He is a 6-foot-11 shooter with the genes of an NBA father. How could Austin Daye not grow up to be a first-round pick?
"I knew he wanted to be a basketball player, and I tried to put him in the best position to succeed,'' said Darren Daye, a former UCLA swingman who played five NBA seasons and a decade professionally in Europe. "As he got older in junior high, I told him many times, 'You're not going to be an NBA player.' The reason why I told him that was I wanted to make sure he would do well in school, and also because I understand the astronomical odds to be an NBA player.
"Many people are under the impression it should be an easy thing to do because your father was a pro athlete and you were spawned along the same lines. But many pro athletes had kids who were not as good, or who were able to just get a college scholarship. The odds are so long, and there is more to life than basketball.''
Austin Daye will help lead No. 4 seed Gonzaga into the NCAA tournament in a first-round game Thursday against No. 13 Akron. He is a highly skilled sophomore who leads his team in rebounds (6.9) and blocks (2.0) and is third in scoring (12.9 points). He's a likely first-round pick who could rise into the lottery with either a strong tournament this month and a hot run of NBA workouts in May and June or a dominant junior season should he return to Gonzaga next year.
But his NBA potential was never viewed as a sure thing, especially in his own household, where photos of Darren's playing career are exceedingly hard to find. Fans who speak of Austin following in his father's NBA footsteps fail to notice that the son's strides are so much longer than the father's. At 6-8 and 220 pounds when he played, Darren bore little resemblance to the skinny, 200-pound sophomore who broke out for a season-high 28 points in the recent West Coast Conference tournament semifinals against Santa Clara.
"He's a completely different player,'' Darren said. "He's more of a perimeter big man, and I was a penetrating small guy. I still relate him to more of a Larry Bird type of player, who was a guy I played with -- a really good shooter, tall. Austin doesn't have the guard-like quickness but he has that big-man-type quickness. So I tried to teach him to be more of a Larry Bird type than to be a player like myself.''
As a 5-year-old Austin would watch his father play in the Italian league. Darren arrived as Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant was concluding his career in Italy, where he and his wife raised their daughters and prodigious son, Kobe.
"When he was 4 and 5, he always wanted me to lift him up so he could dunk on the little tyke basket,'' Darren said. "He always wanted to play.''
When Darren retired in 1997, he started a new career as a financial adviser in Southern California, near his family home in Irvine.
"After work we would go out in the yard and shoot and play one-on-one,'' Darren said. "He didn't realize until he was 13 that I was the better player. I would always let him win.''
The Great Santini he wasn't.
"When they're young -- 6 or 7 -- you want to encourage them,'' Daye said. "Like you see in the commercial where you have a kid playing on the little hoop and the dad spikes the ball on him and talks trash -- that's not going to work. You want him to enjoy playing.''
So many of Darren's memories belie the stereotype of the retired athlete who dominates his son by teaching him the hard way. Not that there wasn't a time and place for street ball with his son.
"I couldn't wait until I was really able to play hard against him,'' Daye said. "When he entered high school, that's when I would try to give it to him. I would try to make him mentally tough by talking trash to him. He was old enough, and I wanted him to be mentally tough. I couldn't wait until the day he was giving it back to me.''
That window stayed open briefly. Austin has told the story that he was on the verge of beating his father for the first time when Darren suddenly pulled up lame, and they never played again.
"I was saying, 'I'm hurt,' " Darren recalled. "He didn't understand that I really am hurt! In your mid-to-late 40s, it hurts to play basketball.
"It's always tough because you have to have that middle ground between being the good guy, and at the same time you have to be the bad guy. By the end of his junior year he was giving it back to me. He was thinking I would be angry about it, but the truth was I was very happy at that point.''
How did he coach his taller son to a style that his father could never play? Daye concentrated on teaching him the footwork. They would watch games together -- they still do -- and he would point out the subtle fakes that prepare the defender to buy the fake that ultimately springs the open shot. Darren would work with him for a short time and then send Austin to play against others his age.
"We would spend a couple of hours a week,'' Daye said. "Like I told him, 'I'm going to tell you what you need to do to be good.' But then he has to be playing with other players and work on his game to incorporate what I'm telling him.''
On his school and AAU teams, Austin developed his skills on the perimeter. As a 6-1 freshman he played for the junior varsity at Irvine's Woodbridge High. By his senior year he had grown nine inches to average 30.9 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.4 blocks. One service rated him among the top 40 recruits in the nation before he chose Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash.
"There were a lot of things about Gonzaga that I liked, but it was tough to send him up there,'' said Darren, whose daughter, Alyssa, will be leaving home to attend Arizona State next year. "Losing your best friend is always really tough.''
After averaging 10.5 points in 18.5 minutes as a freshman, Austin's efficiency declined this season following an offseason knee injury that prevented him from training over the summer.
"It was really unfortunate. I wasn't able to work with him last summer,'' said Darren, who missed a chance to shoot with his son. "He has that high [shot] release, and it reminds me of the way Dirk Nowitzki and Stephen Jackson hold the ball up high and use it as a shot-fake to get guys off balance. That's something Austin will be able to incorporate.''
Austin won't be the only NBA prospect drawing on fatherly experience this spring. Duke junior swingman Gerald Henderson Jr. (son of the former Celtics guard) and Davidson junior guard Stephen Curry (son of NBA shooter Dell Curry) must also decide whether to go pro early.
"That's going to be very interesting,'' Darren said. "The most important thing is seeing how this year finishes out, and then we'll get together and talk with some people.''
In the meantime, Darren plans to be in Portland on Thursday to watch his son play in the tournament.
"I wouldn't call it fun and exciting,'' the father said. "I would call it excruciating.''