The clock reads 10 a.m. on the Friday morning before Halloween, and the GW women’s basketball brownstone across from the Smith Center is nearly vacant. The glare from a solitary light protrudes from the office of first-year assistant coach Ali Jaques, who is chatting with a recruit on instant messenger.
“Recruiting is like breathing,” she said, while glaring at the computer monitor. “If you don’t do it, you’ll die a slow, painful death.”
Fifteen minutes later, assistant coach Mike Bozeman pokes his head in the door, speaking softly and apparently slightly shaken up.
“What happened?” Jaques asked.
“I wrecked my car,” he responded. “I try to stay calm in these situations. Sometimes I’m so calm it scares my wife.”
The final assistant coach to arrive, former All-American Tajama Ngongba Abraham, who holds the GW women’s basketball record for career points and led the Colonials to the Elite Eight in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, has already heard the news of Bozeman’s accident and goes straight upstairs to her office.
Now they wait for the man who, in his 18th season, heads the entire operation. After leaving his house in Fairfax, Va., head coach Joe McKeown drops his son, Joey, off at school in Annandale, Va., before getting to campus. A normal day would call for an earlier arrival; however, McKeown is not feeling well and chooses to stop off in the steam room at HellWell.
The Atlantic 10’s all-time most-winning women’s basketball coach greets each of his assistants warmly before retreating to his office on the second floor. McKeown’s office is the biggest in the building, and includes several windows that provide a clear view of 22nd Street. The room features all of the essentials: a desk, a JVC television, a sofa and framed photos of past players and teams. Yet, there is still plenty of space for certain unique items that stand out. Not only are there plaques of McKeown’s coaching accomplishments scattered around, including one for his 400th coaching victory with a photo of him cutting down the net, but there is also a framed photo of McKeown standing with Michael Jordan.
“Coach and Michael Jordan are boys,” Jaques said.
McKeown added, “I can’t run or jump anymore, but one thing I can still do is shoot.” He then tells a story of challenging Jordan to a shooting contest, to which “his airness” responded by jumping over someone and dunking the ball. “[Jordan] said, ‘Okay, your turn,'” McKeown reminisces. “I said, ‘Let’s go play golf.'”
Finally, a bobble-head doll of coaching legend Red Auerbach, who recently passed away, rests on a table in a corner of the room, which actually has more significance than most would think. In fact, McKeown attended Auerbach’s 89th birthday party in September, and there is even a picture of McKeown having lunch with the GW alumnus in Auerbach’s book, “Let Me Tell You a Story.”
“I feel very fortunate that, for whatever reason, he took an interest in me and our program. He was able to share a lot of his experiences with me and helped me become a better coach,” McKeown said. “He’s been my mentor and really taken care of me over the years. He also saved my job here by talking me out of becoming the coach of the New York Liberty when the WNBA first started.”
After McKeown makes a couple of phone calls, it is time for the coaches to convene in his office. Ngongba mentions that she has always wanted to be on Jerry Springer, which sparks a discussion about the talk show host recently being booted off of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.
“Coach, you think can dance better than him?” Jaques asked.
“Well, I know one thing,” McKeown responded. “I can dance better than Emmitt Smith.”
The coaches proceed to review the official visit itinerary for the recruits who are coming over the weekend and discuss the upcoming practice schedule. The assistant coaches get into a heated but good-humored debate after Jaques makes a joke about Bozeman being temporarily without a car. But for the most part, Bozeman is able to laugh off the remark.
“I was going to put gas in that car this morning too,” he said. “I would’ve been like, ‘Aw, damn!'”
With only two weeks until the start of the season, McKeown calms everyone down as the mood gets more serious. The discussion is primarily offense-oriented as McKeown notes that offense will be the focus for 75 percent of the rest of the way.
“Our whole premise in the ’90s was based on five plays, and within that we had a couple quick hitters. We were un-guardable back then,” he said. “Now, it’s too complicated. I want to keep it simple this year.”
This year is one that could be a benchmark for the GW women’s program. With talented guards in Kim Beck and Kenan Cole, and a young but mature front line in Jessica Adair, the Colonials are pegged as the top team in the A-10.
After McKeown points out that the only error Ngongba ever made when she played for him was tying her shoes wrong, the coaches head over to the Smith Center for an 11:30 practice.
The players stretch and circle up before breaking into a fast-paced three-on-two drill called “continuous.” Freshman Ivy Abiona goes up strong with her left hand at one point during the drill, and McKeown is heard saying, “She’s going to be good.”
Jaques and Bozeman then work with the guards while Ngongba handles the forwards and centers. Setting screens to get Abiona and sophomores Adair, Jamila Bates and Chantelle John open in the post is an obvious focal point as McKeown, who generally observes from the sideline and interjects when appropriate, makes his displeasure known.
“We have to wait – we can’t just run through the screen!” he yelled. “Zero contact equals zero screen!”
The practice wraps up after a full-court scrimmage, which epitomizes the never-ending intensity that the players demonstrate at all times. A “1, 2, 3, G Dub!” chant puts an end to the players’ day on the court.
However, the coaches’ jobs for the day are far from over. By 3 p.m., it is time to meet with the two recruits and show off the Foggy Bottom campus. The coaches escort them to various academic meetings that emphasize the importance of education at GW.
Afterward, the coaches assemble in McKeown’s office once again to evaluate the day’s practice and review film of teams the Colonials will be playing in their first few games. The coaches also make sure to spend a good deal of time breaking down their own team by identifying strengths and weaknesses.
Dinner with the recruits is next on the schedule, but due to NCAA regulations, McKeown prefers that the details of the affair be undisclosed.
Finally, around 10 p.m., the coaching staff is able to head home. At this point, McKeown spends about two hours reviewing his notes in preparation for the open house practice for fans and alumni the next day. With his family already asleep, McKeown puts his long day in perspective.
“The biggest thing is just knowing that at this time of the year, you’re going to be busy and everything is going to revolve around basketball,” he said.
Not too many hours later, McKeown, his coaching staff and the players wake up and do it all over again.