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Harrick finds a home on the sideline again

January 22, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — Scouting was "fine," he says, semi-retirement "OK." But the only man other than John Wooden to coach UCLA to an NCAA basketball championship could not resist the lure of the locker room, the seduction of the sideline.

Jim Harrick is coaching again.

"It's like a drug," he says of his life's work. "For every guy that's ever done it, it's a drug. It gets in your system."

Waylaid in Westwood, run out on a rail in Georgia, the 68-year-old West Virginian who guided the Ed O'Bannon-led Bruins to the 1995 NCAA title probably won't be stepping back into the limelight any time soon, if ever.

Harrick coaches the Bakersfield Jam, a last-place expansion team in the NBA Development League, otherwise known as the D-League, where player salaries are capped at $24,000 and rosters are continually evolving, players shuttling back and forth between the D-League and the NBA.

He and his team will be in Staples Center on Sunday for a 4 p.m. game against the Los Angeles D-Fenders, owned by the Lakers, and fans attending the Lakers' matinee against the San Antonio Spurs are free to stay for the nightcap.

Only a handful will.

In Bakersfield, the Jam draws fewer than 3,000 fans a night to 10,000-seat Rabobank Arena, about on par with what Harrick's powerhouse teams at Inglewood Morningside High drew in the late 1960s and early '70s.

The D-League, clearly, is a giant step below the NBA. It lacks the passion and pomp of college ball, the energy and enthusiasm of high school ball.

For Harrick, though, it offers this: a team to coach.

"It's what I do," he says. "It's what I've done my whole life. I still think I have a lot to offer. Let's say, I hope I have a lot to offer, experience-wise....

"I knew what I was getting into."

In fact, the Jam did not pursue Harrick. The coach, who resigned at Georgia in 2003 amid an NCAA investigation and spent the last three years working as a West Coast scout for the Denver Nuggets, pursued the Jam.

About a year ago, he phoned Steve Chase, one of the team's six co-owners and a former vice president of sales and marketing for the Lakers.

"I could tell by the tone of his questions that he had a suggestion for me as far as a head coach," says Chase, who met Harrick shortly after the coach left Georgia and developed a friendship with him over the last few years. "I never imagined it would be him. I said, 'Well, who are you talking about?' He said, 'Me.' "

Added Chase: "I think before he hangs up his coaching whistle he might like an opportunity to see if he can go to the NBA and coach at that level."

Harrick, though, hesitates when asked about the NBA.

"I don't know about that," he says. "I'm just going to take it year by year and see how it goes."

So far, he says, it's going well, despite the Jam's 7-15 record.

"What I really enjoy the most about it is, it's on the professional level, which I've never coached," he says. "I'm learning a tremendous amount."

He cited the differences in the pro game, with the 24-second shot clock, the 48-minute game and the more frequent substitutions.

"There's a three-second rule on defense. It changes the whole game, so it's very interesting and exciting to me," he said.

Harrick's wife, Sally, says her husband had grown restless.

"He's not the type to retire," she says. "He's a type-A personality, that's for sure, and he missed it. I think this has been fun for him. He just likes kids. He loves to be around the players. That's what he missed most."

The Harricks live most of the year in Rancho Santa Margarita. Their three sons and eight grandchildren -- "the elite eight," Harrick calls them -- all live within about an hour's drive. In Bakersfield, the Jam provides a house for the coach and his wife in a gated community on the west side of town.

"I've had an unbelievable run," Harrick says. "My life has been absolutely fantastic. In my chosen field, I've had a great run. I have a marvelous, marvelous, marvelous family. My life is good.

"This opportunity came along and my wife and I sat down and thought about it and thought about it. She said, 'Do you want to do it?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And she said, 'Well, go do it, then.' "

He is coaching again, he says, "for the pure passion of it."

Of course, if he hadn't made some mistakes along the way, he wouldn't be coaching in Bakersfield, but Harrick would rather not dwell on the past.

"There's always things you could have done differently," says Harrick, who was fired from UCLA in 1996 for filing a false expense report and lying about it to school administrators. "Hindsight's 20/20. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas. But certainly there are things I look back on and wish I could have a do-over.

"Nobody's perfect in life, and I'm certainly not."

But, he adds a short time later, "I don't look back. I look forward. I always look through the front windshield, never in the rearview mirror."

From any perspective, this much is true of Jim Harrick.

He's a coach.

It's in his blood.

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Former USC kicker Frank Jordan is taking deposits for his 2007 European battlefield tours, covering the World War I Western Front and the World War II Normandy "beachhead sectors," May 5-19. More information is available at www.longlongtrail.net.

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jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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