KANSAS CITY -- Georges Niang cuts me off. He can’t bear what I’m getting at, and I’ve only said the first two letters. N, B ...
“Don’t break my heart,” the Iowa State junior forward says, hunching over, laughing.
I’m not asking about his prospects as a pro, which are solid. (Draft Express ranks Niang as its No. 17 junior this season.) No, I’m asking about his coach, Fred Hoiberg, the man who jumped off the NBA front-office fast-track in 2010 to return to coach his alma mater. To some, the move was baffling. Hoiberg was the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves and had spent three years as an assistant general manager. At just 37 years old, he already looked like a sure-fire future GM. And then he gave it all up to return to Ames, Iowa, population 62,000.
Since then, Hoiberg’s teams have gone 16-16, 23-11, 23-12 and 28-8, making the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons. (Before Hoiberg’s arrival, the Cyclones hadn’t played in the tournament since 2005.) The first-time head coach has brought about the change Iowa State’s athletic department dreamed of – and faster than expected – silencing the most prominent fear the school had when it hired the biggest star in its history as the coach: that Hoiberg might fail, and that it might have to fire the man known as “the Mayor” around Ames. That would be, well, a little messy.
But despite the success, there's one thing around the Cyclones basketball facility that isn't spoken on, something reminds players and staff that Hoiberg could leave, might leave, even if he has no intention to do so now.
“That’s like the forbidden language in our practice facility,” Niang says. “You don’t say it. You don’t joke about it.”
Nearly every time an NBA job comes open -- and sometimes when a job is still filled -- Hoiberg’s name comes up. The buzz began in earnest after the 2012-13 season, when the Cyclones made it to the NCAA's third round for the second straight year, and continued when they won the Big 12 tournament championship last year and advanced to the Sweet 16. Hoiberg tries to keep the rumor mill to a murmur, but no matter what he says, it just keeps churning.
“I’ll say this,” Hoiberg told me at Big 12 media day in Kansas City on Oct. 15, “I have a very unique situation in Ames. I’m able to coach in front of my parents, my in-laws. My kids can play golf with their grandparents every day in the summers. You can’t put a price tag on that stuff. You know, it’s flattering, I guess. It’s something to hear your name associated with that, but what we’ve got going in Ames is very special. It’s always going to be the number-one place in the world to me.”
From anyone else, that kind of talk would sound canned, orchestrated. From Hoiberg, it sounds genuine. I spent two days in Ames a year and a half ago for a story about the coach, and I came away from the place thinking he’d never leave. I might be wrong someday, but for the near future, Hoiberg has few reasons to bolt. His teams have become tournament regulars, he’s getting paid $2.6 million per year and all that stuff about his family and his roots is actually true. That’s not to say that in, oh, 10 years, when his children are off to college and a crazy-good NBA offer comes in, he won’t leave, but for now, Hoiberg seems ensconced in Ames.
And so maybe it’s easy for the coach to ignore the rumors, to feel some distant sense of flattery and little else. He’s the only one who knows for sure what he’ll do, how he’ll react, and for all the faith and trust his players have in him, they’d still rather hear the letters “NBA” only as they’re related to their own prospects.
It’s for that reason that Hoiberg has never addressed a single one of the rumors with his players, even though he knows they see them. They trust him, and he’s given them no reason to think he’d leave.
“It’s sort of a serious topic, you know, and I feel like he’s so laid back, he doesn’t want to bring any of that distraction into the facility,” Niang says. “That’s something we just all commonly know could happen, but we just keep it to ourselves, because honestly that’s none of our business.”
Iowa State's business this season is getting back to the NCAA tournament. The Cyclones were picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 preseason poll, behind Kansas, Oklahoma and Baylor, and after losing Melvin Ejim (the Big 12 Player of the Year last year) and DeAndre Kane, there will be some rebuilding to do in Ames. Even so, with Niang, Dustin Hogue and transfers Jameel McKay and Abel Nader in the frontcourt and another transfer, shooting guard Bryce Dejean-Jones set to make a potentially massive impact, the Cyclones should be able to get right back to where they were a year ago. Last season, they were a No. 3 seed but lost Niang to a broken foot suffered during their NCAA tournament opener, and though they still beat North Carolina to advance to the Sweet 16, they lost by five points to eventual champion UConn with Niang watching from the bench.
“I think one thing that it’s created is a hunger in our guys to get back to that point, especially the returning players,” Hoiberg says. “Also, the guys that sat out that were a part of it behind the scenes. Those guys want to get to that point where we can cut down the nets in Kansas City and compete for a national championship.”
Hoiberg looks up. Those very nets would be just a few feet from where he’s sitting now at the Sprint Center, home of the Big 12 tournament. It is weeks before his season starts, and it’s impossible to think that he’s focused on anything but that moment, the cutting, the celebrating, repeating it over and over as Iowa State’s head coach.