Interview: Assistant Basketball Coach Jim Saia

In his sixth year at UCLA, assistant basketball coach Jim Saia talks about his route to becoming UCLA's top assistant, the job, the team, and possibly his future...

Bruin Report Online had a chance to interview UCLA Assistant Men's Basketball Coach Jim Saia recently. Saia is now starting his 6th year on the coaching staff at UCLA.

BRO: Let's talk about your background…

JS: I started coaching at Cal…

BRO: I mean, let's start with grade school. High school. When you first started playing.

JS: (laughing) That's pretty far back. Actually, I started playing in the 4th grade and coaching in the 6th grade. When I was in the 6th grade, I was playing on the boy's team at St. Rita's in San Francisco, and at the same time I was the coach of the girl's team. I coached the girl's team from the 6th to the 8th grades. We used a fullcourt press.

BRO: You didn't date any of your players, did you?

JS: I think it was called "going steady" then. No, I didn't go steady with any of my players. I was so shy, I would have been terrified to even talk to them if I wasn't their coach.

BRO: High school?

JS: I went to Drake High School in San Francisco. We won 56 straight games and two straight state titles when I was there. Plus, the teams I played on through the 4th through the 8th grades, they were undefeated, too.

BRO: Sounds like it. I assume you were the team captain.

JS: Yes.

BRO: All-state?

JS: Honorable mention.

BRO: College?

JS: I got a scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, they were a top D 2 program at the time. I played two years there, with my brother Mike, we won 20 games both years, and then I decided to transfer after he graduated.

BRO: Sort of like a Crispin situation.

JS: I never thought of that. You're right. It was great to play with my brother. Later, he was also a very successful college referee, he worked some NCAA Tournament games.

BRO: Where'd you go next?

JS: I spent a year at a JC, College of Marin. I made all-conference and was named as one of the top 10 shooting guards in the state. Then I got a scholarship to Chapman College, another D 2 school.

BRO: Where you met Steve Lavin.

JS: No, actually Steve and I went to high school together, we met in the 8th grade.

BRO: Did you start to focus on coaching again when you got to Chapman?

JS: Not really. But a couple of things happened there. First, we were 7-20 in my first year. That was the first time in my life I'd ever played on a losing team. I was always on really successful teams. It's funny, when you win all of the time, you start to take certain things for granted. Sometimes you don't always appreciate things. You really only start to learn some things when you lose. You learn a lot about winning and losing.

BRO: Such as?

JS: Without naming any names, I could look back and see where some coaches I'd had before, they were really all about winning and they didn't care as much about the players as people. It's important to win, but as a coach, and as a person, you need to commit yourself as much to the guy who's the 10th man on your team as much as you commit yourself to the guy who's a star. I mean, on and off the floor. That's the sort of lesson I learned and I began to focus on what I could do for younger people and maybe teaching them about basketball, but still addressing the whole person, on and off the floor, and showing as much concern for the person whether they are going to the NBA or are just part of the team. And I thought I could be good at that, and that's when I started to think that coaching was what I wanted to do.

BRO: What was the other thing at Chapman that turned you towards coaching?

JS: Steve. He wanted to be a coach.

BRO: He knew what he wanted right away?

JS: (laughing) You could say that. He was already running his Lavin Basketball Camps when he was a first-year graduate assistant at Chapman. And he'd already started to travel around the country, visiting other coaches and programs and making contacts and learning as much as he could. And he suggested I should do that same thing after I graduated.

BRO: Now, let's back up a second. What was your major at Chapman?

JS: Business Marketing.

BRO: And what did you do right after graduation?

JS: Why are you asking all these questions?

BRO: I'm trying to give the fans an idea of what a person goes through when they decide to be a basketball coach. A lot of guys I've talked to, it's a long, hard road with very little promise and no guarantees at first, and I would like to give the fans an idea of what it's like. What were you doing, as far as being a coach, right after you graduated?

JS: Well, I was working as a plasterer for my uncle in the Bay Area. Living at home. But Steve was urging me to travel around and meet up with some coaches, so that's what I did. I went to a lot of colleges, Cal, San Diego State, USC, Pepperdine, I met Jim Harrick there, plus I went to a lot of AAU tournaments and to camps. I met Lou Campanelli at Cal. I met Tates Locke, he was an assistant to Bobby Knight at Indiana, he was at one of Steve's camps and I guess he was impressed with me.

BRO: And during this time, you were working as a plasterer.

JS: Yeah. I'd work from about 6 to 6, and come home with rocks and dried gravel in my hair, and I knew I wanted to be a coach and not a plasterer. I knew I could make a pretty good living as a plasterer, but it's not what I wanted to do. Lou Campanelli was looking for a volunteer assistant at Cal. Tates Locke and Lou had a prior coaching relationship, and Tates called him on my behalf, and I got the job. And that was a great job, because you had Campanelli there, and Gary Colson was an assistant coach, and he'd been a head coach, so you had two guys with head coaching experience there.

