July 22, 2019, was, to that point, the biggest day of Will Hardy’s professional career.
He’d started with the San Antonio Spurs as a “basketball operations intern” in 2010 — which, practically speaking, meant being a warm body to help players with whatever they needed on-court during morning practices and workouts, then generally doing any menial task that anyone of any consequence in the front office needed in between. It also had the benefit of allowing him to (silently) sit in on decision-making meetings and draft preps.
A year later, he became a “video room intern.” Then, after a time, the “video coordinator.” After three years of that, legendary coach Gregg Popovich called him up and told him he was now an assistant coach — one who would sit on the arena’s second row during games, behind the main bench, yes, but still. And now, finally, on that summer day in 2019, came his biggest promotion yet: one of the three coveted “front row assistant” gigs, which would make him one of Popovich’s most trusted advisors.
The team’s PR staff issued a press release to announce the day’s news, with a big, bold headline declaring:
Below that, in a much smaller, plainer font, came the perfunctory subhead: “Will Hardy also hired as bench assistant to Popovich.”
Hardy, known for his dry self-deprecation, found it funny, laughing and joking with some of the team’s beat writers who playfully teased him about his place in the organizational food chain.
A little less than three years later, on June 29, 2022, Hardy’s latest biggest promotion would also be made public in a press release on the same day that his team was announcing the hiring of a more well-known name into the organization.
This time, though, Hardy did not get second billing to new associate general manager David Fizdale.
No, this time, the announcement of Hardy as the head coach of the Utah Jazz got the attention it deserved.
Of course, with that increased attention comes increased scrutiny.
Why was this guy the choice of CEO Danny Ainge and general manager Justin Zanik and owner Ryan Smith to replace the departed Quin Snyder? To take the team into its next era? To be the one tasked with delivering the organization its first NBA championship?
Yes, he came with an impressive résumé, having spent more than a decade under the tutelage of Popovich, serving as an assistant coach on the gold medal-winning USA men’s basketball team in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, then going through this past season as the associate head coach under Ime Udoka with the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.
On the other hand, he is just 34 years old, the youngest head coach in the NBA. He has only three total years on the front row, and zero previous head coaching experience on any level — unless you want to count heading up rag-tag rosters during the last few Salt Lake City and Las Vegas summer leagues.
He gave a few glimpses into his personality and psyche during Tuesday’s introductory news conference, saying his first priority will be to build relationships throughout the organization. He added that he hopes everyone he encounters will get to know him as a person before they do as a coach.
All of which just reinforces the question: Who, exactly, is Will Hardy?
Steve Kerr, championship-winning head coach of the Golden State Warriors and a Team USA assistant alongside Hardy in China and Japan, has a straightforward answer.
“I think he’s a star,” Kerr said. “I think the Jazz nailed it with Will.”
Destined for greatness
That’s hardly the first time Hardy has been cast in such a luminous spotlight.
In fact, he’s been projected for big things dating all the way back to his time at the K-12, private, all-boys St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va.
Chris Brown, who spent three years as an assistant coach for St. Chris’s basketball team before taking over as head coach ahead of Hardy’s senior season, recalled meeting him for the first time when he stood out as an eighth grader among older boys at a hoops camp.
“He was the alpha of the group,” Brown said. “He was the guy that was telling people what to do and how to do it. And his teams were always winning, which caught our eye. … He stood out like a bright light.”
Brown quickly took an interest in the 6-foot-6 do-everything player, and soon developed a close bond with him.
It was one that would pay dividends on the hardwood.
To this day, Hardy — called the most “inordinately gifted” player Brown has ever coached in terms of on-court awareness — is a St. Christopher’s legend for “The Shot.” Trailing heated rival Benedictine College Preparatory by two points with one second left in a battle of unbeaten teams, he went around a double-curl screen to bury the winning 30-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“He just crushed it. He was that kind of kid — he didn’t shy away from the big moments, that’s for sure,” Brown said. “… The last thing I remember is the crowd picking him up and literally carrying him outside. They took him out the door, he was gone. I didn’t get a chance to give him a high-five or anything.”
