Don Lippi, St. Joseph Notre Dame's head coach has seen his share. For
twenty-five years Lippi has been leading high school teams in and around the Bay
Area onto the court. He has watched some of the greatest players ever to play
prep hoops in California, and he has beaten some of them. This year Lippi
returned to St. Joes to lead the Pilots to a 9-6 record thus far, with some eye
opening wins, and some tough losses. I talked to Coach Lippi in the hopes of
finding out what keeps him going, and the answer, simple as it may seem, is the
young men he encounters on the court.
"I missed Gary Payton and Jason Kidd by two years." Lippi doesn't say this with bitterness, or to brag, or for sympathy. He laughs as he says it, because despite not being their coach, he felt the energy they brought to the gym. "When Kidd was here he'd play his home games in the Oakland Coliseum."
It becomes a running theme in my conversation with Lippi; he almost always turns the attention away from himself. When I mention that some consider him a living legend, his response is a very genuine, "Well, I've been around a long time," and then he starts talking about Dwight Nathaniel at McClymonds and what a great job that coach has done at that program.
Truth be told Lippi is back at St. Joes because his daughter is there. Like many fathers, when he was offered the opportunity to be close to his family he took it, and inherited a program with much history, but not a lot of polished talent. When I ask him about talented sophomore Jason Rockwell Lippi compliments him, talks at length about Rockwell's incredible soccer ability, and then candidly says, "I would have loved to have given him another year at a lower level, but I just don't have that many players, and I needed another guy off the bench."
It is this very attribute, honesty, which makes Lippi the type of coach every parent hopes their child has. He doesn't just care about winning, he doesn't just care about his stars, he cares about the kids. He glows when talking about senior leader, and UC Santa Barbara committee, Alex Harris. "This kid is just flat out fun to coach. His ability is great, because he's guaranteed to score points, but he's more than that. He is a ‘Yes sir' kind of kid, helping younger players, and even little kids who come in the gym. He's a gentleman, and I love that about him."
Harris gave UCSB his commitment very early on in the signing period, but Lippi knows that Harris made the right decision. "He's a smart kid, and he's got a great family behind him. It basically came down to a decision between the Ivy League and a California State school. Alex wants to be challenged, not just on the court but in the classroom. Santa Barbara goes to the tournament more often than Yale, and he wants to play against the best, so he chose UCSB."
The 9-6 start certainly isn't what Lippi was aiming for, but he thinks the growing pains are understandable. "The sort of heyday that St. Joseph had has come and gone. I'm here to teach these kids about winning. I had an ex-player of mine come up to me at a game this year and tell me how the lessons he learned on the basketball court have helped him in business. I think coaches at this level have a huge responsibility. Coaches have their players for a longer period of time during the day than any one teacher at their school. And we have them at a very crucial time in the student's life. Because of that, and because of the range of emotions a coach will go through with a player on the court, coaches can do a lot of good, or a lot of bad."
Lippi coaches in the same way he gives interviews. He rarely gives black and white answers, instead allowing the conversation to lead itself to the logical conclusion. When I asked him about Northern California teams maybe not getting the respect they deserve, his ultimate answer was, "I don't think we deserve the same respect as the southern schools, we're not as good." In order to get there Lippi talked about some obvious things (population, reputation), some insightful things (there is no Coach's Association up north, unlike LA and San Diego) and some ‘bottom line' ideas (there newspapers that make the rankings are playing to their mostly Southern California audience).
It doesn't take long for Lippi to turn the conversation, no matter where it is going, back to the players. When I asked about games that stand out in his memory he immediately talks about Tyson Chandler. His St. Ignasius squad beat Chandler's Dominguez dons at a time when Dominguez was ranked in the top 5 in the nation. When I ask about this season he talks about Rico Tucker of the University of San Diego High School and what a player he is. In fact the only time Lippi does not seem to turn his attention to a student-athlete is when he talks about St. Joseph's run at the Torrey Pines Holiday Invitational.
"When the tournament organizers asked me what division I wanted to be in all I asked was that we not face De La Salle, Bishop O'Dowd, or Skyline because we'd already played those teams and I didn't think we had anything to gain by meeting them again. I tell you though, it was fun to watch St. Anthony's." Lippi is talking about the TP National Division Champions from New Jersey. "I took the team to watch them and almost all the guys said to me, ‘Look at the way they play defense coach.' It was a game we didn't even play in and we learned so much. You look at (head coach) Bob Hurley, and he's been there for years, has built a program, and the kids just respond." I ask him if that's what he'd like to do at St. Joes, "Of course, but it will take more than one or two seasons to do that. We have installed a couple of drills we call ‘Hurley drills' for when the kids don't execute."
Not surprisingly the only thing that draws Lippi's attention as much as the players in another coach. St. Joseph has had some big wins this season. They knocked of NorCal #1 Bishop O'Dowd and highly ranked Deer Valley. But they've also had their struggles, losing to De La Salle and Newark. Lippi probably wouldn't even call his team the best in the north if they were undefeated, but the season thus far has been a good one for Coach Lippi. "We're making progress. It won't happen overnight, but we've got some great players, and we're improving."