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Tara Sullivan

The story of Hank Smith, former Emerson College basketball coach who built an unlikely pipeline to the NBA

Hank Smith returned to Emerson to watch a podcast involving a former student-athlete — Thunder GM Sam Presti.
Hank Smith returned to Emerson to watch a podcast involving a former student-athlete — Thunder GM Sam Presti. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

You see them through this beautiful glass-walled reception area high above the Emerson College basketball court, smiling spectators streaming through the doorway toward a gallery of white folding chairs. They are here to watch the first live taping of the popular Woj Pod, the podcast hosted by ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski that on this night will feature a conversation with Sam Presti, the executive vice president and general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Down there, Woj and Presti, an Emerson alum, are the draw. But up here?

Up here the star of the show is a man named Hank Smith, the man who has barely made it past the front door of the lounge before being enveloped by well-wishers, the coach who once upon a time didn’t simply turn a band of basketball vagabonds at Emerson into one of the unlikeliest Division 3 success stories you can imagine, but who built an even unlikelier pipeline to the NBA.

Just not the type of pipeline you might imagine.

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We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, you have to understand what it means for Smith to be welcomed like this, for him to be celebrated inside this gem of a gym that only exists because of what he accomplished, for him to be back on this campus for the first time since his inexplicable firing midway through the 2011 season.

For that, we have to turn to the man who will soon take the stage downstairs, to the efforts of Presti, along with so many of his fellow Emerson basketball alums who played for Smith, a group so tightly connected and so loyal to their coach that they, too, had barely kept ties with the school, but who are more than willing to be here now, in person or in print, to tell the world about what Smith means to them. Led by the nine (yes, nine) former Smith/Emerson players who currently work in the NBA, this is their chorus of appreciation.

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Presti has the pull. At 43, he is somewhat of an NBA wunderkind, the pride of Concord who became an NBA GM by age 31, the most famous Emerson alum making his mark in the basketball world (if still far from the Hollywood world that includes the likes of Denis Leary, Jay Leno, Henry Winkler, and Maria Menounos.) But Presti is far from alone. The Emerson influence is found in an amazing cross section of NBA personnel.

The common denominator is Smith, one of those rare coaches who reached his players in profound and lasting ways, molding their lives by instilling determination and dedication, resiliency and responsibility, using trust and faith, humor, and yes, toughness. Being coached by him was so much more than X’s and O’s.

“The overarching idea was that constraints are not limitations,” said Presti, Class of 2000. “I think in a way he was able to get all of us to really embrace things and circumstances that could have been looked at as energy drains, and we started to believe that these were the things that are actually making us great. People talk all the time about basketball systems, tactical systems, and the word system is always talked about as an on-court pattern. What I actually think that was happening with us at that time was a system of thinking that was being installed.”

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It has translated to the highest basketball levels.

.   .   .

Let’s go back to 1994, when Smith, who grew up in nearby Allston, was hired to coach basketball at this renowned liberal arts school located just off Boston Common in the city’s Theater District. With a heavy influence on the performing arts, on broadcasting, on writing and communications, and with such little emphasis on sports that the athletes were the ones viewed as the social outcasts, Smith’s early recruiting efforts often meant distributing sign-up sheets to a student body that numbered in the mid-4,000s.

They had no gym. Like nomads, they played at the Chinatown YMCA, where the locker room chairs were sized for preschoolers, or at Pine Manor College, where practice couldn’t begin until the mommy-and-me stroller exercise class finished. Assistant coaches had to MapQuest directions to some of the 20 home gyms, and opposing teams earned apologies for the orange cones on the court where the roof had leaked. The job of washing uniforms was just as necessary as the job of running conditioning drills.

None of it took Smith by surprise — one look at the program’s 21-131 all-time record told him what he was getting into.

“When I was lucky enough to get the job, I walked in with my eyes wide open,” he recalled last week. “It’s not like you’re here and expecting to be at Duke with all these great things. I knew we didn’t have them. I remember vividly saying that I’m not going to make excuses. They could be seen as obstacles, but my way of looking at it was the complete opposite. You can say, ‘This isn’t good, it’s really bad, and woe is me.’ Or else you can say, ‘You guys want to play basketball more than anybody in the country.’ That’s a powerful thing you have.”

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Such was the message to his first team, one that had gone 5-19 the season before, but to hear them tell it, would have been 19-5 if not for bad refs and bad breaks.

“I told them, ‘I just want to get something clear: If anybody here makes an excuse when we lose, you won’t be on the team,’ ” Smith said.

The lessons were only beginning.

The foundational one was simple: You will be better conditioned than anyone you play. To get there, you will start with the minute drill. Up and back, end line to end line touching each side, five times in under a minute. But not just once. Twice, three times, four times, maybe five, maybe 10. As long as you live, you will remember the minute drill, so much so that if you make it big as a Hollywood screenwriter/producer like Alex Tse (one of Smith’s first players), you will name your company Minute Drill Productions and close all credits with a voice recording of coach yelling, “Get on the Line!”