Hardy had offers from most of the Ivy League schools, as well as Army, but a trip to the campus of Williams College — a private liberal arts school in Williamstown, Mass. — convinced him to choose the Division III program.
Michael Kearney, then a sophomore guard from Washington, D.C., recalled being excited at the new “tall, super-skilled incoming freshman that had a chance to make our team really good. That was super-exciting that he decided to come to Williams over other higher-level offers. We were pumped to have him.”
Fellow freshman Joe Geoghegan, a 6-8 big man out of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, recalled walking into Williams’ John Wesley Chandler Gymnasium for the first time and spotting the kid with the long, blond hair (”The ‘Southern Swoop,’ I think, is how it was referred to”) hitting jumper after jumper. He figured, “That must be Hardy,” after having heard about him from the coaching staff.
After getting to know one another a bit during orientation and team-building exercises, the freshmen were assigned to the same dorm and became close over their new shared experience of winding up “in the middle of nowhere in northwestern Massachusetts.” Geoghegan quickly discovered that his new teammate and friend appeared to be a prodigy at pretty much anything he tried.
FIFA and NBA2K video games? Hardy apparently hadn’t been a gamer back at home, but after a quick run-through of the controller, he was soon hanging with the best players in the dorm: “Effortlessly really good at them. Just a strange skill.”
Intramural slow-pitch softball? It was treated as a hallowed competition among the various varsity sports programs, who each fielded their own team. Hardy volunteered to be the pitcher (the position no one wanted), knowing he could learn opponents’ batting tendencies, and was soon directing his defense based on the batter: “I just vividly remember him pointing at the outfield: ‘Shift to your right.’ ‘Move back.’ ‘Come in.’ Just pointing around, telling other people what to do before he threw his pitch.”
Allegedly friendly games of cornhole? “He rarely loses. He’s very naturally talented. And he’s very competitive. … He hates losing,” Geoghegan concluded.
Mike Maker, who had worked at Creighton as an assistant under Dana Altman, got the Williams head coaching gig ahead of Hardy’s junior season, when Dave Paulsen departed for Bucknell. Maker was getting to know his players literally on the fly — he didn’t meet them in person until they gathered together at Boston Logan International Airport for a two-week trip to Italy scheduled by the previous regime.
As he studied the roster and chatted up the players, he quickly came to appreciate Hardy, who was a backup behind DIII star Blake Schultz. Hardy had great court vision and a predilection for putting teammates in the right place.
“He was really invaluable because you could put Will at any position and he would do well,” Maker said. “He could handle the ball, he could pass the ball, he had a basketball IQ, made his teammates better. Foot speed was another thing — he didn’t have a lot of that.”
Meanwhile, Hardy also threw himself into the rigorous academic program at Williams, which Maker likened to the Duke or Stanford of Division III, a place filled with high-achieving young people from all over the world.
Even among that group, apparently everyone who crossed Hardy’s path invariably came to the same conclusion:
“You just knew,” Brown said, “he was going to be a raging success at whatever he did.”
The only problem? Hardy had no idea what he was going to do once his college playing days were over.
The right arm of the GOAT
Before graduating from Williams with a degree in English in the spring of 2010, Hardy was applying for all sorts of jobs — working in the finance sector, writing press releases for politicians.
None of them were particularly appealing to him. And the people around him were increasingly alarmed that the presumed “raging success” was on the verge of settling for something so … banal.
“Most people [in our group], myself included, majored in economics, interviewed and tried to get some sort of investment banking job, or consulting, in Boston or New York or D.C., and that was the path,” Geoghegan said. “Will was never interested in that. Not once. … The joke was, ‘He doesn’t have a plan for when he graduates.’”
And so the fates intervened.
Curt Tong was a former Williams coach who’d hung around the program and had become a sounding board for Maker and a mentor and friend to some of the players, particularly Hardy.
He also, it turned out, had once upon a time been the athletic director of the combined programs for Pomona-Pitzer Colleges in California, where a certain Gregg Popovich had gotten his start as a DIII coach way back when. Tong and Popovich had remained close over the years. And just at the perfect moment, the famed NBA coach had a request of his former boss.
