WOODLAND HILLS Jason Hart spent nine years playing in NBA arenas, flying on chartered planes and enjoying the perks of athletic celebrity. Today, he works in a high school gym that could use a serious makeover.
The basketball floor at Taft High School is scuffed, scratched and unpolished. The wooden stands need replacing. The building, which has the airplane-hangar look of an antiquated gym from the 1950s, could use a fresh coat of paint.
But Hart is happy. This is where he wants to be, where the next chapter in his life is about to unfold far away from NBA lockouts and contentious negotiations.
Hart, who played at Westchester and Inglewood high schools and starred at Syracuse, is the first-year basketball coach at Taft. He's working for a modest stipend and won't get paid until the season is over, but he needs to do this if he wants to achieve his ultimate dream of becoming a college coach.
"This is just another part of my story, my journey," he said. "A lot of people say, 'You played in the NBA and now you're here?' But now I get a chance to impact lives. That's not being selfish. Selfish is me playing golf every day and not caring how the world turns out."
Hart cares, and isn't that a nice change for an ex-player who made several million as an NBA player but wants to give something back?
The glamour of a pro career is behind him. Hart played for nine teams, including the Los Angeles Clippers, and spent time in the NBA Development League. He even played in Greece. But during all that time, he thought about one day making the transition to coach.
And now here he is, taking over the team that last year won the LA City title and has a good chance to repeat.
"A lot of my friends who played 10, 12 years in the NBA didn't want to coach," he said. "But while I was playing, I saw that I had a passion for the game. I started feeling like I wanted to be coach but in college, not the NBA. In the NBA, they're grown men with kids and marital problems; they're married or not married. So the discipline level is harder for someone like a Phil Jackson to try and keep Kobe (Bryant) under control, or a Ron Artest, who's different, as opposed to high school and college, where they have to listen to get there."
Hart, 33, understands the hard work that's needed to succeed. He was a four-year starter at Syracuse (he still owns the school record for career steals), was drafted in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2000 and made a nice career for himself as a point guard. He wasn't a star, but he was always a strong contributor off the bench.
He was the definition of the well-traveled ballplayer, having played in Milwaukee, San Antonio, Charlotte, Sacramento, LA, Utah, Denver, Minnesota and New Orleans, usually only one season at a time. He could have gone overseas last year, but with a wife and two small children, he was figured it was time to move on.
Every stop, he said, was a good one, no matter how brief.
"To me, every year was the best time because it was another year that somebody appreciated what I brought," he said. "It wasn't my mom calling and saying, 'Could you please let my son be on the team?' It was that I earned the right to be on that team.
"People say, 'You played for eight or nine teams.' Yeah, it was eight or nine teams that liked my work. It wasn't for a long period of time, but it was a relationship I created, something I earned, and it was something nobody could take from me."
That's the ethic Hart intends to teach his young players that with hard work, you can get to where you want to go.
"Not many people thought he could make the NBA, ever," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He just kept working, worked his way in, went overseas, came back, got a job, hung in there and contributed to different teams in the NBA. He worked at it and kept trying. That's what he is a worker, very persistent and consistent in what he does. He should be the kind of guy that makes a great coach."
It's a challenge, Hart said. He coached two years of AAU ball at the 17-and-under level, but at Taft, he must make sure his players are performing well enough academically to stay eligible. It's not always easy.
Like him, they have dreams of playing in college, but most don't realize it takes good grades to get in school and stay in school.
"The problem with coaching at the high school level is that sometimes the kids don't take the education part seriously," he said. "A lot of these kids say they want to go to North Carolina or Syracuse or Duke. Well, you have to have the grades. There's no way you can make it to the NBA if you don't have the grades because you have to go college. So the challenge here is the kids having to tap in and realizing they have to take care of their books. A lot of times the best kids aren't in college. They're at home because of their grades."
Hart didn't have that concern. He graduated from Syracuse with a major in sociology and a minor in African-American studies. He understood the value of an education and that good grades would be a springboard to a successful career.
As a coach, he said he learned something from all of the men he played under. But his role model was his father, Richard Hart.
"He was a janitor for 35 years for the city of Carson," Hart said. "Recently retired. He worked two jobs. Nobody ever gave him nothing. I didn't grow up poor. I grew up where money was tight, but in my household there was nothing we wanted for.
"I watched him raise three kids along with my mom. They got a divorce but stayed as a team to raise three young boys. I didn't have to look far for a role model. He was right in the next room."
Hart said he reads about the NBA lockout with interest and talks to friends still in the league about the issues that divide players and owners. But you can see he feels distant from everything that's happening. The players' concerns are no longer his concerns.
"I don't think the season is going to be lost," he said. "I think it's going to be shortened. I don't think it will start until after the new year, but if (the lockout) goes any longer than that, the season will be lost."
At the moment, Hart has more pressing things on his mind than the labor dispute. He's getting his players ready for the new season and learning the ropes of being a coach. If all goes well, it will lead to something bigger a college coaching job.
"I never wanted to coach high school basketball, but you can't turn down an opportunity like this because it's a powerhouse and you're dealing with top talent," he said. "How long will I be here? I don't know, but the goal is to get to a college as soon as possible. So you've got to dig down and work hard right now, enjoy this process and when that time comes, hopefully I'll be ready."