Adam Cohen was a decent basketball player, a captain and first guard off the bench a decade ago at Williamsville North. He knew his limitations as an athlete. But he loved the game and he knew, deep in his soul, that coaching was meant to be his life’s work.
As is often the case, it was a teacher who inspired the kid to go after his dream. John Burns, a history teacher at North, told Cohen during his junior year that if he wanted it that badly, pursue it with everything you have.
“From there,” Cohen said, “I started writing letters to every college coach in the country, asking what to do and how to get into it.”
Cohen, now an assistant at Harvard, says he sent hand-written letters to hundreds of Division I coaches. Yes, hand-written. Some coaches responded through email. Many of the letters had a similar approach.
But the coaches knew he was serious.
One of the letters wound up with Josh Pastner, at the time a rising young assistant at Arizona. Cohen was sitting at home one night, watching a game on TV, when Pastner called him, starting a relationship that would change his life.
Pastner had been a wunderkind at Arizona, a freshman walk-on who played for the Wildcats’ 1997 NCAA title team and became a student-coach under Lute Olson when he was 22 years old. At 32, he became head coach at Memphis and has won 129 games there.
When he was 12, Pastner would call college coaches to talk hoops. At 15, he published a recruiting newsletter and mailed it to coaches around the country. He was coaching AAU ball at 16.
Pastner had to see a bit of himself in this eager kid from Buffalo. They kept in touch. After graduating from North, Cohen took a stab at playing college ball at Hobart. It didn’t work out.
After one semester, he transferred to UB and became a volunteer team manager. Cohen had written letters to then-UB coach Reggie Witherspoon and assistant Jim Kwitchoff, and had gotten to know the UB staff during summer camps.
Cohen spent the second semester of the 2004-05 season with the Bulls. He was there when they suffered a crushing loss to Ohio in the MAC championship game.
“That first taste of Division I basketball was incredible to me,” Cohen said. “I loved everything about the UB program. Those guys were so good to me. They’re lifelong friends.”
That’s why it was so hard for Cohen when he got the call from Pastner after the 2004-05 season. Arizona was offering him a scholarship and a position as student manager.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Cohen. A scholarship and manager’s job with an elite program under Olson, a legendary coach. But he felt a deep sense of loyalty to UB, which had given him a manager’s job. He told Kwitchoff he was torn.
“He felt guilty,” Kwitchoff recalled. “I said, ‘Adam, you should pack your bags immediately and head for the desert.’ ”
As it turned out, the decision was already made for him. Cohen’s father, Ken, had bought him an airplane ticket to Tucson.
“It was really hard for me, because it was home,” Cohen said. “I loved it at home. But obviously, it worked out great.”
Cohen’s career took off. He spent three years as Arizona’s student manager, helping Pastner and the coaches break down film, soaking in every bit of hoop knowledge he could. Olson retired after the second year, and Kevin O’Neill served a year as interim.
After graduating, Cohen spent a year as a grad assistant at New Orleans. Then he spent three years as director of basketball operations at Southern Cal under O’Neill, one of the sport’s top defensive minds.
Cohen left to become a full-fledged assistant at Rice under Ben Braun in the 2012-13 season. Then a job as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator under Tommy Amaker came open at Harvard.
“It was really hard to leave Rice,” Cohen said, “but the thing that sold me was Coach Amaker. I was absolutely energized by his vision.
He’s the total package as a college coach. He has it all – Xs and Os, recruiting, the way he communicates and motivates. The success he’s been having here was obviously intriguing.”
Amaker, who played and coached at Duke, has done wonders in his seven seasons at Harvard. The Crimson have won four straight Ivy League titles. Last March, they won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game, upsetting New Mexico as a 14th seed.
So when a job opened on Amaker’s staff, there was no lack of candidates. Who wouldn’t want to join a league champion whose coach has ties to Mike Krzyzewski?
“It was a coveted job,” Amaker said Friday from Boston. “We were bombarded. Coaching is a small world and positions are hard to come by. The success of our program increased the profile of this job. We got exactly what we were looking for: The best candidate, someone highly ethical, with great character and amazing work ethic.”
Kwitchoff had similar praise. He described Cohen as honest and hard-working, comfortable in his own skin, and above all, loyal. Cohen keeps in close contact with people from the Buffalo hoops community.
“Everyone knows everybody,” Cohen said. “I’m still close with all my friends from that North team. Three of them – Steve Joyce, Joe Lipsitz and Anthony Formato – were here in Boston a couple of weeks ago when we clinched a tie for the Ivy title.
“My cousin, Michael Berkun, is assistant coach at Medaille (under Mike MacDonald). He also played at North. We used to go to every camp growing up – Buff State, Daemen, UB, Canisius. We played together in the Macker. We did everything Buffalo kids do. We love the game.”
Anyone who loves basketball dreams of the NCAA Tournament. Next week, Cohen will be on the bench for Harvard in the Big Dance. It would be extra sweet if his first game in the NCAA’s came here in Buffalo.
He’s only 27, but Cohen has been working toward this moment for 10 years. When John Burns encouraged him to write those letters, he sent him toward his destiny.
“I love it,” Cohen said. “It’s my passion; it’s all I do. I knew what I anted to do the rest of my life, and I was going to do whatever it took to get there. In college, when other guys were at parties, I was in the office, watching film.
“Honest to God, there was no secret formula other than the fact that I had people take care of me and believe in me, and I tried to do my job as best I could.”