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Wolfpack's ''new Guy'' Hopes To Rekindle Excitement, Tradition

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

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''When we would talk about college, (Lowe) would say, 'Lonnie, I'm just gonna be honest with you. My first choice is N.C. State. My second choice is N.C. State. My third choice is N.C. State.' ... He made that (commitment) very clear to me when he took this job. He said, 'You know this is where I'm gonna retire. I look at this as my job for the rest of my life.' And that's how he looks at this. This is a dream come true for his wife, for his children, and for him.''

-- Long-time Sidney Lowe agent Lonnie Cooper

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John Delong
Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal

December 5, 2006

Every N.C. State fan who was alive and howling back in 1983 can tell you precisely where he or she was on the night of Monday, April 4, when Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg's airball and State shocked Houston to win the NCAA championship in Albuquerque.

Sidney Lowe certainly has no problem remembering where he was.

He was on the court, in the game, wearing the No. 35 that now hangs in the rafters at the RBC Center in Raleigh.

And he was watching it all unfold after having the ball earlier in the possession and passing it to Thurl Bailey, which set the stage for the bizarre final sequence.

''I was on the left wing, because we had the ball and were running the clock down, trying to take the last shot,'' Lowe said recently. ''We thought they were going to zone, but they came out to trap. I threw the ball to Thurl in the corner, and I thought he was going to take the shot.

''Well, he didn't take the shot, so I came back to get the ball from him, and he threw it past me to Dereck. And when I saw Dereck take that shot, I just looked up. And from my angle it looked good. So when Lorenzo put it in, my first reaction was to look at the officials, because I thought it was going to be goaltending, offensive goaltending. So when I saw it go in and I saw the officials running toward the tunnel, that's when I knew -- that's it, we won.

''I ran up into the stands because my mother was there. It was actually one of the first times she had ever flown, so I ran up there and hugged her and then went back onto the floor.''

Shortly thereafter, he was getting one of those hugs that then-Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano made famous that night.

OK, that's old news in a sense, just as it is already old news that Lowe emerged as State's new basketball coach in early May, after a five-week search for Herb Sendek's successor.

But any examination of Lowe and his return to State must begin with his playing days and the impact the 1983 national championship has had on the program he is now in charge of. Any look into the future must include a look at Lowe's ties to State's past. Any analysis of his coaching style or his personality can include everything that State and ACC basketball fans saw during Lowe's playing days as a rock-solid, cool and collected point guard.

And think about this. It's not a stretch to bring this full circle, by suggesting that the 1983 national championship helped create the frenzy that led to Sendek's departure, and ultimately created the opportunity for Lowe to return to State as head coach.

How's that?

The 1983 national championship was State's second in a 10-year span, a follow-up to the 1974 title won with Norman Sloan as the coach and David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe as the stars. It put State in the category of teams boasting multiple national titles, removed any notion that State was a one-hit wonder on the Final Four scene, or a program that needed the great Thompson and a year of probation in order to win a national championship.

In other words, the 1983 NCAA title validated State's basketball tradition, going all the way back to the days of Everett Case. It raised passions -- and it also gave many Wolfpack fans a sense of entitlement, that the program should produce a national champion every decade or so.

There were many reasons for the discord between Sendek and a large portion of the fan base, and many reasons why Sendek ultimately chose to leave after 10 seasons for Arizona State. But this sense of entitlement that seems to be a part of the fabric of Wolfpack Nation certainly was a huge factor in the surreal relationship between Sendek and the Herb Haters.

Lowe returns with no known enemies, even if some are skeptical that he can make a quick and successful transition to the college game, after spending the past 17 years as an NBA player, assistant and head coach.

''The trait that jumps out to me is the way he can adapt to the circle of people he's around,'' said Lonnie Cooper, Lowe's agent for much of Lowe's NBA career. ''You can put him in an executive position with top executives, and he can be very comfortable. You put him with young men who are just coming up, he can be a great influence. His way of adapting is probably his main strength.''

And if you put him in Raleigh? Well, that's where he wants to be, where he and wife Melanie chose to build their permanent home years ago. They did it while Sidney was doing the standard NBA coaching shuffle, in his case from Minneapolis to Cleveland to Vancouver to Memphis to Minneapolis (again) to Detroit. Melanie and two sons actually were living in Raleigh last year, while Lowe was an assistant with the Pistons. So Lowe was in Detroit and everyone else was in Raleigh when Wolfpack athletic director Lee Fowler utilized covert operations to hire him.

