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    This summer, U of L men’s basketball coach Chris Mack was a few minutes late to our scheduled interview because he was icing his recently replaced right knee in the team’s training facilities. A high school star at St. Xavier Cincinnati, the six-foot-five Mack was a two-year starter at the University of Evansville (Indiana) before transferring to Xavier University in Cincinnati, hoping to finish his career in his hometown. But injuries to both knees cut his dreams short. In his office, Mack, 49, says, “I started my first two years in college a really good player. Then I never really got to get on the floor again because I was hurt all the time. Now I’m paying the price as an almost-50-year-old.” Mack’s Midwestern humbleness and practicality contrast sharply with former U of L coach Rick Pitino’s brash East Coast certainty.

    In March 2018, Mack, then the men’s basketball coach at Xavier, was named to replace David Padgett at the University of Louisville. (Padgett had guided the Cardinals after U of L fired Pitino in October 2017 in the wake of separate  scandals that implicated the school’s coaches in improper dealings with recruits and their families.) Mack came to town after logging 215 wins and eight NCAA tournament appearances in nine years at Xavier, capped by advancing to the Elite Eight in 2017.

    Last season, Mack’s first U of L team finished with a 20-14 record, losing to Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March. This year, though, hopes are high that the Cards don’t disappoint after being ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll. Excitement is stoked by the return of two key players — forward Jordan Nwora and center Steven Enoch — who considered but ultimately delayed going pro. While the possibility looms that the NCAA could levy more sanctions on Louisville for its misdeeds under Pitino (the team has already been stripped of its 2013 national championship), it starts the season this month with lofty expectations.

    A wall to the right side of Mack’s desk is adorned with photos of the two school-age daughters and the younger son he is raising with his wife (and former Louisville Holy Cross and University of Dayton hoops star) Christi. To the left, team notes fill a giant whiteboard. Behind his chair stands a large, glass-windowed cabinet, its shelves almost completely empty. It’s as if his job now is to fill that cabinet with new U of L mementos.

     

    The bubble seemed to burst on last year’s season when the Cardinals lost a game against Duke in the Yum! Center that looked to be won. How do you expect this year’s team to deal with that shock? We don’t want to go through that experience again.

    “Yeah, tell me about it. That’s a tough one to swallow. We were the better team that night. We just didn’t play a very good four minutes of basketball. We lost our confidence. I think sometimes as a competitor you have to go through some really hard moments and learn from them and be better because of them. Sometimes when you fail at things, that’s what spurs you to become great. You want it worse than maybe other people. So I’d like to think we have that chip on our shoulder from a year ago when we lost a few close games.”

     

    Rick Pitino’s U of L teams might best be described as relentless, especially on defense, and able to wear down an opponent. Denny Crum’s were battle-tested; he’d play any team any time to get ready for the postseason. How would you like your Cards teams to be characterized?

    “The team that I would want to have is a team…that doesn’t play entitled, that’s tough both physically and mentally. And then really plays well together. You know, a team that you feel like guys really care about one another…when you watch them play.”

     

    You spent your formative years in the North College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati. What are some of your earliest memories of basketball in those childhood years?

    “I don’t remember much, other than my dad being the coach and we were just OK and it was fun. I didn’t really know what I was doing other than I got the ball and tried to shoot it. That’s my earliest memory.

    “I was probably in eighth grade when my dad put up a hoop in the backyard and lined and extended our driveway so the court ran a little past the free-throw line. When I was in the backyard by myself, I worked on shooting and dunking. I worked on that religiously. I’d also work on dribbling. I remember when I was early in high school, my cousin was dating a (local high school) basketball star who went on to play at the University of Dayton. And I remember hearing how he would dribble up and down sidewalks and around the road. So I’d take my basketball and dribble for a couple of miles. I’d work on moves while I was dribbling. Sometimes I’d break the press; sometimes I’d act like I was going to make a one-on-one move against my opponent. And I got a lot better at handling the ball. Every once in a while I’d throw it off a telephone pole and try to hit the pole and make sure it came back to me. If I threw a bad pass, I’d have to scramble down the street to get it.”

     

    Your father played varsity basketball at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati and so did you. How did he handle introducing you to athletics?

    “He introduced me to every sport I played and was my coach early on. But when I started playing for my grade school and for a few select AAU-type teams he wasn’t my coach anymore. He was really supportive. I never had a feeling of my dad being an overbearing father or my dad upset with me.

    “It was always my love of the game that drove me. He sat in the stands. If I asked him a question he might give his opinion. If I ever tried to brag on how well I thought I played and we had lost, he would ream me and say, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter; your team didn’t win.’”

     

    Did attending a parochial school like St. X and then having your first coaching job at a parochial high school for girls give you a different perspective on the role basketball should play in a young person’s life?

    “I don’t know. I do know, the way I was raised, there was no question you were doing your homework. You had to keep your grades up, and basketball was sort of like the dessert. I always knew I was going to go to college. You’re around so many people who are going to be high achievers in life. You become one. It puts basketball in perspective: It’s fun, but there’s other more important stuff you have to get done.”

     

    How does that attitude carry through to your own coaching style?

    “Our guys are in a very important time of their lives. They’re living on their own but they’re not quite on their own. But they’re about to be. Being able to help teach them lessons off the floor about what it means to be responsible, what it means to be a man. Being disciplined in doing whatever it is you want to do — we talk about that with our guys a lot.”

