Doug Robinson: It has been a winding, successful road for BYU women's coach Jeff Judkins
Ali Bills, his assistant coach and another former star player at Utah, took him aside and offered a few tips. “She helped me through that,” says Judkins. For one thing, she said, he should call them “ladies,” not “girls,” a habit he still hasn’t broken completely. She told him to be more positive and patient and to talk to them more. This was problematic; as a male coach, he can’t be alone with a player, so one-on-one, heart-to-heart talks were out; instead, he visited with them two at a time or in a group.
The truth is, the transition to coaching female athletes wasn’t difficult for Judkins. Even though he had cut his coaching teeth under the rough-around-the-edges Majerus, he had played the good cop to Majerus’ bad cop for years. He was accustomed to smoothing things over and applying diplomacy and positive strokes to rebuild players’ psyches.
But this was new: Two of his players were forced to sit out a season — because they were pregnant.
Here’s the thing that is largely forgotten about Judkins. Five years after he finished a successful rookie season for the fabled Boston Celtics, he was selling glass. He was done with basketball and, at the age of 32, faced with the challenge of finding a new profession.
It was a sudden end to a promising start. He was the 30th player chosen in the 1978 draft and the second player chosen by the Celtics — their first pick was a guy named Larry Bird, who decided to return to school for his senior season before joining the Celtics a year later.
Judkins averaged nine points per game as the team’s sixth man and became so popular with the media and fans that he was nicknamed “Baby Hondo,” after Celtic legend John “Hondo” Havlicek. The Celtics, who failed to make the playoffs that season, added several future stars to the roster, including Bird, and Judkins’ playing time suffered.
After the season — which ended with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals — Judkins’ contract expired. He told the Celtics he wanted to re-sign with the team, but then came the expansion draft to accommodate the new Dallas Mavericks. Judkins was left unprotected and was chosen by the Mavericks.
Exercising his free agent status, he chose to sign with the Utah Jazz. While the Celtics went on to win the NBA championship without him the following year, Judkins languished with the Jazz. “(Coach) Tom Nissalke was not a fan of mine,” he says. “He didn’t think I could play.” After one season with the Jazz, he played the next season for the Detroit Pistons and the next season for the Portland Trailblazers and quit.
He believes he would have had a longer career if he had remained with the Celtics. “I thought that was a perfect fit for me, the way I played,” he says. “I was a smart player who could shoot, and I fit into that system; I was not a one-on-one player.”
He probably could have signed with another team and extended his career beyond five years, but he was tired of the lifestyle, living out of suitcases and moving his young family around the country.
He applied for an opening as an assistant coach position under his old coach at Utah, Jerry Pimm, but failed. He returned to Utah to finish his degree in physical education and planned to teach, but a friend who owned a glass business offered him a job and he took it. He sold glass for Safellite AutoGlass for six years, making half the money he did as an NBA player.
On the side, he had his own basketball camps and clinics, handling as many as 100 kids a week, which kept him involved in coaching, but he was still on the periphery of the game. He was selling glass to insurance agents, body shops, trucking companies and any other business that needed glass regularly.
“I actually wanted to do something different than basketball,” he says. “I wanted to get away from it. I figured coaching was not in my future.”
In 1989 the Utes hired Majerus. He and Judkins had a mutual friend in Jeff Jonas, who had starred alongside Judkins at Utah. He urged Majerus to call Judkins, someone who knew basketball and the local culture. Majerus, who had coached Judkins in a camp, began the call by saying, “Is this the skinny runt I coached years ago?”
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