Five years after USF, Stan Heath finding peace in the pros

The former Bulls coach is in his second season as coach of the Orlando Magic's NBA G League affiliate in Lakeland.
Stan Heath, in his second year as coach of the Lakeland Magic of the NBA G League, compiled a 97-130 record in seven seasons at USF. (JOEY KNIGHT | Times)
Stan Heath, in his second year as coach of the Lakeland Magic of the NBA G League, compiled a 97-130 record in seven seasons at USF. (JOEY KNIGHT | Times)
Published Dec. 26, 2018

LAKELAND — The brief, efficient walk-through inside the RP Funding Center has concluded. As a few players jack up extra shots, Stan Heath plops himself into a courtside seat and ponders his itinerary for this overcast afternoon.

Hoops…or hoops. No recruiting calls, no grade checks, no boosters to schmooze, no funds to raise.

"It's just basketball," the Lakeland Magic second-year coach said.

At this level of the pros, the cons are minimal, especially for a basketball junkie such as Heath. Nearly a half-decade after his dismissal as USF coach, the 54-year-old grandfather again is running a team, this time without running ragged.

Here in the NBA G League, the hoops version of Triple-A baseball, the dollars are fewer, but so are the distractions.

"If they get in trouble, (Lakeland GM) Anthony Parker and the agents deal with that," Heath said. "I don't deal with none of that."

As an example, Heath recalls a Magic player who made an hour-long, one-way commute each day from Orlando, at the expense of punctuality.

"He would be late, and this is early in the season," Heath said. "You know how I was (in college), so I'm like, 'Hey man, why are you late?!' He's like, 'Coach, coach, just fine me.' … And after that, I never get mad. Just fine 'em. Let's go to work."

Heath chuckles at the anecdote, and generally betrays contentment during a half-hour conversation inside his home arena.

Perhaps this apparent serenity stems from the four consecutive wins his team recently reeled off (Lakeland currently is 10-7), or the astounding offensive balance of his club (despite roster fluctuation indigenous to this level).

Maybe it's the favorable logistics of this gig, a 35-minute drive from his Harbour Island home. Or the subject of 2-year-old granddaughter Zola.

"She's got my heart," he said.

"I think a lot of things have helped him get to that point (of contentment), but definitely this job," said Zola's dad Jordan, oldest of Stan and Ramona Heath's two boys.

"He's able to relax, he's able to enjoy basketball again. There's no more politics. … Even at the end of the day, he can go home and he knows these are grown men he's coaching, so he doesn't have to worry about what they're doing in the dorm."

The Lakeland opportunity arose nearly by accident.

About a year after being fired at USF following a 20-loss season in 2014, Heath was hired by Boston College coach Jim Christian, himself a Heath assistant on the 2002 Kent State team that reached the Elite Eight.

RELATED: USF fires basketball coach Stan Heath

He was wrapping up his second season at BC when the Orlando Magic hired John Hammond as GM in May 2017. Hammond had been the Pistons' vice-president of basketball operations while Heath was recruiting Jordan Dumars — son of Pistons backcourt icon Joe Dumars — to USF.

"So I just reached out like, 'Hey man, congrats. Welcome to Florida, you'll love Florida. Hell, I miss it myself,'" Heath recalled.

"So he calls me back like a week later and says, 'Hey, you got any interest in the pros?' I was like, 'Who doesn't? Everybody has an interest in the pros.'"

At that time, the Magic's minor league organization was relocating from Erie, Pa., to Lakeland. Ramona still was living in Tampa. So was Jordan, who now works on a sprawling organic farm. The couple's younger son, Josh, had just completed his final season at Georgia Tech.

"So if it was in Erie I would never do it. But in Lakeland, I get to be home with my family," Heath said. "It was like, 'Oh wow, you know what? That makes sense.' It's a 35-minute drive (from home) and I get to do pro stuff and I'm a head coach again, and you never know where this thing can take you."

In true farm-system form, his team naturally replicates the offensive and defensive sets of the Magic. Two of the walk-through participants, former Cincinnati guard Troy Caupain and former Duke low-post star Amile Jefferson, are on "two-way" contracts, meaning they can spend up to 45 days this season with the NBA Magic.

Aside from the occasional tardy player, discipline is rarely an issue. Because the G League is directly affiliated with the NBA, the sense of accountability is heightened and the culture is generally better. What's more, prospective employers (scouts from Orlando or elsewhere) observe every game.

"Our defensive calls, our coverages, everything is the same (as Orlando's)," said Heath, whose inaugural Lakeland team finished 28-22.

"The offense is pretty much the same except (Orlando's) best player is (Nikola) Vucevic (a 7-footer), so they're gonna play more inside to Vucevic. Well my best player is not Vucevic, so I've got to have more stuff to get (other guys) some shots."

When Lakeland's season concludes in late March, Heath will join the Orlando Magic, sitting behind the bench during games, putting players through workouts and even offering his two cents on roster decisions.

"Everybody that's been around (Heath) like his approach, and he's had success," said Parker, who played nine seasons in the NBA and six overseas. "I think for him, this was just a new challenge. He's done the college thing, this is an opportunity to grow and kinda do something a little different than what he's done so far."

If any drawback exists, it's the money.

Heath, who signed a six-year, $6.93 million deal with USF months after leading the Bulls to the 2012 NCAA Tournament, says he doesn't earn as much as he did as a college head coach.

But the pay would become quite comparable were he to land a job on an NBA bench.

"I never did this (for money)," Heath said. "Obviously you want to get paid a good amount, but…heck, my first job I was making like 300 dollars a month. I've always realized it's gonna be like this in coaching. You're gonna get fired, you're gonna make more money, less money."

At this stage of his life, after 30 years of ebbs and flows, compensation's still nice to acquire if one can get it.

But so is contentment.

"At the end of the day, he loves basketball," Jordan Heath said. "He loves to coach, and he's happy that he's been able to find a way to stay in it."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.