- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

Leonard Hamilton has three cell phones, and he sometimes uses all of them at the same time."I've got to get rid of one of them," he said with a sigh.

Don't believe it.

Hamilton handles the phone as an artist twirls the brush, and the more the better. Communication knowing who and where, making the pitch, closing the deal is the foundation of college basketball recruiting, and recruiting is the foundation of what Hamilton does: He builds programs.

Florida State is Hamilton's third such project. After a year's absence from the game, which followed an ill-fated season as coach of the Washington Wizards, Hamilton was hired last spring to replace Steve Robinson in Tallahassee and apply the restorative powers he demonstrated at Oklahoma State and Miami. The Seminoles were 46-72 the last four years, and attendance and interest fell off.

Hamilton, whose days routinely extend from 6a.m. past midnight (he basically gets by on four hours' sleep), showed he hadn't lost the touch he first developed as Kentucky's top recruiter for a dozen years in the 1970s and '80s. Even though most of the scholarship-worthy players had signed elsewhere when he got the job, Hamilton hit the phones, employed his vast network of contacts and got some immediate help.

"I've never been around anybody better connected than Leonard," Florida State athletic director Dave Hart said.

The most notable acquisition was junior college guard Tim Pickett, who leads the Seminoles (9-3) in scoring and ranks high in several other ACC statistical categories going into tomorrow's game against Maryland at Comcast Center.

"The basketball gods were smiling when Tim Pickett saw that we needed him more than South Carolina did," said Hamilton, who also mined the JUCOs for Nate Johnson, his starting point guard.

But more likely, it was Hamilton's dogged determination and master salesmanship more than any outside intervention.

"Out of necessity, when you're hungry you have to go out and find something to eat," he said.

Hamilton, 54, always had that fire in the belly, but the pangs intensified during his yearlong absence when he returned to the Miami area in 2001 after leaving the Wizards. On one hand, he said, "it was one of the most enjoyable periods of my life." For the first time, he said, he truly experienced the joys of fatherhood. He taught his teenage daughter, Allison, to drive. He talked to his neighbors. He took walks with his wife, Claudette, and he even did a radio show. "I found out a little bit how normal people live," Hamilton said.

But the business the unyielding pressure, the fishbowl existence and the sheer amount of time required to do the job right dictates that basketball coaches are not normal people. When he attended a few Hurricanes games, Hamilton found the experience something less than enjoyable.

"That was excruciating," he said. "I really didn't know what to expect. [Since] I graduated from college, all I had ever done was coach. I never had time to be a basketball fan, to be in a situation where I could go to a game and enjoy it. And it was very difficult. My stomach was churning. It felt like there was hot water in my stomach. I'd squirm in my seat, talk under my breath to the kids. I moved around so much, a former player I was sitting next to had to move so he wouldn't get hit."

Hamilton began sitting alone, wearing a hat to try to disguise himself because it was awkward when so many well-meaning people approached him. Finally, he thought, "This is ridiculous," and stopped going. But it was no better at home, where a satellite dish beamed in even more misery but, ultimately, a revelation as well.

"There were games over here, games over there," he said. "I was fussing with the referees, communicating with players. It was obvious I wouldn't be happy doing anything other than coaching. I missed it. It's who I am and what I wanted to do. It kind of revitalized my spirits. It reconfirmed that I'm just an old basketball coach. I really missed relating to the players."

But Hamilton, who has never applied for a job, was careful about rushing back. Florida State seemed right. Contrary to its identity as a football school, there is, in fact, a basketball tradition. The arena is nice, there is the ACC factor and, not incidentally, the school is making a commitment to basketball. The Tallahassee Leon County Civic Center, where the Seminoles play home games, underwent a $23million renovation, and a $10million basketball-only practice facility recently opened.

Hamilton finds it "hard to believe" anyone would even suggest that the dominance of football at Florida State might be a problem.

"It's interesting that people allow themselves to be so narrow-minded so as to accept that," he said. "I thought this was a tremendous opportunity to go in and get something done that most people felt was extremely challenging. I didn't see football as a deterrent."

