basically used Livengood and Arizona for contract leverage with USC, I remember communicating with Pastner via text message. I published the site UAHoopsCoach.com (now WildAboutAZCats.com) at the time and my focus was getting information about who Livengood might consider next.
I remember Pastner writing back that it would be an honor to be mentioned as a possibility. My first thought was, “Are you serious?” This is not because I didn’t think Pastner was capable. It’s because Pastner, to me, is always that young exuberant guy on the Arizona bench, waving his towel, jumping up and down, clapping, and slapping guys on their posterior. I was not sure if people would take Pastner seriously, although he had a lot to do with Mike Bibby‘s maturity and development when they were freshmen in 1996-97.
I covered Pastner and the national championship team that season for the Arizona Daily Star. One of my most vivid memories after Arizona won the Final Four game against North Carolina was the door opening to the locker room and the first player standing there was Pastner.
He did not play a minute in the game. “What do you need to know Javier?” Pastner said in a matter-of-fact tone. “You need an interview? I’m right here.”
It donned on me that, yes, I could use a comment from Pastner about working on Bibby’s jumper before the game. The freshman sensation had 20 points on 7 of 18 shooting from the field, including 6 of 11 from three-point range. The minute I started talking to Pastner, three or more reporters crowded around and scribbled on their notepads.
Here was Pastner, a walk-on no less, getting attention from the national media following a monumental game for the Arizona program. The reporters were well aware of Pastner’s goal at the time to become a coach like Olson, his idol and mentor. They knew of his AAU coaching past (despite being 18 at the time) and how his father, Hal Pastner, was an esteemed AAU organizer in Houston.
And, of course, the younger Pastner’s bubbly personality could win over Simon Cowell.
When Josh Pastner coached under Olson from 2002-2008 it became obvious to McKale insiders that in order for him to ever coach at Arizona, he must try leading another program first. The prevailing thought was Pastner must mature and become more worldly in his coaching endeavors before remotely thinking about a head coaching opportunity with the Wildcats.
Before John Calipari provided the young coach that opportunity, hiring him as his lead assistant coach for the 2008-09 season at Memphis, Pastner made a lasting impression on my life in a couple of ways. Nobody had to convince me that Pastner would be mature enough someday to lead his own program into the NCAA tournament, which he will do for the first time Friday against his alma mater.
Pastner was the keynote speaker at the Class of 2004 graduation ceremony for my nephew Wade James Beal at Buena High School in Sierra Vista. At the time, Pastner was only eight years older than the Buena graduates. Today, Pastner is only 33, the second-youngest head coach in the nation, behind Dane Fife, 31, of Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.
His voice animated, he continuously said to the Buena graduates that they controlled their own destiny (continuously, as in more than three times). He mentioned they can decide their future, not somebody else. He added that they were at the most opportune time of their lives to make something happen for the better. “Tomorrow starts today,” he told them.
All the while, his voice sounded as young as my nephew’s, but most of the graduates took him seriously. I had to chuckle a bit because I envisioned Pastner back to the time when I covered Arizona, and he was always good for a laugh. We joke to this day about Arizona’s exhibition tour of Australia a couple of months after the Wildcats won the national title. The team did not want to be there, especially after winning the title, and Pastner recalls the interviews I conducted with the Wildcats and the stories I wrote from there to that effect.
“Javier, are we still in Australia?” Pastner said with a laugh a couple of months ago in a voice message he left on my phone. “I was just checking. Are we really still in Australia?”
To understand Pastner, you have to know him. Too often fans get locked into black and white with no chance for gray. They view Pastner’s last few years as a failure at Arizona because of recruiting miscues and the NCAA investigation of the on-campus Cactus Classic, which Pastner was never implicated.
Moreover, the alleged disharmony between himself, Simon and O’Neill after Olson went on a leave of absence in 2007-08, made some people want to wash themselves from the past and start anew.
Because of this, some forget about what Pastner meant to the UA’s championship run in 1997 by helping Olson and his staff groom Bibby and make him a better, more responsive player. They do not realize how much Pastner positively touched the lives of many at McKale Center and in Tucson.
When my special-needs brother, Hector Morales III, was about to turn 50 in 2006, I left Pastner a message to please sign an Arizona poster to post on the wall during the birthday celebration. Hector is Arizona’s No. 1 fan; at least he would tell you as much. Without hesitation, every single year, including the brief John Mackovic era, Hector has always predicted the Wildcats to be in the Rose Bowl.
You will always find Hector wearing an Arizona T-shirt whether they win or lose. If you ever meet him, be prepared to answer a series of questions about the Wildcats.
Pastner returned my call promptly and told me to head over the UA basketball office to pick up the poster. I opened the poster after returning to my parked car to get a glimpse of Pastner’s autograph. I found that Pastner had Olson and fellow assistant coaches Jim Rosborough and Simon sign it as well. It read: “Happy 50th birthday!”
“I tried to get some of the players to sign it but none were around,” Pastner reasoned with me later. Hector’s birthday is in May after many of the classes are completed and students head home.
Typical Pastner. Always trying for more. Those who have met him understand there’s nothing black and white about him. In the game of life, he is about as far away from being a failure as a person can be.
Follow Javier Morales on Twitter: @JavierJMorales