By Jake Zimmer
SMITHFIELD, R.I. – “Are you afraid to shoot the ball, son?”
Naismith Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun has never been anything less than a straight shooter.
In his new endeavor as the head coach of University of Saint Joseph, a small Division 3 school in Connecticut with a 3-year-old program, Calhoun still tries to get on the road and see as many prospective new players as he can. He likes dropping in on Woodstock Academy, a preparatory school about an hour east of Hartford, to uncover some local talent that might fit in at Saint Joe’s – often times, with the ultimate goal of transferring to a university with a more prominent program.
Woodstock certainly had no shortage of Division 1 caliber players, and New York City kid Chris Childs was one of them. In a pickup game during his senior year at the prep school, a few local coaches attended to identify young talent for their upcoming recruiting classes. Jim Calhoun was among them.
As the pickup game went on, Calhoun noticed Chris Childs’ pure scoring ability, excellence from the mid-range, and presence on the court. He ran into Childs after the game was over, and told him to shoot more…to have more confidence.
“I had no idea who he was,” said Childs of the encounter. “I just thought, ‘who is this old guy asking me this?’ He stayed in contact with me and thought I would be a big part of the program there.”
And in the months following, Childs made his commitment to Saint Joseph.
Chris Childs, although born and raised in The Bronx, didn’t fit the mold of New York City smashmouth-style basketball.
“Growing up, I never was one of those kids that played AAU since first grade,” remarked Childs. “I would play at the YMCA, but basketball was never really my passion until I got a little older…maybe 7th or 8th grade. I never was a fan of NYC basketball – it didn’t fit my personality. That’s why I wanted to go to a prep school.”
Childs started his high school career at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA), a small preparatory school in the Springfield area of western Massachusetts. WMA, notorious for producing perennial Division 1 talent, had a packed roster of high schoolers with their eyes set on college basketball’s most elite programs. But according to Childs, he didn’t have the right opportunity to succeed there.
“My goal was always to play D1,” said Childs. “At Wilbraham & Monson, I was never going do that – I wouldn’t have gotten any offers. That’s why I transferred to Woodstock Academy…if I’m not pushing myself to do the best I can, I feel like I’m wasting my time.”
So, onto Woodstock Academy he went, where he was still not afforded the opportunity to land a Division I scholarship.
“We had a really good team at Woodstock – I didn’t play a lot, but it showed me a lot of things that I needed to work on,” said Childs. “I was hoping maybe I could try to work out for a D1 school, but it didn’t happen.”
Bryant head coach Jared Grasso, who had always considered himself a friend and mentor to Chris Childs, mentioned that it was a tough road for him to find his place before – and during – his college basketball journey.
“Woodstock Academy had a million guys on their team,” said Grasso. “Super talented roster, had an under-the-radar year with some of the guys they had, and surprisingly Chris didn’t get recruited (heavily) from there.” Woodstock Academy went 35-5 in Child’s 2017-18 senior season – UMass center Tre Mitchell was among the standouts for the Centaurs that year, averaging a double-double per game.
So away to Hartford went Chris Childs; he accepted one of his only offers to play college basketball, albeit a Division 3 program. Childs reminisced on many great experiences during his time at Saint Joseph; he mentioned being filmed by ESPN camera crews for “The Calhoun Project” documentary, and hearing Calhoun’s stories of his time coaching at UConn.
For one, Huskies fans will appreciate Calhoun’s story he told to Childs & the team of his encounter with a young Ray Allen, encouraging to put more pressure on opposing guards. “If you play more defense, Ray, I’ll get you some extra minutes.”
“He was laser-focused on things like rebounding and having a swagger on the court,” said Childs. “He told me to act like I’ve been there before. You see how much he loves the game.”
Although Childs wasn’t heavily recruited from Woodstock Academy, coaches (or, the smart ones, anyway) kept their tabs on him. Grasso, a good friend & former colleague of Albertus Magnus head coach Mitch Oliver, is a close follower of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC), the same conference that Saint Joseph competes in. Grasso was drawn in to Child’s “astronomical” shooting numbers. “It surprised me that he ended up at Saint Joe’s.”
But despite his offensive success for Saint Joseph, Childs still might not have been ready to make the leap right to the Division 1 level after his first season. He needed a bit more experience to take the plunge.
Enter head coach Hank Plona of Indian Hills Community College, a consistent national contender at the junior college (JUCO) level. Another good friend of Grasso and mastermind behind 4 consecutive ICCAC regular season championships, Plona says never loses track of a good shooter.
