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Both of Jim's older brothers — Bob and Greg — played, and the future Hurricanes coach was throwing around the ball by age 8. He attended St. Helena's School, but mostly he was chained to the court. "It was a time before drinking; it was a time before doing anything like that," says Bill Foley, another Parkchester friend. "We were all straight arrows. The only thing that mattered to us was playing basketball. We would play four, five, six hours a day."
A growth spurt, a mean jumper, and sharp court radar landed Larranaga a scholarship at Archbishop Molloy, a jacket-tie-and-crewcut all-boys school in Queens. The basketball team was coached by Jack Curran, known around town as a guy who lined up summer jobs for the kids and ferried them to doctors for injuries.
The coach ran a tight, yes-sir, no-sir squad. A disciplined Catholic who went to mass every day, Curran would eventually tally more wins with his basketball and baseball teams than any other coach in New York City history. Each practice was a strict litany of drills: hand work, backboard jumpers, driving layups, back to the basket — then repeat. "By just following the routines, you got good without even knowing it," Larranaga says.
Larranaga was as regimented as his coach. Up by 6:30, the teen downed the same breakfast each day: a sandwich and a milk shake spiked with an egg. By 7 a.m., he had started the hourlong bus ride to school, and at lunch, he gobbled down ten Reese's Pieces. Every day, he played 1.5 hours of chess.
In Larranaga's junior and senior years, Curran often trucked his big man home. During the car trips, the coach unfurled tales about clinching buzzer shots and big-time high school matchups. "That really made me think that this is what I want to do with my life," Larranaga says. "I wanted to be a player and a coach."
Larranaga was All-City at Molloy, his play sharpened during summers on the playground with future NBA players Dean Meminger and Charlie Yelverton. At a dance at the Bronx Irish Center, he met a neighborhood girl named Liz Lynch, half the baller's height but his equal in wit. The two kept running into each other around the neighborhood and eventually began dating, keeping up the romance while Larranaga attended Providence College, a perennial basketball power.
As a senior, he captained a 20-3 squad anchored by future NBA Rookie of the Year Ernie DiGregorio. By the end of Larranaga's college career, he was the fifth all-time scorer in the program's history. In 1971, he not only was snagged by the Detroit Pistons in the sixth round of the draft but he put a ring on Liz's finger.
He failed to make the Pistons team — which he contends wasn't much of a disappointment — and took a job as an assistant at Davidson College, a small, well-regarded basketball school in North Carolina. His boss was Terry Holland, the honey-talking Southerner who'd been a shooting standout at Davidson in the early '60s. The Larranagas spent two years there, and a son, Jay, was born in 1975.
When Holland left the school, Larranaga was let go. He ended up with a gig as a player-coach in Belgium — "a unique experience," he says.
By 1979, Holland had moved to the University of Virginia, where he tapped Larranaga again as an assistant. The program was a considerable jump up in stature. Holland had just recruited Ralph Sampson, a seven-foot-four local center who would become NBA Rookie of the Year for the Houston Rockets. With Larranaga as copilot, the Cavaliers would make two Final Four appearances and win a National Invitational Tournament title.
Under Holland, Larranaga absorbed more than court smarts. The head coach opened his family life to his players and staff. Sampson lived with Holland for a semester; future Dallas Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle regularly stopped over to play the family's piano. Holland even taught Larranaga to water-ski before the city boy could swim.
Larranaga also learned to do his homework on recruits, drilling down into the basics: what the guy's family was like, his favorite foods, the girls he chased.
In 1986, after seven seasons at Virginia, Larranaga took a head-coaching job at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The team had made only two appearances in the NIT in the previous 20 years. The program trailed third behind football and ice hockey for fans and funding.
During his first few seasons at Bowling Green, Larranaga's teams hovered around .500, and his coaching staff was a revolving door. Clarity was needed. He dove into self-help libraries for management tips; Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey were favorites.
He also put his coaching philosophy into writing, coming up with a 108-page inventory of possible plays and scenarios. The book became the program's bible.
But in the early '90s, Larranaga received sage advice from Dick Bennett, then the coach at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. "He told me, 'You are not going to be happy until you reduce that notebook down to a simple page,' " Larranaga recalls.
After hacking through his system, the coach was left with a strategy as tidy as a Zen garden. All that players really needed to think about was the perfectly executed defensive possession. "If you look at a game, let's say you play 60 to 80 possessions," he explains. "But we look at one possession and say, 'What would be the one way to play it?' "