The coronavirus forced the hyper-kinetic Mike Hopkins to do something that few thought was possible: slow down.
And the nation’s reckoning with race — as well the civil unrest across the country — made the Washington Huskies men’s basketball coach listen like never before to heartfelt testimonials from Black assistants, players and staffers within his program.
“I’ve learned to listen more and become more aware,” Hopkins said Thursday during a Zoom call. “So many times you get so focused on what you’re doing that you can get lost in that. Just understanding and being aware of what our kids are going through on a day-to-day basis.
“The importance of listening and learning about each other. That’s been huge.”
For most of his adult life, basketball has consumed the 51-year-old Hopkins, a self-professed workaholic who garnered a gym-rat reputation as a hard-driving player, assistant and coach that served him well for three decades.
However, his priorities shifted during the mandatory stay-at-home order over the past six months.
“It allowed me to slow down, even with my family,” said Hopkins, who began a new hobby and enjoys boating on Puget Sound. “Being home for dinner and eating at the table and hearing how their day was rather than thinking about what recruits I have to call or where I got to go and actually be present. It’s been an amazing learning experience. I’m still learning. But to be able to slow down and be more aware has been a great thing for me.”
The Huskies spent the past six weeks on campus where they were separated in small pods and followed strict social-distancing protocols that allowed them 60 minutes in the weight room and 45 minutes of on-court instruction each day. Recently, players were cleared for pick-up games within their pods.
The UW team also underwent what Hopkins described as a “civics 101 crash course” under the direction of UW sociology professor Alexes Harris.
Hopkins said the Huskies engaged in uncomfortable conversations about the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and George Floyd, who died in police custody. And the Huskies adopted a voter’s registration initiative, which led to everyone within the program getting registered.
“You’re constantly educating,” Hopkins said. “You’re constantly listening and learning. And that’s how you have growth. And that’s what we’ve been focused on.”
Hopkins is unsure when the Huskies will return to the court, but has no regrets about the Pac-12’s decision to suspend all athletic events until Jan. 1, 2021.
“Everybody wants to play,” said Hopkins, who noted his 19-year-old son Griff joined the UW team as a walk-on freshman guard. “If you ask any player, they’re going to say yes I want to play. It’s the responsibility of the league, the CEOs and everybody else to say ‘Is this a safe place? And are we putting our guys in the best opportunity to be as safe as possible?’
“At that time it was ‘no’, and I respect that. If my son was one of the players, which he is, that’s how I would want to be looking at my son.”
The Pac-12’s new partnership with Quidel Corporation, a company that provides daily and rapid coronavirus testing, could change the league’s initial timeline for returning.
“I’m really optimistic, especially with the way science just moves so fast,” Hopkins said. “It’s constantly, rapidly and changing in a good way with the way we learn about this disease. I’m very optimistic that we’ll have a season. I think we definitely will, especially with the way this testing and partnership has moved forward.”
Whenever the Huskies resume playing, they’ll look drastically different than the under-performing 2019-20 team that finished 15-17 overall and last in the Pac-12 at 5-13 despite starting the season with Final Four expectations.
Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, two projected NBA first-round picks, are gone and replaced by transfers Erik Stevenson, Nate Pryor and Cole Bajema.
Pryor is expected to provide immediate help, but it’s unclear if Stevenson and Bajema will receive clearance to play this season from the NCAA on their eligibility petitions.
Still, Hopkins hinted about tweaking the offense to a four-guard lineup that would feature Stevenson, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 11.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in 24.7 minutes last season at Wichita State.
Hopkins also stressed a re-commitment to his beloved 2-3 zone defense after alternating with a man-to-man defense last season.
For now, those plans have been put on hold and Hopkins’ primary concern is keeping players as safe as possible.
“The only thing we can control is today and how can we get better,” he said. “And then when we leave, now you have to be disciplined enough to keep your teammates safe and everybody else safe by being responsible. Wear a mask.
“Just those daily reminders with the guys. Control the day. We’re going to have a season. I believe that. The key is when you have that opportunity to have that season or when it starts, that we’re ready do it.”