“Guys that can put the ball in the bucket are guys that you need to have on your roster,” Plona told College Hoops Digest last week. “In all honesty, I can find athletes until the sun goes down. Finding shooters is something we need to have, and need to look for.”
Despite its physical campus being in a small town in Iowa, Plona and his staff routinely uncover talent on the East Coast; Childs was no exception. “Last year in August, Chris decided to make a move (from D3 to JUCO),” said Plona. “Coaches knew he was a guy that was a fringe D1 player. From the moment he got (to Indian Hills CC), I knew he was potentially an A-10 level player, or even a BIG EAST player.”
When he began his sophomore year – and his first at the JUCO level – Chris Childs, once again, needed to find his place among a very deep roster. In the 2019-20 season, Indian Hills had one of the most talented JUCO squads in the nation. Most notably, Kansas commit Tyon Grant-Foster was an anchor of the Indian Hills offense last season – he scored more than 16 points per game and netted a game-high 35 points early on.
“Every year, there’s a few guys that (when they start practicing with us), we know they’re better than we anticipated,” said Plona. “We knew right away that Chris was one of those…he stood out.”
Childs says he got off to a slow start during the team’s initial workouts & preseason jamborees. He came off the bench in the first few games, but still bought into the mission on which Hank Plona recruited him. “From the start, Hank had faith in me that if I came to Indian Hills, and worked, and listened, I could be a big part of the team,” Childs remarked. “I remember I was trying to find my groove in the beginning of the year. I felt like I played pretty bad in the first few jamborees of the year, but I listened to what he told me. ‘Be the loudest guy in the gym, get more exercise in, and shoot.’”
Just four games into the season, Tyon Grant-Foster was sidelined indefinitely with an injury. With a sizeable hole in the Indian Hills backcourt, and a tough opponent in nationally-ranked Coffeyville Community College, Plona turned to Chris Childs.
“As our season starts, everyone tries to fit in and find their spot,” said Plona. “No one wants to be labeled selfish. As the head coach, you have to will them to score, because that’s your job. Without Grant-Foster, the offense was an issue. So, Chris Childs stepped up for us the entire game, and shot the ball.”
It took Childs a few games to get more comfortable with the system & his ability, he told College Hoops Digest. But the Coffeyville game, he says, did wonders for his confidence.
“With (Tyon) Grant-Foster out, there were more shots to go around,” he said. “I didn’t come in thinking I was going to score a lot.”
But Childs was wrong. He spent 37 of 40 possible minutes on the court, shot 50% from 3-point range, and scored 28 points. But the most rewarding aspect of the game, as both Plona and Childs will say, was the final shot of the game.
“The score was 68-68 with 5 seconds to go, and it was a ‘let’s see what you can do’ situation,” said Plona. “We ran a couple of high screens for him, and he hit the shot at the buzzer to win the game. It was a situation of ‘there’s ten Division 1 players on the floor at each time, I just hit the buzzer beater, I belong here.’ He was trying to fit in the first four games…it showed him that he belongs and that he had the game to be out here and compete with anyone in the country.”
Childs didn’t have a doubt on what to do. “Hank drew up the play for me so I would get the ball on a high-screen at the top of the key,” Childs reminisced. “He basically just said, ‘Come right off the screen, Chris. If you can drive & kick, or get to the rim, do it.’”
He told us that from a young age, one of his trainers worked with him to perfect his mid-range game; he mentioned that being great at a dying art would help him to stand out among his peers. “I’ve taken thousands of those shots. I knew it was going in.”
Childs went on to have one of the best seasons in Indian Hills program history. Among his accolades are the ICACC Player of the Year title, a nod to the NJCAA All-American Second Team, and a program-record 107 three-point buckets. He also finished 12th in the NJCAA in made three-pointers and 33rd in 3PT percentage.
“At Indian Hills, we had 8 or 9 people (on last year’s roster) that are going to play Division 1 this year,” said Childs. “It was one of the best teams I’ve played for. When we played teams, they were really excited to play us. It’s all JUCO there (in Iowa), and everyone’s in the middle of nowhere. When they’re coming, they know our names. We have the #1 JUCO player going to Kansas. We have a ranking. We have what they want, and that’s a good feeling because it’s competition…it brings the best out of everyone. The only thing that could’ve went better was having the national tournament and going undefeated. I was happy to be a part of it.”
Hank Plona always knew Childs had the ability to make his mark at Indian Hills. “Everyone wants the ball,” Plona said, “but if you prove that you can get the job done, you can shoot. He earned his respect.”
