The Point Guard Yoda

[h2]Rod Strickland, the NBA’s Most Under appreciated Floor General, Now Mentors the Next Generation of Supreme Point Guards.[/h2]
Only nine men in NBA history have ever dished out more assists than University of Kentucky Assistant Coach Rod Strickland: current and future Hall of Famer’s John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas and Gary Payton.

Strickland surpassed legendary talents like Tiny Archibald, Mo Cheeks, Lenny Wilkens and Bob Cousy with his assist total, yet he’s rarely associated, unfairly, with such greatness. With a hypnotic ability to handle the basketball that was reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s Nun-Chuck mastery, he earned his spot amongst the game’s untouchables, blending microscopic vision and an uncanny ability to make defenders evaporate during mercurial forays to the rim.

His attack-the-rim game was accentuated by abnormal hang time, body control, an artist’s creative mind, the precognitive gift to see passing lanes before they appeared and the use of implausible kiss angles off the glass that allowed him to convert over big men, the precision of which an Oxford Geometry Professor would find baffling.

In 1998, illustrious NBA point guard Maurice Cheeks said, “The mark of any true player is that someone does not want to play against him. I’m sure that guys around the league say that when they have to play Rod.”

Growing up in Mitchell Houses, a brick maze of 17, 19 and 20-story buildings, Strickland’s upbringing was not characterized by nightmarish visions of crack shootouts and the South Bronx’s insidious poverty and violent decline of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Photo Credit: Depaul Athletics

With older brothers Steve and Byron, both talented point guards, and an entire posse of families in Mitchell who could play some serious ball like the Howard, Cooper, Dean and Burnett brothers, among others, Rod was nourished in an oasis of hoops culture, surrounded by friends, family, two loving parents and a community that valued achievement.

“Mitchell Houses was not the Mitchell Projects when we grew up,” says Garry Howard, the Editor-in-Chief of Sporting News and former Lehigh University player who grew up with Strickland and his older brothers. “It turned into that as the neighborhood went down. But when we grew up, it was a great place. We had a park we could play in, plenty of friends and everybody from every borough in the city came to play in Mitchell Gym.”

As a youngster begging to get on the court with his older brothers and friends, Strickland strove to get the crowd behind him, hoping that would expedite running with the big boys.“One of his nicknames that never caught on outside of Mitchell was ‘Twirl’,” said Howard.“Every time he jumped in the air, he would spin and do something spectacular. We could tell early on that Rod was extremely special. He was fast, had an extraordinary handle, was scoring 30 and 40 regularly when he was a kid and he knew what to do with that ball.”

After a brilliant three-year career at DePaul University, where he was a two-time All-American, Strickland played for 17 years in the NBA. Today, he’s “The Point Guard Yoda”, tutoring and mentoring a jaw-dropping succession of floor generals like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Knight and John Wall, along with his own God-son, last year’s #1 pick from Duke, Kyrie Irving, whose father Drederick also grew up in Mitchell Houses.

Strickland took a break from his current work as one of John Calipari’s assistant coaches, in the midst of getting the #1 team in the country prepared for March Madness, to sit down with and reminisce on his own hoops journey, the joy he derives from teaching and the wisdom he imparts to his young Jedi floor generals before blessing them with, “May ‘The Force’ Be With You.”

Rod Strickland on the bench with Anthony Davis (Photo Credit: Kentucky Athletics)

When did basketball become a major part of your life?

Rod Strickland: The game was always a part of my life. I used to tape newspaper baskets to the door and shoot around in my apartment when I was a kid. My older brothers played all the time and my whole goal was to be able to get on the court with them. I would throw all types of behind the back passes because I thought by making people go “Ooooh!” and “Aaaah!”, the older guys would let me on the court. I always had a ball in my hands.

When did you start playing under the whistle?

I was nine or ten years old. A coach named Dave McCullough came to Mitchell Projects and started a team called the Mitchell Bullets. We played in Biddie leagues around the city and it went on from there. When Dave went to the AAU program, the Bronx Gauchos a few years later, he brought all of the Mitchell Bullets with him and that’s how I became a Gaucho.

Who were some of the players that you enjoyed watching and wanted to emulate?