     

    Are you still having the players and coaches to your house for dinner?

    “We try to space it out. You’re only allowed by NCAA rules to have an occasional meal, so I can’t have them over every week. I’d say once a month, and it depends on what time of year it is. You have several different conversations going on around the table and at the house. That’s what I like about it: You can find common ground and respect the differences between all teammates and coaches. We get to know each other, and it’s not just on the topic of basketball.”

     

    Who in the basketball world has most influenced you?

    “I never really met him, but I used to watch the Boston Celtics every Saturday and Sunday. I tried to emulate Larry Bird — his ability to pass, to handle the ball and shoot. I would tape games on VHS, rewind them and watch them later and make edits. And then I would go out in the backyard and try to make those same moves. That was the guy. I have about five or six Larry Bird T-shirts at home that I wear around the house, throwback Larry Bird shirts.

    “He maybe wasn’t great at one thing, but I felt like he was really good at everything. He was a guy who always played hard. He did something to affect the outcome, even if he wasn’t shooting well or scoring a lot of points. You always knew he was affecting the game, whether it was coming up with a steal or making a brilliant pass or a timeout he would call on a loose ball. He had a great feel for the game. I always tried to pride myself on that part of the game as well.”

     

    How have players changed since you were competing on the floor in the 1980s and ’90s?

    “I think physically they’re a lot different. Weightlifting has become — I mean, guys’ bodies get bigger and their athleticism better. Psychologically, guys still have the desire to become better players, but I think how you coach them has drastically changed. When I played, if the coach told you something, you just did it. You didn’t wonder why. The coach talked and you did. Nowadays, to be an effective coach you have to give your players an understanding of why it’s important and why we’re doing it. If you can crystalize that, these guys will run through a wall for you. If you’re aimless in what you’re teaching, I don’t think you’re going to get much out of your team or out of your players.”

     

    How does that translate to coaching individual players?

    “You have to know personalities. You have a line that won’t be crossed, and you hold players accountable and to a high standard. But how do you do that per player? As long as every player is treated fairly, each might be treated differently. That’s what you have to do as a coach — get to really know your players individually to figure out the best way to reach them and push them.”

     

    What do you tell a player when he says, “Coach, we should get paid for playing here.”

    “I tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree. They’re talking to the wrong person because I’m not going to change that.”

     

    But what are your personal thoughts on paying players?

    “My perspective on that has changed drastically. Five or 10 years ago if you asked me whether players should be paid, I would have said, ‘Absolutely not. They’re getting a free education.’

    “But to see the amount of money that’s involved — whether it’s television contracts or apparel, their likenesses (being marketed), players’ jerseys in bookstores. I don’t know how you do it. I think that’s the biggest part the NCAA struggles with. I don’t think they’re against it; I just don’t think they know how to wrap their arms around it and make it fair. You’re going to have some schools that have a helluva lot more exposure and a lot more boosters. So it’s a weird line, but my perspective has changed. I think players should get something.”

     

    What are your rules for players on their usage of social media?

    “We don’t have a ton of rules. (I want players to) understand that those social accounts are not just to your friends. You’re going to have an 80-year-old that has been a season-ticket holder for 40 years that’s going to follow you on social media because their granddaughter showed them how to get on Twitter. We want guys to brand themselves in a positive light, and you don’t always get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

     

    And what about players taking public stances on social issues or events off the basketball court?

    “I tell them that when they chose to come to the University of Louisville they’re not just representing themselves. They represent our program. Certainly I’m open — and our program is open — to everyone having their opinion or a differing view. But we’re going to make sure that’s talked about before a public stance so we can help support (a player) or we can have an answer as to why we feel differently without being blindsided. We all — we all — play and coach for Louisville basketball.”

     

    How do you unwind from the pressures of big-time college basketball?

    “I just sort of veg out on the couch when I want to get away. In the summertime, I go out in the pool with my kids, and on weekends we go to our lake house.

    “I like to decompress on the ride home (from games). I go from coach while I’m driving to husband and Dad. Then I like to be back in the office anywhere between eight and nine in the morning (unless traveling or watching video late the previous night). I usually write out what I want to accomplish the night before.”

     

    Your perspective on what it’ll take to remain in the Top 10 this season?

    “We have to gain experience. We have seven new players; that’s over half our team. We have enough pieces to be one of the best teams in the country. But it’s not just talent that wins games and wins championships. There’s a lot more to it, and that’s what we’re using this off-season for — to grow closer, to become resilient, to become better at what we do on both ends of the floor. I absolutely love our group. I think we should hold ourselves to really high expectations.”

     

    Certainly having Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch return after flirting with going pro helps raise those expectations.

    “I hope so. You return two of the better players in our league. You’d like to think that we’ll be a tough team to deal with. Jordan can score the ball from anywhere on the floor. And Steve, when he’s locked in, is as physical a presence as anyone in our league. And I think we have even better pieces around them. We have more guys. So I think expectations should be high.”

     

    You can count on that from the fans. Were you surprised by how emotionally invested people in Louisville are with basketball and the Cards?

    “I knew that Louisville basketball meant a lot to the community. I can’t say that I realized it was as far-reaching as it is and as deeply rooted as it is. I don’t think anybody can until they live here. But I want to be in a place where people are maybe over-the-top passionate like we are, with our team and with our expectations. I’d rather be in a place where people care too much than not enough.”

     

    This originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Andew Cenci, andrewcenci.com

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