BRO: Now, "volunteer assistant" doesn't sound like it pays much.

JS: Well, I was living at home. My mom and dad really helped me out a lot, and I saved a lot of money from the plastering, that's how I was able to travel so much for a year. I also worked for Domino's for awhile, that was pretty embarrassing when my friends found out, and you're supposed to put that sign on top of your car and it kept falling off, I probably caused a few accidents, but you could make your own hours and I could get $30 in tips in a night and that was great.

BRO: How long did you stay at Cal?

JS: That one year. Tates Locke got the head job at Indiana State and he offered me the job as the 3rd assistant coach. And I wasn't really sure if I should take the job. I'd just gotten into the Cal Master's Program. I was okay in college as far as grades go, but I didn't think I was good enough to get a Master's. But I knew that I wanted to do more teaching, if not coaching, teaching of some kind, so I focused on the English/Literacy program there, so I could teach kids. I went through the whole interview process, suit and tie for three different levels, dealing with my grades, which weren't great. I finally got to the top guy and I said, "Look, if I take two of your summer courses and get an ‘A' in both classes, will you let me in?" He said, "Sure, if you can get two ‘A's." So I took the classes and got two "A"s, and I was accepted in the Master's Program. That shows you that you can do anything if you really work for it. Then Tates offered me the job a week later. And I talked to some people, Steve and others, and they said, "Well, do you want to coach or teach English?" And I decided I wanted to coach. So I left Cal and went to Indiana State. At first, I declined, and then the next day I changed my mind and called Tates and asked him if I could still take the job."

BRO: What was your salary?

JS: $7,500 a year. But it was a great experience. Tates Locke was a real Bob Knight disciple, and I learned a lot about the way Knight organized his practices, breaking down teaching individual skills, applying the motion offense, game preparation, the whole system. That was a great experience.

BRO: Which lasted…

JS: Well, one year. Gary Colson got the head job at Fresno State, and he offered me a job, said come back to California. My niece had just passed away, she was 6 months old, and I was thinking a lot about getting closer to my family, and this all happened at the same time. I don't think Tates was too happy about it, but it felt like the right thing to do. That was in 1991. Gary Colson was a disciple of Ralph Miller, and he was using the 1-4 offense, so that was a whole different experience from the Bob Knight, Midwest kind of basketball. I was really surprised at how fanatical the fans were at Fresno State, they really love basketball and we had amazing fan support, so I really loved that job. I was hired as the 3rd assistant, but one of the assistants left my first year and I got a chance to serve as one of the main assistants for a year, that was a really good learning experience, getting a chance to design the skills work, do the game preparation. And I got my Master's Degree there, in Sports Administration; I was at Fresno State for 4 years.

BRO: Still getting the limited pay.

JS: But it was worth it.

BRO: And from there?

JS: I got the head job at Columbia Junior College in 1994. The program had gotten into some trouble with recruiting violations, and they were looking to go in a different direction, I guess, the school's President downgraded the job to a part-time position, so I actually took a pay cut to become a head coach. Columbia is in a very tough league, with Porterville, Merced, Fresno, usually that league has someone in the Elite 8 of the California State Finals. Columbia is up in Sonora, we call it the "foothills" up there. My first team was a bunch of local guys from Sonora, 10 of our 12 guys were new, nobody was taller than 6-4 and we were picked by the coaches to finish last in a preseason poll. I really liked the way Pete Carrill's teams played at Princeton and Bobby Knight's teams played at Indiana, and I thought with our guys, having a 6-4 center and a 6-3 power forward who could really shoot it, a lot of good shooters, I put in a 4-out, 1-in motion offense that combined the two systems of Carrill and Knight. We went 31-5 and won the league, that was a pretty special year. The next year, we had more talent and we were taller, so I decided to put in a 1-4 offense to simplify our system. We were 30-5 and got upset in the Elite 8 by Riverside, but we were ranked 3rd in the state when the regular season ended, that was a pretty good year, too.

BRO: And that would bring us to 1996, when you came to UCLA.

JS: I interviewed for a position there in 1995, Jim [Harrick] interviewed Greg White and me and decided to go with Greg. Then the next year, he just called me and hired me without an interview. Obviously, Steve was already there and he knew me really well and was putting in the good word for me. I was hired on June 16, 1996, the day after my birthday. That was for the 3rd assistant's position.

BRO: And the rest, as they say, is history. Let's talk about the current team and your own philosophies and contributions. You've gotten a lot of credit for moving the team away from the motion offense we saw early in the Lavin years and more towards the 1-4. Why the shift?

JS: A big part of it was Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric. We were very young all around, especially at the guards, but also the whole team. We had the two big men, they were very talented athletically, but coming from overseas they were not really great at fundamentals, but when you have two big men like that, they can be real weapons and you want to use them. The motion offense, we call it a "subjective offense," a "reading offense," because if you run it the right way the offensive players have to really "read" the defense…

BRO: Meaning what, exactly?