You know that story by now, too. Lowe didn't graduate from State in 1983, after the national championship season. He stayed under the radar after Sendek left because many (including Fowler) initially assumed he didn't have a degree and didn't have any interest in coaching at the college level, anyway.

But Lowe, Cooper and others knew otherwise. Lowe had done correspondence work toward a degree during his years in the NBA, and he was close enough to finish up and receive a degree from St. Paul's when Fowler made the offer.

Cooper contends that this is not merely the only college job Lowe would have taken, it is the only specific job he ever really wanted. Fate took him to Minnesota, Memphis and elsewhere. Purpose brought him back to Raleigh.

''We were always talking about what it takes to be taking the next step in his career,'' Cooper said. ''I was, 'What would we consider?' And he made it very clear to me that he wanted to be with an NBA team where ownership was committed and he had a general manager that he could really work closely with, that was on the same page. I wanted him to pursue some college jobs because he understands the game so well, and he brings an NBA influence that I thought he would be a very attractive candidate to lead a college program.

''And when we would talk about college, he would say, 'Lonnie, I'm just gonna be honest with you. My first choice is N.C. State. My second choice is N.C. State. My third choice is N.C. State.' And that's how it was. He never, ever put me in a position to politick for the job itself, but he said to me, 'If it ever comes open at the right time for me, Lonnie, to me, that's going home, and that's where I want to be.'

''He made that very clear to me when he took this job. He said, 'You know this is where I'm gonna retire. I look at this as my job for the rest of my life.' And that's how he looks at this. This is a dream come true for his wife, for his children, and for him.''

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DREAMS CAN TURN INTO nightmares, of course, and returning to old stomping grounds doesn't assure you won't get stomped. Ask Matt Doherty, who certainly considered UNC his dream job. Ask Chuck Amato, who returned to State as football coach in 2000, with every intention of retiring in Raleigh.

Or, just ask those who know Lowe well, know the NBA well, and know the perils of coaching on Tobacco Road. Ask Bob Staak.

Staak was the head coach at Wake Forest from 1985-89, so he knows the pressures and challenges that come with the territory. Staak also knows the differences between coaching in the NBA and coaching in college. He has spent the past 17 years in various NBA jobs and is currently a scout for the Orlando Magic. He also knows Lowe well, after serving as one of Lowe's assistants when Lowe was the head coach of the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies from 2000-02.

''I think he communicates well with players of all types of backgrounds and personalities and abilities -- whatever you have to deal with,'' Staak said. ''I think that will be his strength. But I'm not sure he knows what he's getting into. But he jumped into it, and he's a bright guy, and he'll figure it out.''

What Lowe is getting into, Staak said, is a pressure-cooker unlike anything Lowe experienced with the Timberwolves and Grizzlies as a head coach, or even with playoff contenders as an assistant.

''I think people's expectations of programs are out of whack,'' Staak said. ''Everybody wants to win the national championship. Everybody wants to go to the Final Four. But there are only four teams that go, and only one that wins it, so 64 teams are disappointed and one team's happy at the end.

''People have to understand that you'd like to be No. 1, you'd like to be competitive in your league and have a chance to win one, and win a conference championship or two, and go to the NCAA Tournament a lot and let the chips fall where they may. But whether it be State or anyplace else, people think that a particular program should be going to the Final Four every year, and that's unrealistic.

''And having Duke and North Carolina to deal with, and their success, obviously adds to that. You know how those people and those rivalries are. They go back and forth with each other and say, 'We did this, we did that, you didn't do this, you didn't do that.' So you have two programs in your own proximity that have had success, and Sidney's going to have State fans saying, 'Where's mine?' That's what the fans say. Or that's what I think they'll say.''

Staak believes that Lowe is flexible enough and good enough with the Xs and Os to make the transition on the court. The bigger transition will come in handling all of the other responsibilities that NBA coaches don't have to deal with, such as making sure players go to class and keep their grades up, serving as a father figure to the youngsters, and, obviously, recruiting.

''The biggest thing he's going to have to deal with on the court is the zone defenses,'' Staak said. ''Not that they play a lot of zone in the ACC, but there are teams that play a lot of zone, and when you get to the tournament teams are going to play zone. That can give people some hard times, when you haven't coached against zones the last few years. That's certainly an adjustment he's going to have to make.

''But I think he has the ability to teach kids. I think the Xs and Os part of it is not going to be a great deal of adjustment. The biggest adjustment is going to be recruiting, because he hasn't done it before. Fortunately, he has people on his staff who have, but it's still the head coach who has to do that. Sidney has a good personality, and he has a way with people, and being able to talk about your school and your program is something he'll learn. But there's a lot more to it than I think he knows at this point.''