“My first day of practice was Oct. 15, 1994,” said Shawn McCullion, a scout for the Nets who was also on Smith’s first team and would later coach with him for 10 years. “I wasn’t ready for any of that. We ran so much and we did that minute drill, up and back 10 times. It must have been the sixth or seventh one in the first 15 minutes and I went up, back, up back, up back and straight into the women’s bathroom, into an open shower stall, and started throwing up.

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“I went home that night and I said, ‘I can’t go back.’ But we only had nine kids, and they won’t have a team if I quit. Without any question, the most important day of my life was Oct. 16, 1994, when I decided to go back.”

Surviving the minute drill was like being forged by fire.

“It became the gold standard to stay resilient mentally, keep pushing through,” said Rob Hennigan, Class of 2004 and a current Oklahoma City Thunder vice president.

“That’s what we had to do to be any good,” said Sam Newman-Beck, a 2009 alum who is the head coach of the Iowa Wolves, Minnesota’s G-League team. “In coach’s mind that was a mental hurdle for a lot of us. It took a toll, but nothing is ever going to be as hard as that. The first weeks of practice were hell week. The first week back from Christmas was hell week. Minute drills were impossible to beat. I think almost everyone threw up at one point or another.”

A painful way to bond, but a powerful one, too. From McCullion in 1998 to Presti in 2000, from Hennigan in 2004 to the outstanding 2008-09 playing trio of Will Dawkins (also an executive with OKC), Newman-Beck, and Joe Boylan (an assistant coach and director of player development in New Orleans), and finally, to another fantastic trio in 2011-12 of Chris Taylor, Dan Bisaccio (video coordinator, Miami Heat), and Alex Yoh (senior director, Delaware Blue Coats/76ers G-league), they understand each other like no one else can.

Hank Smith made them see what they could be.

“I remember this great quote he said to me when I was playing for him,” Boylan said. “You never have to take [crap] from anyone, ever. I never did. But I’m a D3 coach who can barely support my family. You can do that, and end up like me. Or you can be better than me. You may have to take some things on the chin that you don’t think you deserve, but if you can take that, then you can rise to a level that’s greater than what I raised to.’

“That’s so powerful coming from someone we revered and idolized and looked up to and thought was so smart and was a great coach.”

.   .   .

After the final game of each season, Smith would leave the locker room to his players, letting the upperclassmen talk about their experience. Sometimes they’d be in there for hours, unwilling to let go, knowing the moment they peeled those uniforms off they’d never be together again in quite the same way. It was something Taylor, a senior in 2011, got cheated out of, when the athletic administration (one no longer in power) decided it didn’t like Smith’s tactics, that perhaps his ways were a bit too over the top for a decidedly non-sports school. After 16 years, Smith left campus with 258 career wins.

“We weren’t given an explanation, we were told we couldn’t reach out to him. They were definitely trying times, incredibly tough,” Taylor said. “There was a thought in all of our minds, ‘Do we even want to continue playing this season?’ But we realized coach would want us to play. He’d taught us so much and we wanted to continue his legacy.”

Consider the mission accomplished.

.   .   .

Here Smith was last Thursday night, sitting in the front row of a makeshift stage on the gym floor, listening as Presti recounted not just some of his most monumental NBA decisions, but his most memorable college moments. Suddenly Presti is that young kid again, looking up at the man who taught him so much about the game that employs him, but even more about the life that fulfills him. What does it take to impact another so profoundly? Not money, or stature, or power or popularity. But interest, and caring, and time, and investment. A true coach knows that.

Presti doesn’t call Smith by that preferred name anymore, lest it sound like preferential treatment for a particular employee. Seems that NBA pipeline didn’t just flow from Smith, but through him, too. Presti hired Smith as a scout not long after Emerson let him go, and the coach’s superior evaluating skills have been feeding OKC’s metrics for years. Yet their circle still wasn’t complete, at least until Thursday night when they re-entered that gym together, back where it all began.

THE NBA PIPELINE

Former Emerson basketball players under Hank Smith who now work in the NBA:

■  Shawn McCullion, Class of 1998, scout with the Brooklyn Nets

■  Sam Presti, Class of 2000, EVP and GM of the OKC Thunder

■  Rob Hennigan, Class of 2004, VP of Insight and Foresight, OKC Thunder, former GM Orlando Magic

■  Will Dawkins, Class of 2008, VP of Identification and Intelligence, OKC Thunder

■  Sam Newman-Beck, Class of 2009, head coach Iowa Wolves (Timberwolves G-League team)

■  Joe Boylan, Class of 2009, assistant coach, New Orleans Pelicans

■  Chris Taylor, Class of 2011, assistant GM Fort Wayne Mad Ants (Pacers G-league team)

■  Dan Bisaccio, Class of 2012, video coordinator, Miami Heat

■  Alex Yoh, Class of 2012, Senior Director, Marketing & Communications of the Delaware Blue Coats (76ers’ G-League team)


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.