Saturday, January 31, 2009

Speedy returns to the house that he built

That's Speedy at the PFC. How's that for old-school?

Tom Pecora had no idea he was about to begin recruiting the player who would change the fortunes of Flying Dutchmen basketball—nor any idea just how massive a rebuilding job he, Jay Wright, Brett Gunning and Joe Jones were undertaking—the first time he saw Craig “Speedy” Claxton at a park in Queens in the summer of 1994.

“It was a Saturday afternoon and nobody else was there,” Pecora said Friday. “I was the only guy watching him. He was little—he was 5-5, 110 pounds, but playing, competing harder than anyone I’d ever seen. The following Saturday, me, Jay and Joe went, the three of us, and everybody’s like ‘What are you doing here?’ and we were there to see him. And that’s when we started recruiting him.”

Fifteen years later, a whole lot of people will be there to see Claxton today, when his number 10 is retired prior to the noon game against VCU. That the Dutchmen are playing a mid-major power that Claxton never opposed is appropriate, because landing Claxton was the most pivotal domino in the series of events that turned Hofstra from a program on the brink of extinction into a perennial contender in one of the best mid-major conferences in the land.

“He put us back on the map,” Pecora said. “We say, half-kidding, the house that Claxton built, talking about this arena. But he got us all the exposure and he got this place revved up. When you look at every coach’s career—[for] Jay, obviously, it was Speedy, for me, it was probably Loren [Stokes]—you have those players that put you on the map.

“Speedy did that for an entire university. This place was bonkers.”

So, too, was the end of the recruitment process. The Dutchmen had no trouble landing an early verbal commitment from Claxton, but an outstanding senior season for a legendary Christ The King squad (the other starters all played Division I ball: Lamar Odom, Erick Barkley, Ira Miller and Kamal McQueen) piqued the interests of multiple programs from major conferences.

“He was kind of the afterthought, he was the fifth guy going into his senior year,” Pecora said. “People were coming in to look at those other guys and I remember [Rick] Pitino saying ‘Hey, I saw the kid that committed to you guys. He could play on any level.’ And then at the end of the year I remember Georgia Tech and Villanova and St. John’s and Missouri and some other schools came in hard on him.

“And he stayed true to his word, he said ‘No, I committed to Hofstra, I’m going to Hofstra.’ And obviously that speaks volumes for the kind of person he is.”

Claxton’s ball-handling and defensive skills were already top-notch when he arrived at Hofstra—he is the program’s all-time leader in assists (660) and steals (288)—but he looked nothing like the all-around weapon who would eventually score 2,015 points, the fourth-best total in school history.

Claxton shot 43.2 percent from the field as a freshman but 46.8 percent for his career. He was just 14-of-68 from beyond the arc in his first three seasons—as a sophomore, he won the America East player of the year award despite making just two of his 11 shots—but made 51 of his 134 3-pointers as a senior.

He also established the template for the players Pecora would continue to recruit once he succeeded Wright as head coach following the 2000-01 season: Overlooked, eminently coachable players with inexhaustible work ethics who led by example.

“When he got here, man, he couldn’t make a jumper,” Pecora said. “[He] just worked and worked and worked and worked. His work habits were tremendous and that’s how he got better. No secret there. That’s usually the way it is with great players. Why are they so good? Well, you know what, they bust their ass to be good.”

During his junior season, Claxton said he thought his career at Hofstra would be measured by whether or not he led the Dutchmen to the NCAA Tournament. The Dutchmen seemed primed to make a serious run at the America East title after finishing third during the regular season in 1998-99, but a deep thigh bruise limited Claxton to 11 minutes in the tournament and Hofstra fell to Drexel in the semifinals.

“I think if I don’t win a championship, I’ll probably be just another guy that walked through here and was a good player,” Claxton said. “But I think if I win a championship I’ll be remembered for a long time.”

Claxton played his senior season as if driven by the disappointing ending to his junior year and as if his legacy was at stake. He averaged 22.8 points per game—nearly 10 points more per game than his average a year earlier and the highest average by a Dutchman since Rich Laurel in 1976-77—and set career highs in rebounds (168) and steals (102) while averaging six assists per game.

Claxton not only led the Dutchmen to the NCAA Tournament—a 16-2 regular season earned Hofstra the no. 1 seed and the right to host the conference title game, which it won 76-69 over Delaware—for the first time in 23 years but also turned himself into Hofstra’s second-ever first-round NBA draft pick.

The Philadelphia 76ers selected Claxton 20th overall in 2000 to begin an NBA career that has been alternately lucrative and frustrating. Claxton missed the 2000-01 season after tearing the MCL in his left knee but won a championship ring as a backup with the San Antonio Spurs in 2002-03. After two solid seasons split between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Hornets, Claxton signed a four-year, $25 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks but has played in just 42 games—and none since March 3, 2007—due to hand, knee and hamstring injuries.

Even if Claxton never suits up for another NBA game, Pecora figures he’s already had an enviable career—especially compared to the Christ The King teammates who landed at bigger, more established schools.

“He made the right decision—look at the rest of them,” Pecora said. “Kamal went to St. Peter’s and he had a decent career. Ira went to Louisiana Tech. Poor Erick went to St. John’s and it never really played out for him. And Lamar had a pretty crazy college career—Vegas and Rhode Island and all that. So when you look at who had the best collegiate experience and who went on and had the best professional experience—I mean, Lamar’s had a great career, but Speedy’s got a ring, you know?”

Pecora said he’d love to someday welcome Claxton—who is building a house in Old Westbury—back to Hofstra as a member of his coaching staff. Today, though, Pecora will be looking back and thinking of the first time he saw Claxton—and the first time he realized how badly the Flying Dutchmen needed a player like him.

“The first game we played in the PFC when we got here to Hofstra, there were 174 people there,” Pecora said. “I was an assistant and I counted. And I remember saying ‘What did we get ourselves into?’

“And then it was packed for his last game and people were hanging from the rafters.”

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