It wasn’t exactly like going up the river to find Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, nor was it quite like traveling along the yellow brick road to visit the Wizard.
Divergent as those are, you found some of the darkness of the former and from the latter, a man who also has manufactured wondrous Oz-like possibility.
And either way, you ended up in a place you never would have imagined at the onset.
“Come with me,” Linda Waltz said as she led the way to the far end of the hallway that runs through the University of Dayton women’s basketball offices in the Cronin Center. The last door was open and Waltz, the program’s administrative assistant, ushered you in and immediately retreated.
There in the dimmest of light sat Jim Jabir.
The Flyers head coach was working intently at a mini sand box set up on his desk. He held a sculpting tool in one hand and a cookie-cutter like form in the other. He had packed it with a special, malleable kinetic sand – which is 2 percent polymer and that makes it act more like Play-Doh – and as he finished one creation, he dropped it in a jar and started on another.
“I suffer from ADD,” he said quietly. “My daughter got me this for Christmas. You can make forms with it, stuff like that, so whenever I’m on the phone or whatever, I play with it. It works. It relaxes you.”
Behind him the mellow music of the Indigo Girls played from his computer.
“I’ve even a got a fragrant candle in here,” he said with a slight laugh as he reached for a tall, blue glass jar. “I don’t have it on now, but sometimes I get the scent going.
“Simon teases me and calls this The Zen Den.”
Later, assistant coach Simon Harris stuck his head in the door and offered a grinning assessment: “Normally when you walk in here you feel like taking your shoes off.”
Jabir shook his head: “The lights are still way too bright in here. It needs to be darker.”
But the coach and his women’s team might as well forget about that last thought .
They’ve never been on a brighter stage than they are right now.
After upsetting powerful No. 2 seed Kentucky on the Wildcats home court in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament match-up in Lexington – “a landmark game for our program,” Jabir called it – the 27-6 Flyers are in the Sweet 16 for the first time.
A No. 7 seed, they play No. 3 Louisville at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. on Saturday at 2 p.m. The other regional semifinal there pits No. 1 seed Connecticut (34-1) against No. 5 Texas.
Although this is uncharted territory for the Flyers, it’s not an unexpected destination for Jabir, who took over the Dayton program 12 years ago.
Back then he walked in the dressing room of the Flyers – who had had just one winning season in the previous 10 years – and tacked up what he called “a goals board” that proclaimed:
Win the A-10 Conference
Win the A-10 Tournament
Get in the Top 20 poll ranking
Win every home game
Earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
Right then, he could have added fly to Mars and cure cancer as well. That sounded about as feasible, especially when his team went 3-25 that first season and lost its last 12 games in a row.
A vision of possibilities
“I couldn’t see why it could not be done here,” Jabir said. “The administration is supportive and they gave me resources. We have great facilities. They wanted us to win and I knew we could.
“And that first year I never doubted what we were doing. Sure there were some frustrations getting the kind of players you want to fit the profile, but I love teaching and getting people to come together. I love changing viewpoints and getting kids to give in to the greater good. And I knew it worked. I had rebuilt before. I believed in my coaching.”
In fact, long before he came here, Jabir had shown himself to be something of a coaching wonderkid.
After growing up in Brooklyn and playing basketball at Nazareth College, he became the head coach at Buffalo State at age 24 and ended up leading the Division III Bengals to the NCAA Tournament.
He had taken over the team when legendary coach Dr. Gail Maloney took a year’s hiatus to work on her PhD.
“I didn’t know anything, I was an idiot,” Jabir said. “But I had a big heart and I worked really hard and we were successful.”
As he was talking, he reached for his phone and found a photo he’d been sent immediately after the Flyers beat Kentucky. It was from Maloney. She send him a congratulatory note and the picture of his first-ever NCAA Tournament squad. If you looked closely, Jabir looked almost exactly like his son Shane does now.
After Sunday’s stunning 99-94 upset on a court where the Wildcats had won 54 straight, Jabir heard from people with whom he’d gone to high school and college and from coaches across the country, including his previous head coaching stops at Sienna, Marquette and Providence.
But after lifting the Marquette program to national prominence in his six years there, he had made an ill-advised jump in 1996 to Providence, where the sport didn’t get the resources or backing it needed. When he didn’t win, he resigned and ended up spending a year as an assistant at Colorado.
That’s where Ted Kissell, then Dayton athletics director, found him and brought him in to turn the program around – which he’d done in glorious fashion.
While that goal list from 2003 is still up in the dressing room, Jabir admitted, “Everything’s been checked off.”
The Flyers now have gone to the NCAA Tournament six years in a row and UD is so pleased with Jabir that it signed him to a new seven-year extension a couple of years ago that keeps adding another year each time his team makes the tournament.
This year, though, the Flyers have done more than just make the tournament. With the performance at Kentucky, they finally put their name in the national conversation.
“For years we’ve been telling our kids, ‘We can do this,’ but a lot of times we ended up short against great teams,” Jabir said. “But in that game there came a point where we said, ‘Look, no more moral victories. You have to step up now and do a hard thing. This is hard.’
“And there was a different sense. You could see it on their faces. It was the attitude: ‘We’re not losing! We’re NOT losing!’ It was palpable.
“And sure enough we fought back and made big shots and clutch free throws. And it wasn’t just one kid. It was one after another after another. They showed up in ways that hadn’t before. It’s the greatest team effort I’ve ever been a part of.
“It wasn’t a coincidence, either. We weren’t lucky. It was everybody coming together and saying, ‘It’s time.’”
Jabir believes that attitude will carry over to Saturday when the Flyers meet 27-6 Louisville, which was ranked No. 8 in the final Associated Press poll and over the past seven years has played in the national championship game twice and last year reached the Elite Eight.
“Our kids really, really believe they can do this now and I do, too,” Jabir said. “I see a quiet confidence with them. They believe in themselves. And I think they’re relaxed.”
And if they aren’t, they just need to step into the coach’s office where the lights are low, the candle is burning and the sand box is out.
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