I idolized my brothers, so I wanted to play like them. Then, of course, there was Pearl Washington, the great point guard who played at Syracuse. Pearl was that dude that I LOVED! I went all over the city to watch him play. And then there were guys I played against like Kenny Smith, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin who came on the scene later when they’d come over to Mitchell Projects to play in tournaments.

What about some of the NBA players you’d watch on TV?

The main NBA guys I really appreciated were Dr. J, Magic and Isiah Thomas. And I remember other guys I liked, like “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier. Man, I watched all kinds of basketball and tried to emulate all those guys.

When did you realize that a college scholarship was attainable?

My sophomore year at Truman High School in The Bronx, that’s when I thought I was making that crossover onto another level. I’ll never forget my first game there, just attacking the basket, getting into the lane and converting layups with ease, having the crowd going crazy off of passes. I was doing whatever I wanted to, and that was the first time I really became aware of it.

When did you think you had a shot at the big time?

I went to Vegas the summer after my junior year in high school with the Gauchos. We had a great team and wound up winning the whole thing. When I came back to New York, I was told that I was one of the top 10 players in the country. That’s when I knew I had a shot.

What were some of the big summer tournaments you looked forward to competing in as a young player in New York City?

Kingdome was definitely up there. You had Citywide, the Rucker, Tiny Archibald’s Tournament in Mitchell Projects and Walter Berry also had a big-time tournament in Patterson Projects. I remember those vividly. I played a couple of times at Rucker Park on 155th Street and I played a lot at Colonel Young Park on 145th Street, Uptown in Harlem.
I’ll never forget, I was like 14 or 15 playing at Colonel Young Park against grown men. I was nervous and my coach was going around to the crowd, hyping me up, telling everybody, “Wait ‘til you see him play!” And I had a dud of a game.

So what made you bolt Truman to play your senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia?

I actually spent my freshman year at Rice High School in Harlem. My sophomore year, they had me on JV but I wanted to play varsity. I was killing it on JV. I went to the coach and told him, “I’m going to go someplace else if I can’t move up.” They moved me up to varsity for a day, then came back and said, “We just can’t move you up because you’re talking about leaving.” So I went to Truman and played there for two years, but then my coach, Steve Lapp
as, got the job at Villanova. Once he left, they brought in the guy from Rice as the new head coach.

This was the same coach you had issues with when you were at Rice?

Yeah! And the first thing he did was have a meeting with me and my mother, telling us that he was going to be taking over my college recruiting. That was all I needed and went off to Oak Hill.

How was that transition, from The Bronx to Mouth of Wilson, Virginia?

It was extreme culture shock. There was nothing up there. I was used to Mitchell Projects, being around all of my friends and family. But the basketball was great. There were a lot of times where I wanted to leave. I had a lot of conversations with my mother and father and they were telling me to stick it out. Coach Steve Smith, he’s the head coach now but was an assistant when I was there, he and his wife helped me so much. I never would have made it without them.

You were a force of nature at DePaul in the mid to late ‘80s. Why did you decide to play there?

The three years I spent in Chicago at DePaul were great. I went there because they played an open floor style of game and I also idolized Kenny Patterson, Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. I loved to watch DePaul play. Also, back then, there wasn’t all this television exposure like there is today, but DePaul was on NBC, CBS and WGN, which was national, so almost every game I played was on national TV. That was unheard of back then. So to me, it was a no-brainer to go there. It was a great fit.

How long did it take for you to get comfortable on the court in college?

Going in, I didn’t know how things would turn out. But I’ll never forget one of my first games when I attacked the paint and converted a layup against one of the big men from Georgetown. Al McGuire was calling the game on national TV and he screamed out, “A star is born!” After the game, I watched a tape of that broadcast and to see myself on TV and hear that? That gave me goose bumps!

So what was going through your mind after the incredible junior year when you knew you were headed to the NBA?

