By JERRY BEACH
Special to ZAGSBLOG
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.—Larry Brown, the only coach to ever win an NCAA championship and an NBA crown, surveyed the dozens of reporters seated before him at Hofstra’s Physical Fitness Center just minutes after he recorded the 1,661st win of a career that spans parts of five decades.
“This like this every night after Hofstra games?” Brown said after his Southern Methodist team dispatched a short-handed Hofstra club, 73-47.
No, just after a game played following one of the most jarring events in the history of the school’s athletic department.
The overflow media throng, which forced the school to move the post-game press conference from the 16-seat film room to the facility that used to serve as the home of the Hofstra men’s and women’s basketball teams, was there not to chronicle Brown’s return to his native New York with Southern Methodist University but to get its first access to Hofstra coach Mo Cassara since four Pride players were arrested Thursday on multiple counts of burglary.
Sophomore Shaquille Stokes and freshmen Jimmy Hall, Kentrell Washington and Dallas Anglin were charged with stealing at least $10,000 worth of electronics from dorm rooms on campus. Stokes (five counts of burglary), Hall (four counts) and Washington (two counts) remained jailed as of Saturday morning while Anglin (one count of burglary and one count of tampering with evidence) was released Friday on $2,000 bail. The four players were immediately suspended from the team and from campus and their names have been removed from the Pride’s roster at the school’s athletic website.
“You hate to see kids have to go through something like this,” Brown said. “A lot of us have made mistakes in our lives, but I don’t think at the time you realize the impact it has not only on your life but all the people around you that care about you.
“You can’t lose four quality players in one day and expect to have success.”
Indeed, the suspensions decimated the Pride, who gave up the first 10 points Saturday afternoon and never threatened SMU.
Hall was the Pride’s leading rebounder (9.4 per game) and second-leading scorer (10.7 ppg) while Stokes ranked fourth on the team with 10 points a game and hit multiple clutch shots in wins over South Dakota State and Marshall during a three-day tournament on campus two weekends ago.
Hofstra may not face a team as good as SMU (8-1) the rest of the year, so even with its depleted roster, better afternoons should be ahead for the Pride this winter in a diminished CAA.
Freshman Darren Payen, whom Cassara viewed as the most talented player in this recruiting class, began burning a planned redshirt Saturday, when he had five rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes in his college debut.
Sophomore Taran Buie, a Penn State transfer, was one of two double-digit scorers for the Pride, who expect to get UConn transfer Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Fresno transfer Daquan Brown into the lineup in the next few weeks.
But the long days are likely just beginning for Cassara, who appeared shaken during a 13-minute press conference and had to pause to collect his thoughts during his opening remarks.
“It’s been a difficult couple days, and there’s nobody…” Cassara said before pausing. “There’s nobody that feels worse about it than me. There’s nobody more disappointed—almost heartbroken, in many ways.”
Cassara used the word “heartbroken” three times to describe his feelings since Thursday morning, when he and athletic director Jeff Hathaway learned Nassau County police were investigating Stokes, Hall, Washington and Anglin. Cassara said he could not discuss any particulars of the timeline since Thursday because of the ongoing criminal investigation.
And while he declined to discuss the recruitment of the quartet, he did answer several questions about the legwork he and his staff put in when recruiting players and whether or not he would revisit his approach after a semester in which six players have been suspended.
Buie and Coombs-McDaniel were each suspended for the Pride’s two exhibitions and first two regular season games. In addition, junior college transfer Bryant Crowder was suspended from the team twice last year before he left school at the end of the fall semester.
“My staff, myself, we take every opportunity — every opportunity— when we recruit kids to meet them, meet their families, meet the people around them, the people that support them,” Cassara said. “That’s part of our job and we do that to the best of our abilities.
“We take every opportunity to evaluate every kid. Know their families, their parents, their AAU coaches their high school coaches, and we do that to the best of our abilities. That’s part of what we work very hard at.”
Cassara will surely field—if he hasn’t already—some variation of those questions from Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz, with whom he has enjoyed a warm relationship since he replaced Tim Welsh after the latter “resigned” following a DUI after less than a month on the job in 2010.
Rabinowitz has appreciated Cassara’s youthful approachability—symbolized best by his constant presence on social media—and around-the-clock focus on Hofstra basketball, two traits that also made him an instant hit on campus and with Pride fans.
Cassara spoke often Saturday night of his love for his job and the Long Island school. Still, as a coaching lifer and the son of a former college basketball coach, Cassara knows the head coach is held accountable whenever players make foolish decisions that reflect poorly on the program.
“I love this place,” Cassara said. “I love the opportunity that I’ve been given here. I love all the players and the people around this university. I love the students. I can’t sit here and tell you I’m the best coach in the world, but I do everything I can to reach out to the community, to reach out to the students, on campus and off-campus, everything that I can.
“I love it. And there’s nobody—nobody—that feels worse, that has slept less, that is more devastated about this, than me.”
The healing should begin in earnest Sunday, when the Pride start preparing for Tuesday’s home game against Wagner. Players and coaches alike will be adjusting to their new normal, which, for the moment, includes fielding a roster with just seven scholarship players and scouring the campus for walk-ons who can provide minutes and competition in practice.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock Saturday, Cassara bolted from his seat, clapped his hands and gave supportive slaps on the back to several Pride players as they walked off the court. Players were not made available to the media on Saturday, but Cassara said the remaining members of the Pride were resilient and focused on the task of saving a season that looked so promising only two weeks ago.
“As I said to them in the locker room: We’ve got two games next week, we’ve got to get ready for Wagner and got to hook arms and stay together and focus on what’s really important,” Cassara said.