On the day he was announced as the new head basketball coach at Portland, Shantay Legans recalled with fondness a foundation he built in three seasons playing for Cal.
Legans, 39, arrived on campus in the fall of 1999, a point guard in a recruiting class that included Joe Shipp, Brian Wethers, Donte Smith and Nick Vander Laan.
He played his senior season at Fresno State, making the move to join his godfather, Ray Lopes, who had just been named coach. Before leaving, he helped the Bears earn a pair of NCAA tournament bids.
He did a lot of growing up in those three years, he said.
“I was in Berkeley at 17 years old. A lot of things coming from Santa Barbara or Goleta you did not see every day,” Legans said Tuesday during a Zoom teleconference announcing his hiring at Portland. “It was something I had to adjust to but it was something I fell in love with.
“Being in a community like that really made me stop and think how special I had it. How special it was to be in a place like that and see the diversity and see that people are striving together. So that was a big deal for me. Just knowing there are different places and different ideals that people have.”
Legans grew up with a single mom and older brothers who already were out of the house. So it meant a lot to him that his teammates included Wethers, Vander Laan and Solomon Hughes, with whom he played AAU ball in Southern California.
“Being able to feel what a family was like . . . it was amazing,” he said. “Being able to put that into my everyday life and knowing there’s going to be some struggles but there’s always some light at the end of the tunnel was huge for me. That helps me every day.
“That makes me feel anything’s possible if you put your mind to it and you work really hard. Those are some of the memories and moments I remember from my Berkeley days.”
Portland athletic director Scott Leykam, who hired Legans away from Eastern Washington, also has memories of Legans during his days playing for Cal. Leykam worked at Stanford during that time, including in the media relations office.
“Weird. An old Stanford guy hiring a Cal point guard. I don’t know if that’s blasphemous or how that works,” Leykam joked.
“Yeah, remember him well. I remember him as determined and hard-nosed and tough to guard. The guy was tough to get rid of. Was aggressive. A lot of that stuff I go back to,” Leykam said.
“He was a guy who was obviously under-sized in the Pac-10 at the time but was, `Why not?' Why can’t there be a 5-10 point guard, who’s giving Stanford — who was a a top-5, top-10 team at the time — fits at the time?”
“Why not?” was a theme with Legans in his meetings with Leykam and the Portland administration before being hired. Legans compiled a four-year record of 75-49 at Eastern Washington, directed the Eagles to just their third-ever NCAA tournament bid this season and forged a Big Sky record of 53-20 for a winning percentage of .726 that is second-best all-time in the conference among coaches with at least four seasons.
By contract, the Pilots have resided for years in the basement of the West Coast Conference, which not only features national No. 1-ranked Gonzaga but also Saint Mary’s and BYU, both fairly regular visitors to the NCAA tournament.
The Pilots, who were 1-42 in WCC play the past three seasons, have lost their past 29 games over six seasons against Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU.
This will be a tough job. Legans says some coaches he spoke with advised him against taking the assignment, but others believe it’s a place that can have success: Great city, excellent university, success in other sports on campus in a city that embraces hoops.
“Why can’t we beat these top schools?” Legans said. “What’s the difference between Portland, GU, Saint Mary’s, Pepperdine, BYU? There’s not a big difference?
“Obviously, Spokane and Gonzaga have been great. Why can’t we build a team, build a roster to be that good? That’s what you play for.
“I want to go and beat these teams. Is it going to be a tall task? I believe so. But I’m up for the challenge . . . I’m not tall, though.”
At 5-foot-10, he’s really no shorter than Gonzaga coach Mark Few, so on that front he’s pretty much even.
Now Legans and Portland begin the steep climb to get an eye-to-eye view with Gonzaga and the other top WCC teams in every other aspect.
Cover photo illustration courtesy of Portland Athletics
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo