The kid's name is Scott Hazelton.
He was a former Massachusetts high school Player of the Year and McDonald's All-American. The 6-foot-8 junior left UConn after two years on the bench for more playing time and the chance to become the Big Man on Campus at Rhode Island. In fact, he wasn't even the biggest man in the gym when he arrived in 2003.
That would be Jim Baron.
Thirty years earlier, as a teenager in the seven-story Cooper Park housing project in Brooklyn, Baron knew dozens of Scott Hazeltons. They were talented players who thought they knew everything but didn't have a clue, kids who took life's path of least resistance. Some landed in jail. Some headed for Vietnam.
Many, if not most, are dead.
Baron was the coach and Hazelton the player. By definition, it left the mustached taskmaster with more ammunition in his power struggle with the college kid. Baron had this crazy belief that his players were required to attend class. Hazelton, his best player, had this crazy belief that the rule applied to everyone else.
“When he finally figured out I wasn't going to class, he kicked me off the team,” Hazelton said by telephone earlier this week. “He told me I wasn't allowed to be around the gym. He didn't want me anywhere near the team. As a matter of fact, if I had flunked any classes, I would have been out of school. So he followed me to every class for an entire semester until I smartened up.”
Welcome to the Jim Baron School of Life, where he's the unquestioned Dean of Discipline. He has one rule: Follow the rules. It is non-negotiable, a mantra his players have heard with exhausting regularity for a quarter century. You stray, you pay. It was a simple lesson that Hazelton insisted on learning the hard way.
But he learned.
Last spring, Hazelton and Baron crossed paths during a tournament for Division I prospects in Rhode Island. He had played a few seasons in Europe before settling into a comfortable life with his wife and son in Massachusetts. These days, he's coaching an AAU team and teaching social studies at a school for disadvantaged kids.
Hazelton eventually realized Baron's my-way-or-the-highway act wasn't a power play but the approach of a man who knew the path to success. Basketball was merely his vehicle, his teaching tool. Hazelton extended his hand to the man who pushed him and punished him and held him to a higher standard.
And thanked his chief tormentor for saving him.
Jim Baron, the tough guy from Brooklyn, the relentless coach who intimidated his players with his deep voice and unbreakable spirit, the man who boldly and coldly left his beloved St. Bonaventure one year after taking his alma mater to the NCAA Tournament, was overwhelmed.
“I walked away and cried,” Baron said. “It was as powerful as any experience I had ever gone through.”
Jim Baron's voice was cracking.
Billy Baron understood why. There was more to his father than the tough exterior people see and booming voice they hear when he's storming the sideline and barking orders during a game. But there's also more to his coach than the X's and O's, W's and L's, that have come to define his career.
The Scott Hazelton story was all too familiar.
Billy Baron knew more than anybody that his father's old-school approach was the same for everybody, starting with his sons. His voice was the same in practice as it was at the dinner table. Things were done a certain way, the right way. At times, he could be overbearing. Billy learned to decode the garble and understand the message.
“He's pushing me every single day,” Billy said. “Sometimes, you don't want to hear that voice nagging you, whether it's the facial hair I have or the play we're running. He's always nagging. But I know, when it comes down to crunch time, he's going to give me that freedom. And that's what you need as a point guard.
“Let me tell you something: He always sounds like a coach no matter what time of the day, no matter what month it is, offseason, during the season, it doesn't matter. Whenever he's talking, I understand where he's coming from. He's very consistent with his approach. I don't know one person who is more consistent with his mind-set.”
It's why Billy Baron still gets choked up while trying to make sense of how it fell apart at Rhode Island. It has only been 10 months since his father was sent packing. The wounds are still open. The spring semester is mostly a blur for the guard, now a junior. Looking back, the final days at Rhode Island were tougher on him than anyone else.
Jim Baron, 58, had coached long enough to know the drill. Rhode Island finished with a 7-23 record in 2000-01, which is why it hired him in the first place. The Rams won 19 games in his second season, 20 in his third. They won 20 games or more four straight years before falling back to 7-24 last season.
Their record last season wasn't good enough by any standard and certainly not good enough by any standard of Baron's. He had turned around woebegone programs, but this time it turned on him. With two years remaining on his contract, which would have carried Billy through graduation, he was dismissed for the first time in his career.