Just as adamantly, Hamilton refused to let his season with the Wizards drag him down. The experience seemed to start poorly and got worse as the season progressed. In the spring of 2000, Michael Jordan, then the new, non-playing president of basketball operations, wanted to hire St.John's coach Mike Jarvis, and everyone knew it. When Jarvis said no, Jordan turned to Hamilton, whom he didn't really know but who had worked wonders at Miami. The Hurricanes had gone 23-11, won a share of the Big East championship and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament that season.

Although he wasn't the guy they really wanted, Hamilton signed a nice deal four years, $8million and bought himself out of his new Miami contract for $1million. He also inherited a team suffering from the twin curses of being dysfunctional and not very good. It was no secret the Wizards wanted to unload the inflated contracts of temperamental Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard and past-his-prime Mitch Richmond, and Hamilton was forced to coach accordingly altering what he might normally do so that, for example, Howard could showcase his scoring abilities and enhance his marketability.

Hamilton had his hands full with the tempers, temperaments and egos, and it could not be hidden. During one game, Hamilton had to call security to remove an agitated Tyrone Nesby from the bench. The Wizards went 19-63, the most losses in franchise history. After the final game, Hamilton bailed on his news conference and met with Jordan for two hours. The result was an announcement that Hamilton had "resigned," terminology he continues to abide by even though it was interpreted as a firing.

Publicly, and some say even privately, Hamilton refuses to rip the Wizards although he had no chance to grow into the job.

"I enjoyed coaching in the NBA," Hamilton said. "I became more knowledgeable about the NBA game and what it takes for kids to get there, and I have a much better understanding of how difficult it is to put together an NBA franchise. That's not an easy deal. There's a lot more involved than what you see on the surface. Salary caps, trading deadlines. In college there are a different set of dynamics that govern you, but not to the extent that exists in the NBA."

Hamilton said he had no trouble adapting to professional players and all that entails, especially the money and ego parts of it.

"It's just a different way of communicating," he said. "You don't communicate with one of your kids the way you do with another. That's blown out of proportion. There are a lot of class guys in the NBA. Unfortunately, in some walks of life you have situations that gather more publicity than need be. I'm not one to make blanket declarations. Politics, the Catholic Church, football, baseball, basketball, doctors, ministers they all have different kinds of issues, but sometimes we label and make blanket assessments."

So, like Rick Pitino and John Calipari and Jerry Tarkanian and perhaps now Lon Kruger, recently fired by the Atlanta Hawks all successful college coaches whose NBA experiences were less than what they envisioned Hamilton is back in the environment that suits him.

At Oklahoma State, Hamilton inherited a perennial loser and turned it into a winner. At Miami, which dropped basketball from 1971 to 1985 and never recovered until Hamilton showed up in 1990, the Hurricanes had six straight winning years. His teams compiled the best Big East record, along with Connecticut, over his last four seasons, and he took the Hurricanes to the NCAA tournament in his final three years.

"That was the best rebuilding job I've ever seen in college basketball," Hart said. "They didn't even have a program. You're talking about building something from the ground up."

Hamilton has made an impact on the Florida State program. Optimism and enthusiasm have replaced gloom and apathy. Within the team itself, he quickly and with no ambiguity established rules of conduct, rules regarding academics. The talent isn't there yet and it will take more than one season to get things going, Hamilton said, but at least his team is playing hard, playing the tough defense he harps on. "It's defense, defense, defense," Nate Johnson said.

Junior guard Michael Joiner nearly transferred after last season's second straight last-place ACC finish but reconsidered when Hamilton was hired. Still, the adjustment is ongoing. Hamilton's coaching style takes some getting used to.

"The first word I use is 'intense,'" Joiner said this week after a particularly rugged practice. "He's an intense guy when he's coaching. But he can also joke with you. He might come at you real aggressively and tell you what the situation is, but in the end it's in a laughing manner. He's a cool guy."

Joiner paused for a moment, and added, "Well, cool might not be the word right now. But he's a good person, a good coach. You can tell he's a winner. He's got the swagger of a winner. He has that grace, like, 'I've been there, I've done that.' It's 'I'm the coach, you're the player.' You get that idea real quick."

You also get the idea, real quick, that Hamilton is where he belongs.

"You finish one chapter and you move to something else," he said. "You just adjust and move on. I enjoy every day."

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