To be honest, after my sophomore year, I inquired about leaving. I was told that I’d probably be a second round pick. So my junior year, I really wanted it. I committed myself. I was lifting more, putting in work because I knew what I wanted. And, we had just lost to LSU in the NCAA Tournament my sophomore year, and this dude named Darryl Joe just beat me to death. I wasn’t ready for his physical game, I couldn’t handle it and he made me look real bad.
I’ll never forget walking off the court after the LSU game and this guy from my neighborhood was there. He just looked at me, shaking his head like, “You’re just going to let him punk you like that?” So that was on my brain for the entire next year. And by the way, I’m STILL looking for Darryl Joe! Hahahaha! I wanted him to make the pros so bad so I could get back at him.

I remember you and Mark Jackson playing together in the backcourt at times during your rookie year with the Knicks in ‘88. There was some serious energy jumping off in Madison Square Garden seeing you two in the open floor.

Yeah, Rick Pitino played us together for a little bit and we gave teams problems. We wanted them to play us more together, but it didn’t happen. I had some great teammates and enjoyed my time with the Knicks. Playing with Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson, Gerald Wilkins, Sid Green, all of those dudes were good guys.

You played in the league for 17 years and only nine men ever dished out more assists than you. I’ll go so far as to call you THE most talented, yet underappreciated point guard ever! Describe your style of play.

I was a playmaker. There were games where I had six points and 17 assists and I was super happy. I played however I needed to. Some games, if my guys were scoring, I was feeding them the ball. And if they weren’t scoring, I’d take over. I just played according to the feel of each game. I did a little bit of everything: run my team, score, pass, get that loose ball or that rebound, forcing steals, whatever. I always tried to have an all-around impact on the game.

The common portrayal in the media was that you were a knucklehead off the court. Many people were shocked that you went into coaching.

Honestly, people don’t really know me. And I never did a good job of letting people get to know me when I was playing either. I was pretty much to myself, kind of shy and really didn’t embrace a lot of the attention. But people who know me know that I’m a basketball guy, I’m a student of the game. I love it, studied it, and know everything about the history of the old school. The transition into coaching was a natural for me. But because of some of the self-inflicted things that happened in my career, immature stuff or however you want to categorize it, people thought they knew me, based on media reports and mistakes I made. I’ve always wanted to work in basketball.

I call you the ‘Point Guard Yoda’ because you’ve mentored a phenomenal succession of brilliant young point guards over the past few years. What are you passing along to these guys during their time with you?

This game is mental, especially when you’re in college. It’s such a drastic difference from high school. Guys come in thinking they’re the #1 player and they’ve probably been pampered a little bit. Then, you come here, playing for coaches that are demanding and on top of you every step of the way. I’m helping them through the process, helping them watch film and see things they haven’t seen before. The biggest thing on the highest levels is having that confidence and killer mentality. I try to give them some perspective from my varied experiences and I’m straight-up with them.

And I imagine that the negative experiences you went through actually strengthen your ability to mentor these kids through some rough spots.

Yeah, all my experiences helped me: the good, the bad, the ugly and the dumb. These kids are going to go through some of the same things I did, things that I know in and out. Look man, I’m 45 years old. I know what I did wrong and what I did right. I know the things I should’ve done differently, so I understand all of that. When I’m talking to these kids, I’m talking from straight-up experience. It is what it is, and it helps legitimize what I’m saying to them.

How satisfying is it to see your guys like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, your God-son Kyrie Irving and others on the precipice of achieving some marvelous things in the NBA?

That’s the best! That’s what it’s all about for me. I love seeing these young guys be successful. I love seeing them do it the right way because I know how difficult this thing is. People on the outside see the fame, the cars and all the material stuff. But at the end of the day, that’s not what it’s all about. I want all of them to have great careers and leave the game financially straight and intact with great memories.

What aspects of your experiences growing up are still helpful as you chase this next level of professional success?

Every time I stepped on the court in New York City, I had a name, so everybody in the park was trying to take it. I couldn’t lose because if somebody outplayed me, it was going to be heard all over the city. I always had to be on my ‘A’ game. That was an edge that helped me throughout my career. And it helps me today. That makes me want to be the best at this. I love evaluating talent, mentoring, teaching, watching film and dissecting what other teams are trying to do. That’s what I took from NYC, going from park to park, going at dudes from different neighborhoods all over the city, just straight-up competition.

Alejandro Danois, Bounce Magazine’s Senior Editor and a Contributing Writer with Dime Magazine, is also a freelance sports and entertainment writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Sporting News, among others.

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