Garry St. Jean was playing soccer the summer after his freshman year at Springfield College when he attempted a crossover move with the ball. His knee protested the cutback, however, and St. Jean felt his body give way as he crumpled to the ground. It would be the first of many problems to arise with his knee, which would ultimately cut his athletic journey at SC short, but simultaneously open a door that sparked a career.
“What are you going to do when you’re down?” St. Jean said. “That’s a defining moment in whatever segment of your life you’re in. No one’s going to be up all the time, no one’s going to have a flat road. There are bumps in the road. That was a big pothole for me.”
St. Jean could have used his injury to define him and looked back on his time at SC as a wasted opportunity, but instead, he devoted himself to a new path. That new path would turn into a career at the highest level of basketball.
St. Jean, who graduated in 1973, arrived at SC after choosing the college because of its renowned Physical Education program. The Chicopee, Mass. native was a rarity, because he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life while he was still in high school. St. Jean wanted to be a coach, but in order to make that goal a reality, he needed to find the right college. He did not have to look far.
“Springfield College came into my little world as early as sixth, seventh, eighth grade and all the way through high school,” St. Jean said. “Throughout the Chicopee school system, there were a lot of Springfield College people, and they had a real positive impact on me.”
St. Jean loved athletics, so he knew that he wanted to major in physical education, which according to him was SC’s best-known major at the time he attended school.
“When we were there, it was primarily physical education. The teachers [and] the coaches were off the charts. When you look back at the history of Springfield, I was blessed to be there when these people were at their peaks,” St. Jean said.
St. Jean was not only attracted by the physical education major, however, but also by the atmosphere he found at the school.
“There was a feel on that campus that you just want to put it in a bottle,” St. Jean said. “I’ve tried to take that along in my journey through the game of life.”
St. Jean had planned on playing soccer and basketball while at SC, which he did his freshman year, but after the injury to his knee, which would eventually lead to six operations, St. Jean focused on his other passion – coaching.
“I was done, but you know what, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm to coach. And what a great thing it was for me when I couldn’t play to be able to turn 180 [degrees] and really focus on trying to learn as much as I possibly could about coaching,” St. Jean said.
St. Jean got started in the coaching world during his sophomore year at SC when he visited his younger brother Rick, who was playing in Chicopee on a Catholic Youth Organization basketball team, Saint Patrick’s. The coach of the team knew who St. Jean was, since he was a local Chicopee kid, and asked him if wanted to help out with the team. St. Jean, who was no longer bound by sports at SC, gladly accepted the invitation.
From this humble beginning, St. Jean’s basketball coaching career would eventually blossom. He had to come a long way from helping out at Saint Patrick’s to eventually coaching an NBA team, however.
“Usually the Catholic schools have bingo, so I remember we had to take down the tables [because] it was a gym with the multipurpose room, where you have the cafeteria as well,” St. Jean said. “You have to fold the chairs, fold the tables, put them back up, put them back down, all that kind of thing.”
St. Jean would move on from tearing down tables and chairs just to get to the basketball court to helping out during his junior year with the basketball team at Wilbraham, a prep school. In his senior year at SC, he was presented the varsity basketball coaching job at Chicopee High, his high school alma mater.
St. Jean’s coaching roots were formed during his time at SC, even as he was taking on his various coaching jobs. He recalled waking up for 8 a.m. class with Dr. Ed Bilik with a spring in his step to learn more about his desired profession.
“My foundation of X’s and O’s and philosophy of coaching really started [and] really put in the cinder blocks of the base back then,” St. Jean said.
The foundation that he formed while at SC worked wonders for him at Chicopee, where he took a team that won only two games the year before his arrival and turned them into winners of 16 his inaugural year, according to his account.
While he was coaching at Chicopee, future Basketball Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson sent out an invitation for some of St. Jean’s players to attend his basketball summer camp, but most of St. Jean’s players did not have the means to attend. St. Jean expressed this, and was offered a position to help work the camp so that he could transport some of his players.
Once again, St. Jean seized an opportunity and forged a relationship with Nelson. A few years later, he got an invite to join Nelson in Milwaukee with the Bucks.
“I was at basketball camp the year before and Don Nelson said, ‘How would you like to come to the NBA?’ and I was like, ‘What!’” St. Jean recalled.
Nelson told him that he was in need of a head scout because his had opted to go into college coaching, and he wanted St. Jean to be the one to fill the spot. St. Jean packed up his stuff into a U-Haul truck, drove up to Milwaukee on Labor Day and was inserted as Nelson’s head scout in 1978.
Shortly after, he was named an assistant coach. After moving around to the New Jersey Nets for two years and then reuniting with Nelson with the Golden State Warriors for four years, St. Jean finally got his chance to run his own ship when he was named the head coach of the Sacramento Kings in 1992.
“We took a team that was kind of floundering and took it to the playoffs. The fans were fabulous, and my wife and I to this day loved living there,” St. Jean said.
St. Jean coached for five years, taking the Kings to the playoffs in 1995-96. St. Jean attributes the success that he had back to his days spent at SC learning about the Humanics philosophy. He believes that his education and experience at SC had a profound impact on his career.
“I walk away with ‘X’ amount of wins, ‘X’ amount of losses, but to me it was about the people along the journey…and the relationships that you create,” St. Jean said. “And I think that takes you back to the Humanics philosophy.”
St. Jean embraced the teacher-coach model that many current SC coaches practice, most noticeably women’s basketball coach Naomi Graves, who promoted the model as the Distinguished Professor of Humanics last year.
“You have training camp, and you put in your foundation; and then you start exhibition games, those are the quizzes. And now the regular season starts, and those are like your major tests, and just like preparing for a test in a class, you have practices to prepare you,” St. Jean said. “Then you have these 82 tests, and if you do pretty well on the tests, then you get into the final exams of getting into the playoffs and the playoffs are just ratcheted up in terms of the pressure, the emotions, the fans, and all of that kind of thing. If you love the game, you just love the whole thing.”
After his coaching career came to an end, St. Jean was offered a position to get involved in management. He jumped on the chance, and became the general manager of the Golden State Warriors from 1998 to 2004.
Now, St. Jean does the pre-game, halftime and post-game show for the Warriors and serves as a scout for the Brooklyn Nets. Although he cherished his time coaching, St. Jean appreciates his new line of work.
“I’ve come a full circle, but the niceness about this is after all that time in the league, now every time I drive home, I’m undefeated. I don’t lose anymore,” St. Jean joked.
St. Jean’s time at SC shaped the coach and general manager that he became, and still guides him in his everyday life. It led to many memories, most of which St. Jean will never forget. One such memory that is burned in St. Jean’s memory is when he first entered the league and met commissioner at the time Larry O’Brien, who was born in Springfield, Mass.
“I can always remember going up to him [O’Brien] at a league meeting and I said, ‘Commissioner, can I introduce myself?’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘Garry, I know who you are, and this is pretty good for a couple of guys from Western Mass.’”
Pretty good indeed.