When Rob Lanier was being recruited to play college basketball, coaches and scouts would call his best friend’s home phone to get in touch with him since Lanier’s house didn’t have one. It’s not as hard to find the new associate head coach at Tennessee these days, but you can still call his childhood friend’s phone to reach him since their offices are only a couple of feet apart.
Lanier and Desmond Oliver, who also recently joined the Vols’ hoops staff as an assistant coach, grew up together in the same Buffalo neighborhood. Both men fought against systemic disadvantages that battered their area and grew close through their love of basketball and intrinsic determination to better themselves as players and people.
“It was a connection,” Lanier said. “I was a little bit older than Des and, for whatever reason, there were some parents there who were comfortable with their children being around me because I had a reputation as a young person of making my own decisions. I was making my own decisions at a very young age. As a result, I developed a reputation of making good decisions.”
One of those good decisions involved a keen interest in basketball and education, two entities Lanier saw as both escapes and outlets to a fulfilling life. Oliver felt the same way, and their relationship soon became one immersed in round ball talk.
“(Oliver’s) mom in particular, who was really hard on him, was comfortable with him being around me because there were a lot of things to get into. We were into ball and school,” Lanier said.
“That’s what I was into, so I gravitated towards people who had like-minded interests. If you weren’t into basketball, we probably wouldn’t spend much time together.”
Their close bond wasn’t severed when Lanier headed to St. Bonaventure in 1990 while Oliver went to play at Dominican College two years later. In fact, it only grew. Oliver was with Lanier in a cramped car when he finally realized his dream. During his junior year, the two took a road trip together with another friend to drive across the country coaching at camps as a side job.
“We were just having fun, trying to find good pick-up games and camps and make some money at the same time. We loved it,” Oliver said.
“We coached some of the best seventh and eighth grade kids in the country. I went back to college thinking how cool would this be to do this for a living, but still not thinking I could.”
Oliver continued his education with a stint at graduate school, but the research papers paled in comparison to the thrill of coaching. After one year as a volunteer assistant under Jack Armstrong at Niagra, Oliver was hired full time and never looked back. Lanier began at the same place, but by this time was helping build the program at St. Bonaventure.
Now, fate has meddled with their lives enough to bring them together in Knoxville, where the two have traded pick-up basketball courts and tattered nets for palatial stadiums and plush offices.
“Very seldom do you get the opportunity to work with someone who truly is your best friend, but the reality is, he’s really good. That’s why it’s exciting for me,” Lanier said.
“I would feel some trepidation about my best friend coming if I didn’t think he was really good. I can make that recommendation with the utmost confidence.”
Lanier isn’t taking the opportunity for granted, nor is he viewing it as a nice gesture by head coach Rick Barnes. He knows Oliver makes Tennessee better with the way he relentlessly attacks the game of basketball.
“He’ll probably be the last one in the office every day. I’m definitely leaving before him, but he’s a grinder. We needed that. We needed his presence on the staff,” Lanier said.
“We’ve been together for so long as a staff. We do things a certain way. As we go into this journey, we need to reset ourselves, start from scratch and do things a little bit differently.”
Oliver provides the staff with a fresh face and new ideas. Lanier brings a consistent presence who’s found success at every stop. Together, the two will occupy the same court for the first time since their days in Buffalo.
Only this time, Rob Lanier has his own phone.
Rob Lanier on coaching, recruiting