Just when you think you’ve seen the worst Washington team ever trotted out on the basketball court, another team enters the conversation.
Bob Bender was in his first year at UW in 1993, inheriting the mess his predecessor, Lynn Nance, had left him. Not only was the cupboard bare, the shelves were missing.
The team’s only proven returning player from the 13-14 team the previous season — talented Bellevue product Mark Pope — remained loyal to Nance and instead transferred to Kentucky. Little talent remained.
“The league (Pac-10 then) was so much better back then from top to bottom,” said Bender while walking his dog through the neighborhoods of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is now retired. “When we got there, we (his staff) looked at each other and asked ourselves, ‘Who are we going to beat?’”
Bender managed to coax three Pac-10 victories out of a starting lineup that probably wouldn’t scare most Division II teams: Guards Jason Tyrus and Michael McClain, forwards Amir Rashad and Scott Didrickson, and center Maurice Woods. Sixth man forward Sam Allen was practically an afterthought, added the previous spring from a Sacramento junior college.
The most stunning conference win came at home against the Pac-10’s best team, No. 12 Arizona, which under legendary coach Lute Olson went on that season to the Final Four. Woods and Tyrus, playing out of their minds, scored career highs of 20 points each in the 74-69 victory.
“It was one of those nights where everything went in,” recalled Bender, whose team would finish 5-22 overall that season. “But pretty much the whole season, we were completely overmatched.”
Which leads us to this year’s Husky men’s basketball team which, at 1-11 and 0-7 in conference play, is off to the worst start in 67 years. While Bender continued the massive rebuild and eventually led UW to the Sweet 16 in Year 5, the Huskies under coach Mike Hopkins are regressing. His teams had early success, but slipped badly in Year 3 and have sunk to a historic low this season.
Bender, viewing all this from three time zones away, has empathy for what Hopkins is going through.
“There’s going to be times when you’re just not going to have — it’s not so much the talent — but just the intangibles,” said Bender, who was replaced by Lorenzo Romar in 2002. “Things to do with chemistry, with timing.”
Bender and Hopkins came to Montlake with remarkably similar resumes.
Each arrived as young, energetic, up-and-coming coaches who had learned at the feet of college basketball legends. Bender cut his coaching teeth under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, while Hopkins was a longtime assistant to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Both coaches also returned UW to the NCAA tournament after long droughts.
As for the current UW team, Bender recognizes the youth and drop-off in talent, as he did near the end of his own time at UW. But he also understands how difficult it is to sustain a winning program in today’s era of one-and-done players, the increasingly popular transfer portal and the fickleness of recruiting, where in his words he heard the word “no” a lot more than he heard the word “yes.”
“I would have never thought moving back to North Carolina that Carolina would go through a season like they did last year (the Tar Heels were 14-19),” Bender said. “I never thought that would happen. And Kentucky getting off to a slow start this year (1-6). John (Kentucky coach Calipari) said it this year, and Roy (North Carolina coach Williams) said it last year: It’s just the nature of college basketball.”
For those of you who lost track of Bender after his ouster at UW, you might have seen him on a bench during a televised NBA game. He spent 15 seasons as an assistant coach and scout with Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Memphis and Brooklyn.
“I enjoyed every stop along the way,” said Bender of his NBA experience. “I was with great people who were influential for me as a coach. Larry Brown at Philadelphia. Mike Woodson, we were together for nine years between Philadelphia and Atlanta. Larry Drew at Atlanta and Milwaukee. And David Fizdale, who I worked with in Atlanta and Memphis.
“I really enjoyed the coaching part of it. There’s no recruiting. The pace of the game requires you to make in-game adjustments much quicker.”
The NBA gig ended two years ago. Bender and his wife, Alice, are now enjoying life in Raleigh, only a 30-minute drive from where they went to school at Duke.
