Four decades of March Madness link Clippers assistant Jay Larrañaga and his father Jim
Tapping at his phone outside the visiting locker room in Denver, a son texted his father Tuesday asking about a memory from when he was 6 years old.
What do you remember most about the 1981 NCAA men’s basketball tournament Final Four in Philadelphia, asked Clippers assistant Jay Larrañaga.
“You playing video games at the hotel for the first time,” responded Jim Larrañaga.
The video game in question was Space Invaders. The hotel was where the University of Virginia stayed during a season in which Ralph Sampson starred and Jim Larrañaga, now 72, was a Cavaliers assistant. And the memory is Jay’s earliest of being around his father’s teams during March Madness.
Jay, now 47, smiled sharing his father’s answer, because this is always how it has been for as long as he can remember — his family’s life and memories inseparable from basketball, woven together like strands in a net. He grew up as a Virginia ball boy watching Len Bias, James Worthy and Michael Jordan in person, and grew accustomed to Thanksgiving dinner including players who didn’t have family nearby as guests.
But few memories prove to be as stinging and also satisfying as those made around the tournament.
“Basketball is our life,” Jay said, “and when the teams are good, life is really good. When the teams aren’t winning as much, life is tough.”
Life currently qualifies as really good. After wins against USC and Auburn, the elder Larrañaga’s Miami Hurricanes play Iowa State in the Sweet 16 as a 10th seed, the fourth time he has advanced this far. And the Clippers, despite playing without Kawhi Leonard all season and Paul George since December, are all but certain to finish eighth in the Western Conference and earn a chance to advance to the postseason through the NBA’s play-in tournament. The Clippers’ centers, overseen by Larrañaga, have proved to be a significant factor in the team’s ability to stay afloat.
Clippers star Paul George has begun four-on-four workouts as he tests the recovery from an injury to his right elbow with a return to play possible.
Watching his father’s teams is more stressful than his own, Jay said, but because the Clippers will also play Friday, Jay expects he’ll quickly check his phone for a score update. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said he won’t mind.
“We’re going to root for [Miami] all the way till the end,” Lue said.
Though backup center Isaiah Hartenstein was born in the U.S. to a former Pac-10 player, a childhood spent mostly in Germany has made him the last person to weigh in on the tournament. But his allegiance to Larrañaga, whom he called one of the best coaches at furthering his development, had tipped his hand.
“I’m glad he’s on our side and I guess that makes me a Miami fan now,” Hartenstein said.
Trips to the NCAA tournament were once a staple of the Larrañaga calendar. In 1984, when Jay was 9, he traveled with Virginia to Seattle, the site of another Final Four. By the time he was 11, he’d seen his father’s teams play in five tournaments. But in 11 years at Bowling Green, where Jim became coach in 1986, the Falcons never broke through to a tournament berth in a one-bid conference. In 1997 the Falcons won the league’s regular-season title behind future NBA draft pick Antonio Daniels and Jay, a 6-foot-5 senior, only for a conference tournament loss to end their opportunity at a bid.
March at that point became a “very frustrating time of year,” Jay said.
It’s why making and advancing in the Big Dance remains a big deal, why in 2006, as his father became the joking, jovial face of George Mason as a nation processed the 11th seed’s stunning Final Four run, Jay watched Mason’s overtime win over top-seeded Connecticut in the Elite Eight from Varese, Italy, one of his stops during 12 years playing internationally, “going crazy” despite the six-hour time difference. His flight to the U.S. arrived in time to watch his father’s Mason roster make its historic Final Four berth in person. The trip also bonded another generation of the family, marking the first time Jay’s parents had met his son, who had been born abroad just one month earlier.
The Clippers’ defense struggled in a127-115 loss Tuesday in Denver, but the team came away from the loss convinced it had some positive takeaways for the postseason.
Jim’s teams have appeared in seven tournaments since, including five since taking over at Miami in 2011, and this year’s berth is Miami’s first in four years. His 695 victories in 38 seasons as a head coach place him 16th all time among active college men’s coaches, according to NCAA data.
If March Madness’ popularity is in part driven by casual fans filling out a bracket, it represents to families connected to the programs the culmination of work that never stops yet never guarantees a berth, let alone a trip to the second weekend.
“That’s the thing that’s so fun about it now is just knowing the journey my dad has been on and the true grind of fighting his way to get to this point,” he said. “I just watch my dad grind for so long and in my eyes, be underappreciated for the quality of the coach he is and the quality of person and mentor he is, that it’s satisfying to see him get acknowledged for who I always knew he was.
“Because he coaches like he parents. He really, really cared about me and my brother growing up and he really cares about his players.”
Lue and Clippers assistant Cookie Belcher played the Larrañagas at Bowling Green while in college at Nebraska, before Lue and Jay reconnected a decade ago on Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics staff. Larrañaga’s acumen formed through watching the game at a young age from the vantage point of both the coach and player makes him a “unique coach,” Lue said.
Jay hopes his players view him as investing as much support in their success as people than as players. It’s something he says he learned from his father — recently, a former Bowling Green teammate texted Jay to tell him how proud he was of the coach’s success — and is part of why he followed him into a volatile industry with slim margins for success.
“I don’t look at what I do as a job,” Jay said. “I get to hang out with a bunch of people I like and get exercise and play a sport I like and I think [Jim] looks at it the same way. People have speculated about when’s he going to retire. He doesn’t golf. It’s a really fun life. I don’t know why you would stop doing it.”
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All of which means more March Madness appearances could be coming in the future for the family to alternately stress over and celebrate. Recently, another Larrañaga son recently texted his father about his own tournament memories. The message came from Jay’s son, now 16.
“My son texted me today,” Jay said, “and said, ‘It’s a lot more fun time of year when poppy’s team is still playing.’”
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