Commentary

Jabir making most of second chance

Five seasons after dealing with cardiac issues, coach has Dayton on brink of NCAAs

Originally Published: February 4, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HANOVER, N.H. -- Kendel Ross embodies just about everything Jim Jabir believed Dayton women's basketball could be when the school gave the veteran coach a second chance seven years ago. But for any of those plans to come to fruition, Jabir first needed to receive a second chance at something far more substantial than a profession.

[+] EnlargeJim Jabir
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIJim Jabir hasn't taken a team to the NCAA tournament since 1995 (Marquette), but his Flyers are 17-5 overall and 5-2 in the A-10.

Dayton's coach admits he's harder on Ross, now a senior, than just about any player on a Flyers team that remains in control of its postseason fate despite a loss last weekend at Atlantic 10 leader Xavier. Coming out of Canada four seasons ago, Ross was, in Jabir's words, "the first kid we shouldn't have got that we got." He expects excellence out of her, and her mistakes pain him more.

For lack of a more accessible comparison, she is Dayton's Shane Battier. She does everything that shows up in the box score and half a dozen things that don't. For better and occasionally worse when stubborn will meets stubborn will, she has a motor and a competitive streak that will not shut off. Tell her you need 15 rebounds in a game and the result is predictable.

"She's gonna get you 15," Jabir said. "It's like clockwork; she's going to do what you ask her to do. Or she'll die trying. So it's this great intensity, it's this intangible -- this will is tremendous. I mean, she's got this will -- and sometimes it works against her, but for the most part it's been beneficial to us. And I tell her this all the time, too, I love her and I hate her. I mean, she's so stubborn, you know what I mean? I literally love her and I hate her. There are days I want to kill her and days I can't get enough of her."

Mostly though -- and this is the most important part -- there are just days.

Live a little and die a little. That's the life of a coach, for whom a job comes down to 30 or more annual public assessments stretching from late fall through spring. It's an agonizingly brief opportunity to show what all the unseen hours practicing, recruiting and teaching were about. It's also a painfully prolonged grind through which to experience emotions rising and falling with every executed offensive set and every turnover, let alone every win and every loss.

Wednesday's game against Charlotte was No. 650 in Jabir's career, ample opportunity for a lot of winning and a lot of losing. For a long time, there was more of the former than the latter in Jabir's case. After a successful stint at Siena, he led Marquette to back-to-back 20-win seasons and a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. But when the Big East came calling, he took the job at Providence, a rebuilding project that might as well have been Pompei by basketball standards.

And he lost -- a lot. The Friars won more than 11 games just twice in his six seasons. A career coaching record that had stood 37 games over .500 when he left Marquette was three games below the break-even mark when he and Providence parted ways after the 2001-02 season.

Enter Dayton, which eschewed up-and-coming for down-and-out when it hired him.

"I work really, really hard at this, and I love my job and I love Dayton," Jabir said. "I love that they gave me a chance. I was kind of a down-and-out coach. I left Marquette when it was great and stupidly left like a top-15 recruiting class, top-12 recruiting class, went to Providence, worked my butt off for six years and couldn't get it turned around. And then I'm kind of like, 'OK, I'm a used car salesman.'

[+] EnlargeKendel Ross
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMISenior Kendel Ross ranks second at Dayton in scoring (9.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.3 rpg).

"I mean, I lost for six years at Providence, so I go to Colorado for a year [as an assistant coach] and then [former and current Dayton athletic directors] Ted Kissell and Tim Wabler gave me a chance. They recycled me; they gave me a chance, so I'll be forever in debt to them for that. I knew what I was capable of; I just needed a place to prove it and they gave me an opportunity."

The Flyers were in better shape than Providence was when Jabir took that job, but they weren't an Atlantic 10 juggernaut by any stretch. They had just one winning season in the decade preceding his arrival. His first team went 3-25. And before Jabir could coach a game his second season, he found himself asking assistant Greg Williams for a ride to the hospital after suffering chest pains. He was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia (a genetic condition, not specifically related to job stress) and had to have a defibrillator implanted to shock his heart back to a normal rhythm when necessary. He also had to take a leave of absence from the bench and face the prospect of losing something far more meaningful than a game or a job.

"I really thought, without getting too dramatic, I thought I was going to die," Jabir said. "It's a really, very lonely experience to go through. I was in the hospital for about three or four weeks, and in that process, it really kind of felt like I was going to lose everything I really, really loved."

First and foremost, that meant his family at home. But it also meant his basketball family.

"All I could think about was losing my family and then feeling like I wasn't going to get to do this thing," Jabir said of turning around Dayton. "Because I knew what we could be. And I felt remorseful that I wasn't going to get a chance to finish what we started."

He did get the chance, returning to the bench after a month away and helping lead the team to a nine-win improvement and a 12-16 record. But despite a 17-12 record in the 2005-06 season, Jabir said it wasn't until the last three years that he felt his players embraced and took ownership of the culture he wanted. That coincided with the arrival of Ross for the 2006-07 season and a talented freshman class last season that quickly learned to follow her lead.

"I feel like he demands excellence," Ross said. "Not just in how you do stuff but it's all about hard work. I think that is kind of like the heart of our program."

Ross is a talented writer who pens a blog on the team's Web site, but this was not a case of well-placed irony. From the outside, there aren't any signs of Jabir's brush with mortality. He's as animated as any other coach, particularly when he and Ross knock heads. But even a guy who once viewed himself as a pick-and-roll Willie Lohman and who owns a stubborn streak every bit as wide as his Canadian import's had to take stock of his affairs.

"It's weird -- like I have a defibrillator and a pacemaker, so I've been shocked a couple of times," Jabir said. "And I'm very, very, very fortunate because I've not been shocked as often as other people. I think about, like I'll be driving too fast down a highway and I'm thinking, 'I could get shocked like right now.' So that's always in my head. And because of that, I think, I try to really enjoy right now. And I have to practice, to tell you the truth.

"When I was in the hospital, I was making a lot of promises, praying a lot and saying, 'Hey, you get me out of this and I'll change.' And then you get back to -- not the grind, but you get back to working too much and pushing and trying to be what you want to be, and sometimes I forget those promises. You get caught up in what you're doing. But I'm really grateful that I do what I do, and I think we have a chance to be special."

Jabir hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1995, but with Ross and leading scorer and sophomore forward Justine Raterman leading the way for a team that plays as many as 12 people in its rotation during the normal run of play, that should change. Players talked about the intensity that translates into practice this season, just as their coach noted that for the first time, anything less than an NCAA tournament would feel like a disappointment. But that drive is all-consuming only within the gym walls.

"It's harder for me to be the hard-ass during practice," Jabir said. "Because I love my team -- I love being around them. I love laughing. We have a good time, and I really enjoy every minute with them. I've got a lot of keepers. It's harder for me to be the hard-ass … but I think they demand it and for us to be what we can be, I have to be. But I love the time I spend with the kids off the court. I think it's probably more the reason I coach. I just love being around them. I love seeing them grow up. I love helping them when I can. They're a lot of fun."

You live a little and you die a little. And you're thankful to have the chance.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@s.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.