Coaches get fired every year, a fact that's usually documented in fine print on the back pages of the sports section or a blip on the TV crawler. They are transactions easily dismissed and quickly forgotten. Baron packed up his belongings last March. Dan Hurley was hired to replace him.
For Billy, it wasn't that simple.
It was his father.
He sat in the first row while Rhode Island introduced Hurley, himself the son of a coach. Bob Hurley Sr. churned out dozens of Division I players at St. Anthony in New Jersey, including his two sons, with the same approach Jim Baron had. Older son Bobby won two NCAA championships with Duke and Christian Laettner.
“We had a three-hour conversation. It was right after he was introduced,'' Billy said. “He said, 'Come to the office.' It was my dad's office, which I helped clean out. I was sitting there with him in that new office. It gets me emotional because it was a very, very tough time. I respected him. I wish him nothing but the best at Rhode Island.”
Billy Baron's voice was cracking.
Jim Baron understood why.
Billy is a sturdy and passionate player, but he doesn't come with the same hard-core approach possessed by his father. He has no plans to become a coach. There's a better chance he'll lean toward his mother, Cindy, a gifted painter. He was raised in a smaller family with a larger house with softer streets and fewer worries than his father had.
“It's a tremendous feeling to be with him and go through his ups and downs regardless of what it is,” Jim Baron said. “I'm an old-school guy. You do what you're supposed to do. A lot of those things were etched in stone. Look at the positive things. Sometimes, you have to teach them along the way.”
Billy, 22, was born in Altoona, Pa., an infant when his father took St. Francis from the depths of college basketball to 24 victories and the 1991 NCAA Tournament. He was raised on basketball in Olean after his father rescued Bona with four postseason tournament appearances in nine years. Really, though, Billy was a Rhode Island kid.
He led his Bishop Hendricken team to three state high school championships, and twice was honored as most valuable player. He played one season at Virginia but came home after his freshman year. He wanted to play for his father, the way older brother Jimmy did, and complete the mission of leading Rhode Island to the NCAAs.
It crumbled after one season.
The record was what it was. There's no disguising 7-24, but Billy, through osmosis if not repetition, understood there was more to coaching than one miserable season. His dad was a father to him, a father-figure to many more.
“That was overlooked,” Billy Baron said. “Rhode Island people never saw that. The way they handled it, the way he coached people in their lives, I think he got the raw end of the deal. I'm not just saying that because he's my father. He gets the most out of his guys. From Day One, he's going to be on you.”
Billy liked Hurley and could have stayed at Rhode Island, but both knew it had the potential to become too uncomfortable. He had an offer to play for Purdue, which he considered. Instead, he decided to follow his father. He liked the talent Canisius had and thought together they could win despite going 5-25 last season under Tom Parrotta.
In Buffalo, Baron's hiring was greeted mostly with indifference. The school was desperate for a coach. Baron needed a job. Billy Baron was coming, too. Big deal. Canisius would still be Canisius. The program was barely on the radar, and there were doubts they would be much better with a new coach.
Seven games into the season, the Griffs surpassed their win total from a year ago. They improved to 10-5 last weekend with a 73-64 victory over Marist. They're tied with Loyola, Niagara and Iona atop the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings going into their game Friday night against lowly Siena. Baron is seeking his 400th career victory.
He's still following kids to class, by the way, when he's not chasing them all over campus. He's peddling tickets and pleading with students to buy into the program. He wants their help on the road to recovery. Earlier this year, they had back-to-back sellouts for the first time in a decade.
Billy Baron, their best player, is one of the best in the conference. He's fifth in MAAC scoring at 17.5 points per game, first in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. He's playing the way his father taught him. He's tough and tireless and smart, a coach on the floor and translator for teammates who fail to comprehend his father's message.
He can also pass along some advice. Listen to the man. Follow the rules. Someday, it will all make sense.
Ask Scott Hazelton.
“I know Coach Baron as a guy with a huge heart,” Hazelton said. “I only played for him for two years, but what an impact he had on my life. If I never met Jim Baron, I wouldn't have been half the man I am now. Coach Baron was a guy who gave you tough love. But one thing that was evident was that he loves all of his players.”