After a long journey to find his place, Chris Childs finally has ended up at a Division 1 school. He will don the Black & Gold for the Bryant Bulldogs in the upcoming season.
“Even if I didn’t end up recruiting Chris, he is a guy I would’ve stayed in touch with to make sure he ended up in a good situation,” said Jared Grasso. “I care about him as a kid – he’s worked really hard. Even if he ended up somewhere else, I would’ve still stayed in touch with him to see how he’s doing. There’s a lot of guys like him that had to overcome some odds and kept working to get to where they are now.”
Childs knew he wanted to play Division I basketball, but he wasn’t too familiar with Bryant. According to his former coach, the school, location, or facilities were never the deciding factor; it was the coaching staff.
“The most important thing to Chris was a great head coach,” said Plona. “The size, level, and league of a program was never important to Chris. He just wanted to play.”
Childs recalled his experience of getting recruited by Jared Grasso over the years not necessarily as a “recruit/coach” relationship, but a more authentic and genuine one.
“I knew Grasso and Brock Erickson (now associate head coach at UIC) had been interested in me during the season,” said Childs. “I wasn’t very sure about Bryant – I just knew Joe (Kasperzyk, now at Southeastern Louisiana) went there. What really sold me was talking to Coach Grasso. It’s really not about what school you play at – it’s who you play for. Grasso believes in me and thought I can be a really big part of the team. He told me he would handle his part and work me like I’ve never worked before.”
From Hank Plona’s perspective, Grasso stayed on top of Childs in a very unique manner. “To Jared’s credit, he never lost track of him,” he said. “When a kid goes to school halfway across the country, [coaches] will see him in October, and come back in March or April. Bryant stayed in touch with him the entire year.”
“Jared Grasso is one of the more genuine people in our business,” Plona continued. “When he’s recruiting, it doesn’t seem like a recruiting call…it’s just a conversation with a friend and a guy that cares about you. He does a really good job of maintaining those relationships. He connected with a lot of what Chris felt.”
For Grasso, it’s a rather simple formula: recruit players that want to win. “For me in recruiting, I want guys that want to be at Bryant, and want to do well,” said Grasso. “Chris is already building relationships, and he’s bought in.”
Indeed, Childs told us that despite the COVID-19 restrictions on practicing in-person with the team, he is already working out with graduate transfer Peter Kiss, who will fulfill his last year of eligibility at Bryant after one year at Quinnipiac and two at Rutgers.
“Me and Peter have a great relationship,” said Childs. “A lot of the guys Grasso gets are guys with chips on their shoulder. It’s people that are ready to play right now. It’s very similar to the team we had at Indian Hills. It’s not all about talent – it’s about being coachable.”
The transition from JUCO to Division I can certainly be daunting, but Grasso told us that Childs is more than ready to contribute at the most elite level of competition that a college basketball player can find themselves in.
“Chris was playing against really good players every day,” said Grasso. “I agree there’s an adjustment, but I love recruiting those guys that are playing against Division 1-level players every day. He’s proven that he’s had the capacity to compete at that level, and knowing that he’s played for two great coaches helps.”
Grasso also noted that while he ultimately has to put the best team he can on the court, the legacy that Chris Childs leaves at Bryant during his two remaining years of eligibility is in his own hands.
“He is going to control this piece of (being successful here),” Grasso continued. “I’m gonna play the best players, which tends to be the hardest-working and most prepared guys. His career is in his hands. If he doesn’t play as many minutes as he wants, or has a bad game, can he overcome it? Those are things he and I will both learn. He has a tremendous ceiling because he can play off the ball, run point, and guard well. It’ll be his opportunity.”
Childs, who knows this coaching style all-too-well, is entirely bought in to Grasso’s mentality of hard work yielding the playing time & opportunities every Division 1 player wants.
“The way Hank Plona & Jared Grasso coach is very similar,” said Childs. “The way Plona wanted to build a program was very similar to the way Grasso does. They reward exactly what they say – they’re very clear with their expectations. At the end of the day, you have to put in the work and you’ll get rewarded.”
“Grasso is a maniac on the court,” Childs continued (as Bryant fans smile in agreement). “He is so passionate, and that’s the sign of a great coach. Coaches like him invest time into the game.”
Ultimately, it’s not the individual accomplishments he is seeking. Chris Childs wants to take all that he’s learned over his career – his struggles of finding his place, and his successes when believing in himself & his game – to make his team better.
“I wanna go to a school to play in a tournament. That is my main focus.”
We’ll see if Chris Childs is the missing piece in cutting down a net during Jared Grasso’s tenure at Bryant.