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Wednesday, March 13, 2013
"The Mayor" succeeds his way

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

AMES, Iowa -- A sudden storm puffed plumes of snow onto the rural terrain here a few weeks ago. And a frustrated Fred Hoiberg pushed through that mess as he drove to his office at his team's sparkling practice facility.

The Iowa State head coach and basketball legend had only slept for a few hours.

After a 108-96 overtime loss to Kansas the previous night -- the Cyclones' second overtime loss to the Jayhawks this season -- Hoiberg analyzed the game film until 4 a.m.

Hoiberg
Iowa State is looking for its second consecutive NCAA berth under coach Fred Hoiberg.

As he discussed the loss, critical for a team that's hovered near the bubble in recent months, Hoiberg fidgeted.

He tore loose strands of paper from a notebook, balled them up and tossed them. He ripped the uneven ridges from a box of tissue. Just imagine how he dissected the imperfections in his squad's most recent loss. "That loss to Kansas … I'll think about it all year," he told ESPN.com. "It's how I'm wired."

That meticulousness can trouble a man with a knack for overachieving. But it has also contributed to Hoiberg's instant success in the town that raised him.

The Ames native is Iowa State's third all-time leading scorer (1,993 points in his career). He played for 10 years in the NBA.

In just his third season as the program's head coach, the Cyclones are on the brink of their second NCAA tournament appearance under Hoiberg -- who shared the conference's coach of the year honor with Bill Self last season -- as the Big 12 tournament begins on Wednesday. "It's a community here. And I've been a part of it my whole life," Hoiberg said. "I used to walk to the games, both football and basketball, when I was a kid. I was a ball boy. To be back here now and coaching in front of people who've supported me my whole life, I always say it's a dream come true for me."

That dream was nearly deferred.

Even past his prime, Karl Malone was a bulldozer with a basketball. The herculean forward with boulders for shoulders played until he was 41 because he could still overpower younger men long after his skills had faded.

As Malone rushed toward the rim in one of the final professional games for both players, Hoiberg refused to move. The 6-foot-5 former shooting guard hadn't survived the NBA because he'd cowered against bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic players. He'd thrived with toughness, grit and a heavenly stroke (48.3 from beyond the arc in 2004-05, his final season).

So Hoiberg took that charge. He's certain the decision could've killed him.

By then, the most vital organ in his body was engaged in deadly chaos. Hoiberg would learn months later in a routine physical exam for a life insurance policy that he'd suffered a life-threatening aortic aneurysm in his heart.

He'd molded himself into one of the NBA's most reliable shooters through an undeniable work ethic and commitment to discipline. But one doctor's visit sent him into unexpected retirement.

One collision -- such as the one he'd had with Malone -- could have ended his life, medical professionals told him. "They said one significant blow could have caused a rupture. What if [Malone] would've hit me in the right spot?" Hoiberg said.

Hoiberg
An undeniable work ethic has helped Hoiberg succeed in the NBA -- and as a college coach.

The diagnosis, however, didn't stop Hoiberg from a comeback attempt.

Even after he'd fainted on the steps of his home following complications from the surgery that inserted an internal defibrillator into his chest, he wanted to play.

He was just 32. So he visited the Detroit Pistons. And he even negotiated a deal to play for the Phoenix Suns.

But doctors advised him that competition still posed a slight risk to his livelihood. And with a wife and young children who needed him, it was not a risk he was ultimately willing to take. "[The doctor] said, 'I don't think there's much risk but I can't guarantee there's none,'" he said. "You're not talking about a knee or an ankle. You're talking about your heart."

Hoiberg secured a front-office job with the Minnesota Timberwolves after the 2004-05 season, his last in the NBA. He eventually became the team's vice president of basketball operations in his four-year tenure with them.

In retirement, he'd also reignited his connection to Iowa State basketball. He drove to Ames in his spare time. He spoke with the team when he was available. He joined the local boosters club.

And he planted a seed.

After he'd retired, Hoiberg told athletic director Jamie Pollard that he had an interest in coaching when the Cyclones had an opening in 2006, a void eventually filled by former coach Greg McDermott. Pollard barely pondered the possibility. "As far as I was concerned, he was just another great player who thought he could coach," Pollard said. "And quite honestly, they're a dime a dozen."

