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VOL. 128 | NO. 238 | Friday, December 6, 2013
Don Wade

Don Wade

All Signs Point to Breakthrough for ‘Josh’

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

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Say only that, and everyone in Memphis knows you’re talking about the University of Memphis basketball coach.

A first name. Like Michael, LeBron or Kobe. OK, not exactly like that, but sort of like that because it captures who he is. To say “Pastner” sounds too formal, doesn’t do justice to the gentle, but enthusiastic and optimistic soul – Josh! – that at 19 applied for the Los Angeles Clippers’ head coaching position.

Granted, this ease of recognition says much about the city’s abiding love for Tigers hoops, passed on from generation to generation. But it says something about this particular coach, too.

Even his harshest critics, the ones who held that 0-13 record against Associated Press Top 25 teams in holsters on their hips, ready to fire at him or any of the coach’s defenders, must feel conflicted knowing he is a great guy and – no small point – a helluva recruiter. The H-word is acceptable now, too, because Josh himself used it to describe his team’s victory over No. 5 Oklahoma State last Sunday in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic.

So take that, haters.

“Josh,” I must confess, is always how I think of him. And not just because he is a good bit younger, at age 36. It’s because he’s impossibly likeable. I say that fully aware he has not always appreciated my questions in press conferences, questions that often lean toward my innate cynicism and away from his 365 days of sunshine.

Yet not once has he really snapped or played the condescension card, a coaching favorite when suffering fools and sports writers. Understand, I’ve covered a lot of coaches, pro and college, over the last 20-25 years. Some were brilliant and others clueless. Some seemed to want to play by the rules and others broke them as though it was a birthright.

Their personalities have ranged from pedestrian to pyrotechnic. There was Bob Knight and the equally proud and stubborn baseball version of himself, Tony La Russa. There was Pitino and Calipari, each smart and slick and never to be confused with a boy scout.

Josh is like none of these, and no this is not about whether he ever reaches Hall of Fame status. Odds are he won’t, which also doesn’t preclude a successful coaching career on its own merit.

In many ways, Josh is the anti-ego of coaching. While so many successful coaches seem to believe that their profession gives them carte blanche to treat their players, their assistants, their wives, their children, the fans, the officials, the media and strangers as though they are all lesser, Josh even speaks well of fans and media in the face of criticism.

One of his stock lines is a simple, “I love everybody.”

So one story about Josh from the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., where the coach lugged his 0-13 record against AP Top 25 teams. First game was against Siena, and a Memphis fan had brought a sign:

“All we want for Christmas is a Top 25 win.”

Not real subtle.

“He just puts it right in my face,” Josh said, still rather amazed.

The other 99 percent of high-level Division I college basketball coaches? They probably would have done something in that moment that goes viral.

“He was doing it in a positive way, not being mean,” Josh said.

But Sign Guy was relentless. He asked Josh to have his picture taken with the sign. Every day.

So, finally, Josh said he would pose with the sign if they won on Sunday. They did and on Twitter afterward there was a picture of Josh and some kids with the sign. He was true to his word, ever gracious.

“At least I don’t have to have any of those signs anymore,” he said, as only Josh can.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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