Mark Price’s hiring makes 49ers relevant again
by Tom Sorensen
Mark Price, the new basketball coach at Charlotte, is introduced Thursday to the university. He wears a 49ers green tie. He already owned the tie but would have bought a green one if he had not. He wears a school pin in the lapel of his suit.
Standing behind a lectern above the green and gold 49ers practice court, Price several times invokes Charlotte’s students, many of whom are in the room.
“Niner Nation, I guess is what you call it,” Price says.
He wants to develop a program that students will insist on being part of every time his team plays.
Reaching out to students is essential. The student body once filled Halton Arena with passion and noise. They were loud and clever, and they conferred a tremendous home-court advantage in their almost perfect on-campus gym.
When Price is introduced he receives a 20-second standing ovation. When the news conference ends the ovation is 12 seconds.
Charlotte basketball royalty shows up, notably Charlotte Hornets starting forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The team flew to Washington earlier Thursday; the Hornets will play the Wizards there Friday. That Kidd-Gilchrist came to the practice court to offer support for the Hornets’ assistant coach suggests he is willing to pay for his own flight to join his teammates.
I ask if Price can impart the qualities that made him a four-time NBA All-Star, a point guard who shot and passed and saw the court clearly.
“Of course,” says Kidd-Gilchrist. “He’s a teacher – a teacher and a leader. You can’t imagine what he’s done for me. You can’t even imagine.”
Price can imagine a team that will play in the Sweet 16 and not watch it on TV. He can imagine a team that moves quickly up and down the court. He envisions a team that prepares meticulously and energetically. He will demand it. Preparation was a quality that distinguished Price the player, and he will work to make it a quality that distinguishes his team.
The transition from being where the program is to where he envisions it does not have to consume a great deal of time. Get the right people, Price says.
Price, who met his players before the news conference, says he likes their talent. He says they’ll change their approach at what they put into it.
“I am for them,” he says.
Price was a 5-foot-11, 155-pound guard from way outside basketball country, Oklahoma, when Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins recruited him. Cremins sits in the first row Thursday as Price speaks.
“I told him it wasn’t a decision he was going to regret,” Price says of Cremins to the audience. “And I don’t think you will either.”
Buzz Peterson, a longtime college coach who scouts for the Hornets, says Price will be “great.”
Peterson often guarded Price when Price was a Yellow Jacket and Peterson played for North Carolina in the 1980s.
“He has the spark in him,” says Peterson, who is close to Price and has talked to him about the transition to the college game. “He doesn’t show it. He never talked (on the court). But he’s driven. He’s tough. And he’ll carry that over to his players.”
Price says that as a player he was a coach on the floor. But he has never been a head coach on the floor at Halton Arena or in any other gym. He’ll listen to staff members that have. He will be confident enough to delegate.
“He’ll do great,” says Henry Williams, one of the great players and great guys in 49ers history. Williams, meticulous in a dark striped suit, talks about Price’s impact on the sport. The pick-and-roll that has evolved into an essential NBA component did not exist, not the way it does now, until Price helped develop it. Williams is excited and happy for his team.
You can find reasons Price will fail. He’s 51, he’s never been a head coach and – fill in the blank.
But he believes in the program’s possibilities or he wouldn’t have accepted the job. The 49ers believe in Price’s possibilities or they wouldn’t have offered it.
Remember when Charlotte basketball was relevant, and fans would drive to campus by choice to see a home game? Remember how you’d walk out of the building thinking about how cool it was to see big-time college ball without leaving town?
Charlotte basketball is about to be relevant again.