Once McDermott left for Creighton four years later, however, he remembered that conversation with Hoiberg. He also recognized the renewed sense of attachment "The Mayor" had to Ames and Cyclones basketball.

So Pollard drove to Chaska, Minn., to meet with him. They spoke for three or four hours.

Hoiberg presented his plan for success with the same detail that's contributed to his accomplishments throughout his career.

Pollard didn't leave Hoiberg's dining room table until he'd offered him the job. "During that time, I just felt like this was the right answer," Pollard said.

Hoiberg was finally going home. He grew up just a few blocks from campus. And he was so popular in his time with the Cyclones that folks began calling him "The Mayor."

His father is a sociology professor at the school. His wife, Carol, is from Ames, too. Their parents -- grandparents to their four children -- still live in the city.

That familiarity gave Hoiberg time to grow.

He had no head-coaching experience when he accepted the gig. Just ideas.

But the Cyclones community trusted Hoiberg. Few coaches would have been given the green light to build a team around players such as Chris Allen and Royce White, two athletes with checkered pasts who were standouts last season. "He said, 'Listen, I want to beat KU and in order to beat KU, I gotta have KU talent. And I can't get that talent initially out of high school because we don't have a track record,'" Pollard recalled from his initial conversation with Hoiberg after he'd accepted his job offer.

Hoiberg
There is no doubt to anyone in Ames that Hoiberg has Iowa State headed in the right direction.

Last season, White cracked the All-Big 12 first team and led Iowa State to the NCAA tournament, just a few years after Hoiberg had inherited a depleted roster. "He's the best. I owe him a lot," White told ESPN.com. "It's 'The Mayor's Age.' That's all."

Today, Hoiberg is building with young talent, too. Freshman Georges Niang (11.8 ppg) is a key contributor for a Cyclones team that led the Big 12 with 78.7 ppg and naturally, a 39.1 percent clip from the 3-point line. "I think we have a very bright future here," Hoiberg said.

Those close to Hoiberg are not surprised.

Tim Floyd coached Hoiberg at Iowa State. In his first team meeting, he wanted to establish his authority. So he concocted a story about Hoiberg swilling beers at a recent football game. It was false. But Floyd had to find a flaw to send a message to the rest of the team. "I told him I had to be able to coach my best player, but I couldn't find anything wrong with him," Floyd said.

Instead, he discovered a young man who just outworked his peers. "He's one of those guys [who's] so talented, he can do virtually whatever he wants to do," Floyd said.

Hoiberg collected an NBA paycheck for a decade based on that determination. Before each game, Hoiberg employed a specific shooting routine that involved multiple shots from different angles on the floor. When he was with the Indiana Pacers early in his career, he did those drills with former superstar Reggie Miller.

By the time he'd left the game -- albeit earlier than expected -- he was considered a true sharpshooter.

But he's a rising star among college basketball coaches now.

And that rapid ascension has fueled chatter that Hoiberg might return to the NBA one day. Soon.

When asked about the possibility, Hoiberg offered a response that would please any politician. "I'm very happy here," he said. "That's where I thought my coaching career would probably start, as an assistant in [the NBA]. … Now that I've experienced this part of it with the college game, I love everything about it."

Pollard said he's not worried. The speculation only confirms that he made the right move. "I'd rather have an employee [whom] everybody else wants than an employee [whom] nobody wants," Pollard said. "It's a really good problem to have. … But I'm a realist. The day Fred decides that he needs to get a different fix from doing something else, I'll be disappointed for Iowa Staters but I'll be happy for Fred because he'll have done what he set out to do here."

The good news for Pollard and the Cyclones is that Hoiberg is not thinking about the next level right now. He's focused on the coming weeks and the Cyclones' goals.

That wasn't the case last month, when his team had just lost to the Jayhawks in overtime. Again.

Then, he was preoccupied with everything that had gone wrong for the Cyclones in that game. Missed shots, blown calls, poor decisions, Elijah Johnson.

When he exited his office, he just shook his head as he continued to think about last night's mishaps.

And then, a construction worker completing a project in the basketball offices greeted him. "Hey, Fred," he said. Hoiberg nodded and waved.

"The Mayor" was a hero. The coach who's orchestrating one of the best stories in college basketball right now? In these parts, he's really just Fred now.