“Coach Tong comes in my office and he says, ‘I talked to coach Pop last night. He wants one of your guys to take a job in the film room, or be a gofer or whatever,’” Maker recalled. “‘How many seniors you got?’”
He told Tong he had seven, all of whom would want the gig. Not wanting it on his conscience that he might favor one over the others by hand-picking him for a job with an NBA team, Maker asked Tong to call Popovich back and ask what qualities he was looking for, so they could together choose who best met the criteria.
“Pop wanted a role player that was all about the team first, that had a great work ethic, that no task was beneath him — like picking somebody up at the airport, some two-way guy from the G League,” Maker said. “… Coach Pop had a long list of things — and William checked every box.”
And so Hardy went off to San Antonio, to live under the same roof as all of the team’s other interns.
Because he was a 6-6 now-ex-player, the Spurs coaches frequently asked him to come onto the court and shag rebounds, or to shadow players during skills drills. Famed Spurs development coach Chip Engelland took a liking to him, on account of his intellect and demeanor. Within a year, he was working a more prestigious gig within the team’s film room, and excelling at it.
Two years later, when video coordinator Bret Brielmaier left to take an assistant coach’s job with the Cavaliers, Hardy was promoted to the position. If “video coordinator” sounds like a nondescript job, well, the title belies the person’s importance within the Spurs organization. Some people associated with the franchise have equated the team’s video coordinator — a position once held by the likes of Mike Budenholzer and James Borrego — with being Popovich’s right arm.
“When you lead the video room in San Antonio, one of the great things is that you spend a lot of time 1-on-1 watching film with Coach Pop,” said Ettore Messina, the legendary Italian coach who spent five seasons as an assistant coach with the Spurs. “You help him to review the games, you help to select which clips to show the team, so you have the opportunity to learn a lot individually.”
It’s a crash course in professional basketball.
Hardy continued to distinguish himself by being straightforward and communicative, for showing poise and attention to detail and being well-prepared.
And for just being generally excellent at doing what was asked of him.
Geoghegan theorized that Hardy “heard that chatter” from his college friends about his lack of direction, about his “compartmentalizing” (taking basketball very seriously during basketball season, but then leaving it completely behind otherwise), and reacted by becoming laser-focused upon a job he enjoyed and was good at and eschewing many of the fun things that 20-somethings typically do. He noted that Hardy even angered some in the old group by frequently declining weekend excursion invitations.
“He flipped a switch,” Geoghegan said. “He had his dumb college kid moments like anybody else, but he flipped a switch and changed his life.”
As a result, he went from gofer to video room employee to video coordinator to assistant coach to front-row assistant. That, in turn, presented another unique opportunity.
In 2015, Popovich was named the new head coach for Team USA for 2017-20, succeeding Mike Krzyzewski. That would give him a chance to head up teams for both the 2019 World Championships in China, and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic).
He put together a staff of luminaries that included Kerr, then-Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, and then-Villanova University coach Jay Wright, among others. He also included a couple of coaches he had personal connections to: Ime Udoka and Will Hardy.
And once again, Hardy quickly showed he belonged.
Yes, he filled a role as Pop’s de facto video guy. But he also got the opportunity to contribute his own ideas in other areas.
He may have been a Popovich acolyte for more than a decade, but he has enough self-assuredness that “he will not try to imitate anyone, he will be himself,” Messina said.
Hardy’s more famous fellow Team USA assistant (and now Team USA head coach) saw that play out in Japan.
“We sat in the Tokyo Hilton for 19 straight days, without the opportunity to leave, because of the pandemic. We just sat in that coaching room, and it was a pretty amazing experience for all of us,” said Kerr. “Just a ton of basketball experience between Pop, Jay Wright, Ime and Will, [USA Basketball men’s national team director] Sean Ford, Lloyd Pierce. … And so I got a chance to see firsthand how Will operates behind the scenes. And he’s got great knowledge of the game, great ideas. The basketball acumen shined through every day.”
The X’s and O’s knowledge, good as it is, apparently is the lesser part of the deal with Hardy, though.
