Getting picked as a floor coach for USA Basketball’s U18 National team tryouts was only the second biggest surprise in recent months for Chattanooga State coach Jay Price. The biggest surprise came last week, after he’d arrived at the Colorado Springs, Colo. training center for the U.S. Olympic team.
Price was coaching his team — which included Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes and Memphis signee Shaq Goodwin, both of whom were selected to the U18 team — when North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who serves on USA Basketball’s selection committee, walked in the gym.
“He was looking right at me as I’m coaching my team,” Price said, “and after the game ends, he walks over to me and says, ‘Chattanooga Brainerd.’ I said, ‘wow, you’ve got a good memory for an old guy.’ ”
Williams was the coach at Kansas in 1988, when Price was a senior at Brainerd High School. Along with many other power conference coaches, Williams was recruiting Malcolm Mackey, Price’s teammate who eventually signed with Georgia Tech and played for one season with the Phoenix Suns.
“Coach Williams said he remembered watching Malcolm and me when we played for Brainerd,” Price said. “Then he said, ‘you didn’t pass much then.’ I told him I did plenty of that the next four years (when he played at Tennessee alongside the school’s all-time leading scorer, Allan Houston.)”
Over the next four days, Price found himself in rare company, eating meals and discussing serious basketball strategy with the U18 coaching staff — Florida’s Billy Donovan, Gonzaga’s Mark Few and VCU’s Shaka Smart — along with his fellow court coach Frank Martin of South Carolina and committee members Williams, Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and Lorenzo Romar (Washington).
“I got a chance to learn a lot of strategy from those guys,” Price said. “I brought back a ton of plays. All the coaches were really generous. The guy I hung out with the most was Frank Martin. He opened up about everything. He was kinda giving a younger guy like myself advice on trying to get to his level. Super nice guy off the court, and intense on it.”
To think Price was originally skeptical of an email he received from B.J. Johnson, the former Villanova player who serves as USA Basketball’s assistant men’s national team director. Unbeknownst to Price, he had been nominated by the regional director of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) to be a court coach for the U18 tryouts. USA Basketball reaches out to coaches from all levels of college hoops to take part in the selection process for various national teams.
“At first I thought, ‘What is this?’” Price said. “Was it somebody trying to beat me out of some money? Donate something? You just don’t know. So I asked one of my close friends, should I even call? Because nobody had told me anything.
“The next day, I called B.J. He told me what they wanted me to do, and I was shocked.”
Price, who played at Tennessee from 1988-92 and was a three-year starter at point guard, would love to get back to that level as a coach. He’s gone about that the old-fashioned way. His coach at Tennessee was Wade Houston, who eventually got fired and left behind no coaching family tree. Price had no one to give him the essential leg up into a business that’s hard to break in to, and even harder to stay a part of once you’re in it.
Price has risen through the ranks. At Chattanooga Notre Dame, he was the girls’ coach for six years and assistant boys coach for four. He moved on to coach the Chattanooga State women, and then took over the men’s program, where he’s compiled a 224-90 record (.713 winning percentage). Price was the first coach in NJCAA history to lead both men’s and women’s to the national tournament.
Price has been chosen Tennessee Community College Athletic Association Coach of the Year four times and has led four teams to Eastern Division Conference championships. He’s had plenty of success, but he couldn’t have been blamed for thinking he had been laboring in obscurity.
The next step Price wants to make — coaching at a Division I school — is the hardest. But because he responded to that email from B.J. Johnson, his life may have changed overnight. Somebody had been paying attention to the job he was doing at Chattanooga State. And now, the contacts he made while serving his country and USA Basketball could one day prove invaluable.
“All the coaches — Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, everybody — passed their cell numbers out and said to call any time,” Price said. “That was really surprising. Billy Donovan was the first. He said call me if you ever need anything. If you need any help. If you need me in any way. You’re welcome to come to (Florida) practice. We’d know each other for four days, and for him to open up and say here’s my cell number. Call me. That was really enlightening.”