JS: Well, in a motion, you are setting a screen, you can be looking for your shot, you can be looking to pass, and you can look to drive. Every player is doing something, and every player has to try and figure out how each defender is going to respond to a given situation, and how they should react to that response. So a well-run motion offense requires a lot of skills and understanding, and when it works it's very hard to defend. But if you don't run it well, it really falls apart. We ran the motion with Baron because he was so creative as a player. Then we knew we had lost Baron and we wanted our big men involved, but our guards, our whole team was very young and we realized we had to simplify the game. The 1-4 simplifies the game. It's more of an "objective offense." You cut, you catch and shoot or you pass, then you start over again. Once the players understand the concept of proper spacing and learn to keep cutting, cutting, they don't need to think too much and they can still make plays. And with our young guards and our big men, it seemed like the best system.

BRO: But the defense catches on to an objective system, by definition…

JS: Of course. So you have to counter that. They will double team us on the high post, you saw that with Arizona and Stanford last year, they try to clog up the free throw line, force you to only use one side of the court, that's how you break down a 1-4. So we've been working out our own wrinkles, our counters to their counters. We use some high post stuff, stacks down low, a lot of different set ups to initiate the offense to throw the defense off-balance and keep them guessing. This year, we feel we're more experienced and fundamentally sound, so we will use some motion, try to free up our jump shooters, that is a strength we want to go to this year and that will make it even harder for the defenses to counter what we're doing. And with our depth, we want to pressure the ball as much as possible, generate offense out of defense. That is the hardest kind of offense for a defense to stop, so we want to pick up our defense even more this year, get out and break as often as we can.

BRO: Let's talk about how that fits in with your recruiting philosophy. Coach Lavin talked about this some at the press conference, he said UCLA looks more for skills and mental make up than athleticism.

JS: Well, we look for skills, quickness, size, the whole package. We want NBA players. Duke, Arizona, they have NBA players. We want to beat those schools and that means we have to have players who are as good as the guys who go to those schools, that's just the way that it is.

BRO: How did UCLA get so involved with foreign players?

JS: It started with Dan and Jerome, of course. That was a coincidence, really, it's not like we said, let's go get some foreign players. It was really two factors. First, there weren't any really good U.S. big men, so you had to look overseas anyway. And second, we were really just starting out, that was our first real recruiting class. And we knew that a lot of people were using that against us, negative recruiting, telling people we hadn't proven anything, we were too young, and a lot of players were saying they should go to a school with a Hall of Fame coach, somebody established with a track record. And it was hard to argue with that; we didn't have a track record, that first year. But with UCLA, the school has a great situation with foreign students. With the Bradley International Building, the school makes a real effort to attract foreign students and really helps them when they're here, and it has a great reputation overseas. So Jerome and Dan were two guys who were more focused on overall package at UCLA. Steve is a great young coach, he doesn't sell himself, I sell him, he sells the school when he recruits, but that was the way to go with Jerome and Dan anyway, they were focused on the school, what UCLA had to offer, the overall experience, the location, the basketball history, a lot of factors where the negative recruiting that was being used against us couldn't work. And that just started a trend. I had Tony Parker committed, the point guard from France, he was definitely going to come here if he didn't turn pro. And we are working on some things right now, but obviously I can't talk about it.

BRO: Obviously, you can't talk about it. But how long does it take to fly to, say, Slovenia?

JS: 32 hours roundtrip. You go for a day or two. So you are basically in the air as long as you are on the ground. But it's a great chance to learn about other cultures. It's a lot different from Los Angeles, that's for sure. Life is a lot simpler, more community-oriented, and very family-oriented; people don't demand a lot out of life to be happy there. It's a lot different from Los Angeles.

BRO: How do you find out about players overseas?

JS: I have contacts all over the world now. Really good contacts. If somebody calls me and says they know a guy who will be in the NBA one day, I will go out and scout them. I'm there.

BRO: What are you looking for in the coming season? Do you think you will win the Pac-10?

JS: We had a chance to win it last year, we let it slip away. We think about that a lot. Hopefully, this year, we are going to win it.

BRO: Do you think the Pac-10 Tournament devalues the conference championship, makes it less important?

JS: No. I think people already undervalue the conference championship, it's been that way for years. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. Everything is the NCAA Tournament, you do well there and a lot of people act as if the regular season didn't happen. That's helped us, actually. So I'm not sure if it can get any worse. We want to win the Pac-10. And the Pac-10 Tournament. And the National Championship. How's that?

BRO: Good answer. Are you ready to become a head coach?

JS: Yes. I think every assistant coach should aspire to be a head coach. You just have to keep working hard and hope you get the chance.

BRO: Well, that wraps it up. Thanks, Coach, and good luck for the season.

JS: Thanks.

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