‘Super-high emotional intelligence’
The Utah Jazz were reeling from chemistry problems at the end of last season, in spite of (or perhaps because of) maintaining the same core for multiple years. Their recent offseason maneuvers, meanwhile, are sure to bring about further discombobulation.
How fortuitous, then, that Hardy is described as being uniquely equipped to bring a team together under either such circumstance.
“Will’s a guy with super-high emotional intelligence,” said Kearney. “He’s got the ability to engage with lots of different types of people, and it’s a real skill that he has.”
“The cool thing with William is his personality — such an affable and likable human being. People gravitate to him,” added Brown. “He has had an ability and still has it: It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid in first grade or some 75-year-old season-ticket holder — he’s just got a unique ability to grab hold of you and make you feel important.”
Kerr noted that coaching against Udoka and Hardy in last month’s NBA Finals was “brutal,” because over the course of the three weeks they spent together in Tokyo, they’d become so close, building “a lifetime bond.” He added that “it takes pretty special people to build those kinds of relationships so quickly,” and suggested that’s precisely what Hardy will do with the Jazz.
“He has a really, really high EQ. He has a great feel for people,” Kerr explained. “… He’s got everything required to be a great coach — he’s smart and confident and humble and funny and an amazing communicator and collaborator. The guy is just really, really gifted.”
Hardy’s ability to draw people in, to relate to just about anyone, is evidently on account of his personality being as well-rounded as game.
He’s gregarious and outgoing, with a reputation for zinging beat reporters with faux-caustic remarks. He has a funny streak that sometimes unfolds in offbeat, zany ways, such as when Brown instructed his players just before “The Shot” to run decoy actions to gauge what the defense would do, only for Hardy to chime in, deadpan, that all five players should run around in circles at center court to cause confusion.
More often, his humor is manifested through droll sarcasm. He and Geoghegan are enthusiastic-if-poor golfers, and any particularly heinous shot from someone in their group is bound to be met with the straight-faced declaration, “That was a really great job,” delivered so dryly that the offender in question is often unsure if he’s being teased or not.
And yet, he’s also “not afraid to be vulnerable,” as Geoghegan puts it. Hardy’s first call, upon getting the Jazz job, was to his mom, Melinda (who insists that people call him “William” rather than “Will,” despite his personal preference). He’s allowed Brown and Maker to take on father-figure roles to him, particularly after his actual dad, William Sr., died in 2015 at age 57 due to the effects of ALS.
Hardy has been known to be a charmer — being put in charge of hosting recruits and their parents on visits to Williams because of his combination of quick wit and smarts, not to mention his ability to sweet-talk the adults with a conveniently-unleashed Southern drawl.
He’s known for his remarkable brain. Some claim he has a near-photographic memory, plucking from his stored recollections, upon request, the name of that tour guide in Germany from that one European trip. He also has a distinct intellectual curiosity, as exemplified by minoring in Africana Studies at Williams, simply because the subject intrigued him.
“He definitely zagged when we were zigging,” Geoghegan said with a laugh.
Hardy is said to be desirous of helping others to feel included and to be successful. When texting became popular in the late aughts, he was on his phone more than pretty much anyone. Some teammates on the Ephs (rhymes with “chiefs,” and nicknamed in honor of college founder Colonel Ephraim Williams) openly theorized about the women he was chatting with. In reality, he was messaging the team’s handful of underclassmen — either just checking in, or inviting them to a party or out to dinner so they didn’t feel alienated.
As an athlete, he loved setting up his teammates: As a soccer midfielder at St. Christopher’s, he delighted in placing the perfect through-ball to forward Max Hare, who scored enough goals to land a scholarship to play at Princeton; at Williams College, on that Italian trip, he helped bolster Geoghegan’s production and confidence by becoming his first rotation-mate to realize he couldn’t make the same passes to the ground-bound big man as the ones getting thrown to the ultra-athletic Troy Whittington.