Chucky Brown, a former State star who played 13 seasons in the NBA, sees other challenges as Lowe makes the transition.

''The college game is different than when I played, and when he played most definitely,'' Brown said. ''I think with the AAU and kids camping a lot, you've got to find a way to bring the best out of a kid. He'll have to find a way to get it out of them, and you've got to use different methods. I know when I played, Valvano was the coach and my mom was like, 'Look, do whatever the man tells you to do.' Nowadays, I don't think it's like that. I mean, I got yelled at, cursed out, and it didn't bother me. Nowadays, I think kids are more sensitive to that.

''Not that Sid is the type of guy that's going to cuss you out. He's a great communicator. I'm just saying that he's got to find a way to get the best out of these kids without hurting anybody's feelings. He's got to do things differently now. You can't handle them quite the way we were handled.''

Lowe already has acknowledged that the complexity of the job is eye-opening.

His initial forays with the 2007 and 2008 recruiting classes seem to be going well, and his current players seem to enjoy playing for him. But still …

''I've had those nights where it all hit me,'' Lowe said. ''Yeah, I've had those nights. I've been 20-something years in the NBA, where it was pure basketball. You went to work, you practiced, you watched film, you went home, you watched film. And now, it's obviously, you come to work and you've got to ask. Did the kids go to class? Is everybody OK? Does somebody have a stomach ache? Just different things you have to deal with as a coach at the collegiate level.

''Then add the fact that you're playing in the ACC, and you have basketball tradition all around you, here and down the road. So I was aware of what I was coming into, but there are some things that I'm seeing that I didn't know about.

''As far as the basketball side, it is what it is. This is the ACC, down the street from two great coaches who have done tremendous jobs with their programs. But, you know, it's competing and getting the student-athletes here to compete on that level. That's why we want to make sure that these guys understand who I am and what I'm all about, and how I approach the game, and making sure I've got my kind of guys.''

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HIS GUYS, STATE HOPES, eventually will be guys like him. Guys who played hard, played smart, loved playing for State, hated losing to Duke, Carolina or anyone else. Guys who are serious about the game, serious about life, but fun-loving, too. Guys who get the most out of themselves ... and eventually get a diploma.

State and ACC fans have seen the guy who played hard, smart and with passion. They have seen the serious side, and the calm and collected side. Brown has seen another side.

''He used to be a prankster,'' Brown said. ''I remember, my freshman year, he came back and got in on all these freshman games they played on us. They had freshman initiation, and I remember Sid being one of the ringleaders. They'd chase you down and start beating you up and all kinds of things. It was all in fun, but I remember one time I went and locked myself in the room to get away from them. I was like, 'What are these fools doing?'

''Now, he's been pretty serious since he's been coaching. He's a businessman. But he's a guy who likes to have fun.''

Lowe probably won't encourage such hazing in these politically correct times, but he will encourage tradition and loyalty. He will encourage his current players to bond with his 1983 teammates and other State players from the past.

''We're N.C. State University, and we have as much basketball tradition as any school in the country,'' Lowe said. ''I want the players to understand the tradition. I want them to understand what has happened here over the years. When you watch a film, and even if you haven't been involved in it, when you watch the excitement, if you've got any kind of passion at all, you're going to want to be part of something like that.''

Something like 1983. That's where it all comes back full circle again.

He had the ball on the left wing. He passed to Bailey in the left corner. He was expecting Bailey to shoot, or else pass back to him. He watched Bailey throw crosscourt to Whittenburg. He watched Whittenburg take the shot. He thought it was going in.

Then he saw Charles slam it home. And once he realized the basket counted and the game was over, the celebration was on.

That vision sticks with him at all times. It has been part of the fabric of his entire life since.

''Even as a coach and a player in the NBA, people would see me and want to talk about '83,'' Lowe said. ''I'm thinking, I'm a coach in the NBA and all people want to talk about is '83. It just reminded me of the impact it had on so many people. People from all over the country remember that game.''

That game also helped to set the stage for this opportunity.

It kicked off a sequence of events that took him from pro basketball's minor leagues to the NBA as a player, then a radio analyst, then an assistant, then a head coach -- then, ultimately, State's new coach. There also was a brief time after his playing career ended when he was running a restaurant in Sarasota, Fla., unsure what would come in the future.

He describes the journey in spiritual terms.

''Not in a million years would I think all this would happen,'' Lowe said. ''I hate to go religious here, but I think there was some divine help that just made everything possible for me.

''It worked out perfect.''

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