Daughter MaryElizabeth and son Trey were just toddlers when their dad paced courtside at Edmundson Pavilion. Like their Duke-grad parents, they attended the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference school. MaryElizabeth was a four-year letter winner for the Blue Devils’ women’s soccer team, and just received her Master of Science in Global Business at Pepperdine. Trey is a senior at Duke and a standout on the school’s lacrosse team.
“We’re 30 minutes away, trying to give him some space,” joked Bender of the short trip to the Durham campus.
Trey was born in 1998, the year his father’s team came within a buzzer-beating putback by Richard “Rip” Hamilton from advancing to the Elite Eight, which no team in school history has done since the Final Four team of 1953.
Bender doesn’t have to rack his brain to remember that frantic finish in Greensboro, North Carolina, nearly 23 years ago, one of the more gut-wrenching losses in Husky basketball history.
“I’m reminded of it every spring,” said Bender, referring to the CBS Sports March Madness highlights from years past shown in advance of televised NCAA tournament games.
Washington opened the tournament with a 69-68 victory over Xavier on a last-second shot by Deon Luton, and two days later, easily dispatched Richmond, 81-66.
That matched the 11th-seeded Huskies against No. 2 seed Connecticut in the East Regional semifinals. Washington took its first lead, 74-73, with 33 seconds remaining on a three-pointer by Donald Watts. UConn put up two shots and missed, but Hamilton grabbed the loose ball from the second missed shot that had been tipped away. While falling to the floor, he hit a fadeaway jumper over the outstretched arms of 7-foot-1 Patrick Femerling as the buzzer sounded.
“Nobody expected us to be there at that point,” said Bender of the Sweet 16 appearance. “And to battle UConn all that way and take the lead and lose like that … but you coach long enough, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, you really haven’t.”
While the loss stung, Bender was suddenly a hot commodity in college coaching. Several schools pursued him. But the most intriguing one was Texas, which had just fired Tom Penders.
With athletic director Barbara Hedges’ permission, Bender flew to Austin and met with Texas officials. But after he returned to Seattle, and thought about it for 48 hours, he removed his name from consideration.
“I decided I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Bender said. “I had all these kids coming back, and I wanted to build on something we already started.”
The 1997-98 season would be the pinnacle of the Bender era at UW. The next season, with everyone coming back except Femerling — who bypassed his senior season, went undrafted and returned to Germany — the Huskies had another strong year, finishing 17-12. But they narrowly lost to a Wally Szczerbiak-led Miami of Ohio team in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The drop-off the next season would be dramatic. Without All-American 7-foot center Todd MacCullough and Watts, who were lost to graduation, and point guard Dan Dickau’s decision to transfer to Gonzaga, the scoring load fell to guards Luton and Senque Carey. Largely undersized, UW fell to 10-20, the first of three consecutive losing seasons.
Bender had secured Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson in his final recruiting class. But he never got to coach them. He was fired by Hedges after the 2001-02 season.
“We were young and it was a struggle every game,” Bender said of his last team, which finished 11-18. “We fought, but we just didn’t get it done.
“I loved my nine years at Washington,” Bender said. “The thing I’m most proud of is we rebuilt the program and left a foundation for Lorenzo, and now going forward. It should always be in a position to have success.”
Bender said he would return to the NBA “in a heartbeat” if given the opportunity. He also hasn’t ruled out a return to college coaching, but at a lower Division I level.
“I wouldn’t want to coach at a Pac-12 or ACC level,” he said. “I would want to coach at a school where some might have aspirations to play in the NBA, but for the most part they’re there to be the best college players they can be.”
Bender maintains close relationships with Kryzewski, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few and Ray Giacoletti, a former assistant who’s on staff at Saint Louis.
He doesn’t really know Hopkins — “he’s much younger than I am,” he says — but he sees the principles he learned in the Syracuse system are being applied at UW.
It just remains to be seen if Syracuse’s winning ways stick over the long haul. And that’s something Bender knows all too well can be very hard to do.