He’s a bit idiosyncratic, whether it be playing those intramural softball games shoeless, just because he felt like it; or periodically reacting to a comment with uncomfortably long silence and a thousand-yard stare while processing every nuance before responding; or never finishing more than about 10% of his meal at a restaurant, because he’s either too intrigued listening to someone else’s story or too involved in telling one of his own, and he simply forgets about eating.
The most consistent quality that comes up in discussion about Hardy, though, is his unwavering loyalty to the meaningful people in his life.
Geoghegan, who now works in real estate development in Portland, Maine, got a call from Hardy literally days after the Celtics saw their championship dreams ended by Kerr’s Warriors in Game 6 in Boston, with an invite to attend the U.S. Open golf tournament in Brookline, Mass., together. “I got to see him a fair amount. We’ve stayed close.”
Kearney, now a partner in a venture capital firm in Cambridge, Mass., has two young boys growing up Celtics fans. Hardy “knew I was bringing the boys to a game, and he went out of his way to make my 4-year-old’s day by having us go down on the court and say hello. That was not something he needed to do. But my son Tommy was over the moon. He thought it was the coolest thing in the world. That’s who he is.”
Maker, now at Division III St. Thomas University in Minnesota, flew out to Boston ahead of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Celtics and Bucks. “I didn’t tell him I was coming [beforehand]. I said, ‘Hey, I just want a quick hug after the game.’ He said, ‘Are you kidding me? No way [that’s the extent of it].’ So we met the next morning — before I flew back to Minneapolis — for a cup of coffee, and we went to his office and spent two hours together. He makes the time — he’s a relationship guy.”
Brown, now the athletics/activities director at John Randolph Tucker High School in Henrico, Va., was just the “interim coach” during Hardy’s much-celebrated senior season at St. Christopher’s. “I heard this after the fact: Apparently, William, as a 17-year-old, went to the headmaster and went to bat for me. Unbeknownst to me — he didn’t tell me, didn’t ask me. But he took some time and went in and had a conversation with the headmaster, and I have no doubt in my mind that’s why I got that job.”
Brown’s son, not coincidentally, is named William. This past season, Brown let “Big William” know that he and “Little William” would be visiting Boston to attend the Celtics’ back-to-back matchups against the Warriors and Knicks on Dec. 17 and 18, and asked if he might have time for a quick hello. “I know he’s super-busy, I didn’t expect to spend a weekend with him or anything. But he just makes you feel like you’re more important than he is. Friday, we get out to the arena and he spent time with us, he gets a jersey for William and takes it back to Jayson Tatum to have him sign it. On Saturday, he takes us to a really nice restaurant and he picks up the bill. He spends tons of time with us all afternoon, then invites us back to his place with his wife after the game.”
A couple years before, when Chris and William Brown went to a Spurs-Wizards game in San Antonio, “He gets us tickets, he gets my son down on the floor, gets an assistant to bring us a bag full of Spurs gear, we go down to the locker room to hang out with Pop. My son gets to hang out with Coach Popovich! I told him, ‘This isn’t real life, buddy. Don’t get used to this.’”
And whenever Hardy returns home to Virginia to visit his family, he makes sure to pop over to Brown’s house, to sit down for a dinner, catch up, then to take Little William “out in the cul-de-sac and shoot hoops, like he’s just some guy from down the street, not like he’s the head coach of the Jazz. … The headlights were on ‘cause it was getting dark outside, but they were just out there shooting hoops in the cul-de-sac, doing their thing.”
Whether any of those personality traits wind up making Hardy a success with the Jazz remains to be seen, of course.
They certainly can’t hurt.
“You’ve got to make sure that you’re engaged on all levels, and in every direction. And it’s not easy, because you’ve got a thousand different opinions [coming at you]. Everybody thinks they have the answer, and what you realize quickly as a coach is no one has the answer. There is no answer,” said Kerr. “It’s more art than science. Coaching a team is simply a combination of collaborating with a group and communicating with everyone, empowering people, and then ultimately making decisions. … What I love about Will is his genuine joy for what he does. There’s a great balance of discipline and intelligence and humor and joy.”
Of course, being the type of person that other people simply can’t resist listening to — on the softball field, in the dorms, in the video room, and especially on the court — doesn’t hurt, either.
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