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Former NBA player Jason Hart shows how it's done as Taft coach

The first-year coach says he's taking all the advice he's been given and putting it into practice on the court. He's earning respect as he guides the Toreadors to the City Section playoff semifinals.

February 24, 2012|Eric Sondheimer

At the start of each practice, the No. 1-seeded high school basketball team in the City Section, Woodland Hills Taft, plays hopscotch under the guidance of its coach, former NBA guard Jason Hart.

I didn't know whether to laugh or ask Hart whether his two young sons had put him up to it.

"These kids are traveling at an alarming rate in high school," Hart said. "They can't dribble with their left hand. So I sacrifice a day of coaching for a day of teaching them how to play basketball."

He puts a plastic ladder on the gym floor, and his players go up and down, working on their footwork just like an 8-year-old would do on an elementary school playground. He's teaching agility, conditioning and discipline.

Hart, 33, must be doing something right in his rookie season of coaching, because the Toreadors (26-3) have advanced to the City Section Division I semifinals and will face Crenshaw on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

"I think a lot of it has to do with I'm still young and understand these kids," he said. "I understand how real their dreams are."

He played at Westchester, Syracuse and then spent nine years in the NBA. His $2,100 coaching stipend at Taft wouldn't equal a "one-day NBA stipend," he said.

So his entrance into the coaching profession has nothing to do with money and everything to do with gaining experience and knowledge with the hope of one day becoming a college assistant.

"I don't know how to coach at the high school level," Hart said. "I'm just going to take all the advice I learned from my mentor coaches from the NBA and bring it down here, and the kids bought in."

It helps that Hart inherited a talented core of returnees from last season's City championship team in center Brandon Perry and guards Kris Yanku and Steven Jones. Then Compton transfer Anthony January, a 6-foot-8 senior, was declared eligible in late December, and he took the Toreadors to a different level.

What's intriguing is how well Taft players are listening to Hart. Yes, it was easy at first, because any teenage basketball player would pay attention to someone who once played against Kobe Bryant. But earning their respect came only after they saw whether he truly knew how to coach and was committed to coaching.

"He can get out there and show us how to do things," Perry said.

And Hart does like demonstrating what it takes to succeed.

"I'm teasing them on how 'I got three gray hairs, and I can still go by you or take the ball from you. That's the joke, that you're 16, 17, and you're not in better shape than me.' It's learning and taking that knowledge and hopefully they hold it with them forever and have a piece of me in their basketball journey," he said.

Hart said he learned much from playing under Westchester Coach Ed Azzam. But his NBA experiences also influenced him.

"With Jerry Sloan, it's respect; it's looking your players in the eye and shaking hands every day," he said. "It's George Karl, who knows how to ignore a star. It's Rick Adelman, a great coach but he does it in silence. He doesn't have to scream. It's Bernie Bickerstaff, the father-figure type you have to be when you're dealing with kids from the inner city."

Hart is trying to make sure his players don't get complacent even though Taft is on a 16-game winning streak.

"What I remind them every day is that other people don't think you're the best, so you have to continue to get better," he said. "You're not No. 1 until it's over with."

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATSondheimer

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