From Miners to Dragons
Former UTEP Helmsman Seeks New Challenges in China.
by Allen Wolff
In the pre-game huddle moments before tip-off, Jason Rabedeaux hurriedly diagrams the opening play of the game. “As soon he gets the ball at the high post, you sprint into a screen,” Rabedeaux shouts to his point guard Hu Xuefeng. Hu listens intently, but, considering his casual knowledge of the English language, it is anyone’s guess whether he really gets the message.
It’s just another challenge for Coach Rabedeaux, now in his second season at the helm of the Jiangsu Dragons of the China Basketball Association. “[Communicating] with the Chinese players is probably the toughest part of coaching in China. I have to rely a lot on my hand signals during the game.”
But challenges are nothing new to Coach Rabedeaux, who had the daunting task of following coaching legend Don Haskins when he was hired at University of Texas-El Paso in 1999. For nearly 40 years, “the Bear” led the Miners to 719 wins, seven conference championships, 14 NCAA tournament appearances, and one legendary NCAA championship. Most basketball fans are familiar with the story of the 1966 championship game, when Haskins led the first all-black starting line-up to an NCAA national championship over the Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky Wildcats. But by 1999, the Miner’s had endured several consecutive losing campaigns and Haskins decided it was time to hang up his hall of fame career. “When I was hired at UTEP it was such a strange undertaking in so many ways,” Rabedeaux explained. “Firstly, I was following coach Haskins who had been there 38 years. I had never been to El Paso, I had never met ‘the Bear’, and I had never coached on a team that played against UTEP. Also, the timing was weird with Don stepping down in the second week in September and me being hired two weeks later.”
So, after a 10-years as an assistant under Kelvin Sampson at both Washington State and Oklahoma, Rabedeaux suddenly found himself as the head man at UTEP, mere months before the start of the new season, faced with the necessity of putting his own stamp on a program that experienced little change for nearly four decades. Yet, the 35-year old Rabedeaux embraced the high level of the uncertainty surrounding his new job and in only his second season had the Miners back into post-season play and was named WAC coach of the year. Despite resigning at the end of the 2002 season, Rabedeaux fondly looks back on his three seasons in El Paso as a promising start to his coaching career.
Rabedeaux’s next stop along his journey was Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he served as Tom Crean’s top aide at Marquette between 2004 and 2007. “Crean’s biggest strength was making the players he has better. The two coaches I worked under (Crean and Sampson] really prided themselves on getting their teams to overachieve and on how hard they play, so that’s how I approach my job here in China.”
Yet, when Crean bolted for the Indiana job in April 2008, coach Rabedeaux decided to pack his bags and head 6,000 miles to the Far East, leaving behind his wife and three kids in the U.S. Gone were the days of being able to unwind in familiar surroundings after home games. Now, Rabedeaux lives out of his suitcase, staying at hotels both when his team travels and plays in its home arena. During the typical 50-game CBA season (this year has been shortened to 35 games due to the China National Games), the team travels to 18 Chinese cities, some in the far reaches of this very large country, allowing very little down time for players and coaches alike.
But coaching this particular team does have its advantages. In both team meetings and during games, Coach Rabedeaux can rely on the experience of his two foreign imports, Jameel Watkins and Donnell Harvey, to help in the transition to the international basketball environment and provide the kind of quality play that sets an example for the rest of the team. Watkins, a 6-10 Center, who played at Georgetown between ’96 and ’99 under John Thompson, has played professionally for 13 seasons in the Philippines, Korea and now China. “The Chinese have their own signature way of playing. A lot of parts of basketball get lost in translation, especially with an American coach, because some things we’re familiar with don’t translate to the Chinese style and some things they do on the court are different from what we are used to, so we try to meet in the middle and work together the best we can.”
Meanwhile, Harvey, who as a freshman at Florida helped the Gators to the 2000 national championship game and also played in the League with the Mavs, Nets, Nuggets and Suns, adds toughness and athleticism to his team. This season, Harvey averages a team best 24 points and 12 rebounds per game and has added a mid-range jump shot to his arsenal since coming overseas. In a recent game against the Shanghai Sharks, Harvey scored 44 points, including 4-4 from behind the arc. “As time goes on, you get better at whatever you do,” says 6’8” Harvey, who averaged 5.6 points and 4 rebounds per game in 5 NBA seasons. “With Jameel and Tang [Jiangsu’s 7-foot center] down low, I have been able to spread it out a little bit.” Coach Rabedeaux’s praise for Harvey’s game goes a step further. “If Donnell were two inches taller, he would still be in the NBA. He is the best ‘second jumper’ I have ever coached. He is hard-nosed and has a knack for getting the ball on the glass.”
Furthermore, coaching in the CBA has broadened Rabedeaux’s basketball coaching knowledge, giving him an introductory course in the rigors of professional basketball. “Both Jameel and Donnell have made me a much better coach, because they’ve shown me a side of pro ball you never see in college. When you are a pro, whether a player or a coach, you look at the game a lot differently. You learn to take each game in stride and assess the team on a week-by-week basis, whereas in college you are always scurrying around, concerned about things like, ‘who’s going to be our next player?’ and ‘is so-and-so going to class.’ But I treat Donnell and Jameel just like assistant coaches because of their 10 plus years of professional experience and their high basketball IQs.”
Although the CBA has seen its share of growing pains, including instances of broken contracts, unfulfilled promises to foreign players, as well as questionable refereeing, Rabedeaux is confident its future is bright. “You have to consider that the CBA is only 14 years old. As far as marketing and promoting its product, the league still has a ways to go. But outside of the NBA and the D League, I would put the CBA in the top five leagues in the world. You are getting top caliber players from America (I.e. Stephon Marbury, Smush Parker, Rodney White), and the Chinese players are better than most people believe, so the league will only get stronger.”
Like his experience at UTEP just over a decade ago, Coach Rabedeaux gets to play an important role in establishing a new tradition, this time for a promising league most basketball experts think will have an enormous impact on the future of the international game.