Konate’s Choice Made Easier By Huggins’ Presence
It was an early season game last basketball season, although I have to admit I forget which one.
West Virginia was going good then, having shrugged off a terrible defeat to Texas A&M in the opener and been in the midst of a 15-game winning streak that would lift them to No. 2 in the nation.
In this game, though, coach Bob Huggins had had enough of Sagaba Konate.
What he did wrong hardly mattered, for there were times when Huggins felt he just couldn’t get through to the talented but inexperienced sophomore, who was on one hand so exuberant, and on the other often so into his own world that coaching him was an exasperating experience.
Already, Huggins had sat Konate for an entire game and now, after chewing him out once, twice, maybe three times, he had banished him again to the bench.
From a seat high above the court, which is where press row is located in the Coliseum, you wondered just how mad Huggins was at Konate and what Konate’s reaction would be. Anyone who has seen Huggins go off knows that being on the receiving end is not a pleasant experience.
The game ended and the players went through the handshake line, but then something happened. Huggins approached Konate, put an arm around his shoulder and the two walked to the locker room, smiling and talking.
That, friends, is called coaching.
It also symbolizes why on Thursday Konate announced that he was withdrawing from the NBA draft to return to West Virginia for his junior season.
Oh, there were other reasons, sure.
The NBA informed Konate he would not be a first-round pick. It gave him areas of his game upon which he needed to work so that next year he could muscle his way into that first round.
But if Konate thought returning to WVU would be a season of snarling back and forth with Huggins, it might be best to go earn a living as a basketball player, maybe in the D League, maybe overseas … or maybe there was someone in the NBA who could see Konate’s magnificent athleticism and was willing to develop him.
But he was returning to Morgantown.
It’s always been fascinating to see the way Huggins has coached his players.
He’s tough on them, but it’s always tough love, at least with those whom he felt deserved such treatment.
Huggins has this rule that he lives by. He’s going to say things like &#@$*% during practice or during a game. He’s going to put you on the treadmill until your sneakers smoke. He’s going to send you home if that’s what it takes.
But Huggins will always put his arm around you after it’s over and be there for you when you need him.
This was first noticeable at WVU with Joe Alexander, who had spent his time under John Beilein in the coach’s doghouse, and who found himself in Huggins’ for quite a while. But Huggins got through to Alexander and when he left WVU a year early he was a first-round draft selection of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Now don’t get this wrong. Huggins is dealing with all different kinds of personalties, most of them from difficult backgrounds, all with sizeable egos because if they weren’t good, they wouldn’t be there.
Sometimes he doesn’t get through to them. That’s why D’Angelo Hunter and Teddy Allen are no longer with the program. Add Eron Harris and Terry Henderson from a few years back.
Huggins doesn’t look back. He lives off the success stories, off seeing Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. come in together, play together and graduate together, taking as much pride in their accomplishments as if he were their father himself.
It’s a knack, more a gift really, this tough love way of coaching.
Where does it come from?
Well they say back in high school in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, he played for a coach who knew something about tough love. It was his dad, Charlie, and they say that Charlie Huggins was hard on all his players, but brutal on his son.
But when they went home, he was Dad, not coach.
You ask him about his coaching style, the game his team plays, and he refers back to his father.
He went through some tough times in Cincinnati, before he eventually was run off by a school president who had no idea what she was doing.
Huggins’ players were called thugs. There was a probation and a graduation rate that was ridiculed.
He knew, though, that his critics were wrong.
“For whatever reason, when this whole thing started, they put a black hat on me and it’s hard to get it off,” Huggins told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman a couple of years ago.
The fact is, though, his players love him. The pullovers make him one of them, the gold suit, the pants with the WVU logos up and down both legs … Huggins has fun as he has mellowed into his golden years.
But you stop by any day and former players are around … Truck Bryant, Kevin Jones, John Flowers … guys who believe he did it for them.
Everyone has his own image of Huggins. Many of them are his angry tirades, but for one I will always remember him bent over a fallen Da’Sean Butler at the 2010 Final Four, his season over and his career in jeopardy, his knee torn apart.
Huggins remembers it. It’s burned into his memory, maybe because it happened twice to him.
First was his greatest Cincinnati player, Kenyon Martin, who was ready to lead the Bearcats to the national title and to be the first pick in the NBA draft, before breaking his leg in the conference tournament.
Huggins remembers going out there and having Martin say to him “Coach, I wanted to win the national championship I wanted to win the national championship for you. He’s saying, ‘Why? Why coach? Why?'”
The scene repeated with Butler and as Huggins went out there it hit him. He cradled Butler in his arms, his face close to Butler’s.
“He said ‘Coach, I wanted to win the national championship. I wanted to win it for my teammates, for my school, for my state and for you, coach.’ Two guys, and their own situation didn’t seem to matter to them. Their future didn’t seem to matter to them,” Huggins recalled. “You think to yourself, why them? Those guys who care so much about other people, the two most unbelievable teammates I ever coached.”
Right then you knew why Konate came back, why players want to play for Huggins and what the big picture really is.
He cares about his players.