Near the end of Celtics assistant coach Will Hardy’s senior year at Williams College in 2010, he was confronted with the question that meets so many soon-to-be graduates: What in the world am I supposed to do now?
Hardy had played basketball for the Division III school in Western Massachusetts, but he was no pro prospect. The English major had started applying for jobs outside of basketball, everything from working in finance to writing press releases on Capitol Hill.
Two weeks before graduation, he received a call from former Williams basketball coach Curt Tong, who lived in town and had become Hardy’s mentor. Tong asked Hardy to stop by the Williams tennis courts, where he was watching the Ephs practice. When Hardy arrived, Tong asked if he had thought about what was next.
“I said, ‘Yeah, of course, man, I graduate in two weeks,’ ” Hardy recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, I think I have a job you should apply for. I think you should work for the San Antonio Spurs.’ ”
That sounded nice to Hardy, but it didn’t sound plausible, and he didn’t understand how this retired Division 3 coach could help. Then Tong casually revealed that San Antonio’s Hall of Fame coach, Gregg Popovich, had been one of his closest friends for more than 20 years.
“That kind of led to a side argument,” Hardy said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘I’m on the basketball team. I’ve known you for years, and you’ve never once said that you know Gregg Popovich. Like, I sit in my apartment and watch NBA games every night, and this never came up?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I guess I never mentioned it.’ ”
‘Stunned, happy, and scared to death’
Hardy was a standout forward at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va., and received scattered interest from low-level Division 1 programs. But when Williams reached out, his mother encouraged him to consider it, in large part because of the school’s academic reputation. He visited the campus and was rapt.
Hardy suffered a sports hernia injury early in his junior year. Coach Mike Maker wanted to ensure that he stayed engaged, so he’d bring Hardy into his office while studying film and game-planning.
“He would just bombard me with questions,” Hardy said. “He’d explain things and ask me things and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. Do you think this would be too much for the guys? What do you think about this plan?’ He was the person who really let me in on the process.”
Maker often told Hardy that he could become a successful coach someday, if he wanted.
“Even though William was young and one of our players, he was wise beyond his years,” Maker said. “And his greatest strength on the court was his ability to make his teammates better.”
Maker also noticed how Hardy valued relationships, a key quality of a good coach, evident in Hardy’s connection with Curt and Jinx Tong.
Hardy would sit in the stands with the couple before Ephs games and talk about his classes, his schoolwork, his personal life. He’d go to their home for dinner and do odd jobs around the house when they asked.
Tong had left Williams and become the athletic director at Division 3 Pomona-Pitzer College in California in 1983, when Popovich was the men’s basketball coach there. The two maintained a connection long after Popovich was hired as an assistant with the Spurs in 1988 and was named head coach in 1996, so it was not unusual for Popovich to call seeking assistance, as he did in the spring of 2010.
“I told Curt I was looking for somebody in the film room and that I needed a smart guy, and I knew there were a lot of smart guys at Williams,” Popovich said. “I asked if there were any players there that showed an affinity toward coaching, or seem to have a natural ability. He immediately told me, Will Hardy. And I respected the guy so much that I said, ‘OK, done deal.’ And out came Will.”
Hardy pushed aside other potential jobs and drove to San Antonio. He initially worked as a front office intern and tried not to get overwhelmed.
“It was everything from putting info into the scouting database, to securing credentials for scouts on the road, to picking people up at the airport, to taking notes on trade calls,” Hardy said. “It was the greatest yes-man job there is.
“I was in meetings and draft preps and just got to watch the entire process. You’re not a participant from a vocal standpoint, but to be able to be in those spaces, that’s priceless for somebody that’s young and trying to learn.”
Whenever Hardy’s intern duties were finished for the day, he would put on shorts and a T-shirt and head to the court, where he’d help players with skill work or just rebound basketballs for them. Within a year, he was moved to the video room full time.
“And before long, he became the head of it, the guy that I depended on,” Popovich said. “If I wanted the post-ups or pick-and-rolls or to know why we sucked at something last night, he’d come in and say, ‘Well, look, this is what they did.’ He’d break it down for me. And I said, ‘Oh, my God, this guy is breaking stuff down just like we do.’”
In the summer of 2016, Spurs assistant Chad Forcier left for a job with the Orlando Magic, leaving an opening on the coaching staff. Hardy was in the produce section of a San Antonio grocery store when Popovich called.
“He said, ‘You are now a coach of the San Antonio Spurs,’ ” Hardy recalled. “I was stunned and happy and scared to death. I remember calling my wife and saying, ‘I’m pretty sure Pop just made me an assistant coach. I don’t know. I’ve got to get some clarity on this, because he said it so quickly, as only Pop can. And then he hung up on me.’ ”
A Massachusetts return
Hardy became one of Popovich’s most trusted confidants and ascended to one of the lead roles on San Antonio’s bench. During his first stint as an intern, Hardy had helped Spurs forward Ime Udoka with on-court workouts. And after Udoka retired, the two worked alongside each other as assistants.
When Udoka was hired last summer to coach the Celtics, one of his first calls was to Hardy, asking him to come along as his lead assistant. The symmetry was not lost on Hardy. He was going back to Massachusetts, back where his connection to a retired basketball coach had started him on this journey.
Curt and Jinx Tong used to come to TD Garden to see Popovich and Hardy whenever the Spurs visited the Celtics. Curt Tong died in 2017 at the age of 82, but Hardy’s friendship with Jinx has endured.
He calls or sends text messages to check in, and earlier this year went back to Williamstown to see the Ephs face rival Amherst. He brought his wife and their two young daughters, and they went to Jinx Tong’s home for a visit.
“Curt was always very proud of Will,” Jinx said, “and he was very pleased with the connection that he helped him make.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.