Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
HOUSTON – Two players and a coach engaged in a heartfelt embrace last Saturday after UConn beat Arizona to win the West Regional in Anaheim, Calif.
One player, Kemba Walker, was overwhelmed by the moment. He and the Huskies were moving on to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
The other, Lamont “Momo” Jones, and the Arizona assistant, Book Richardson, were crestfallen. Their season, which included a beatdown of defending national champion Duke in the regional semifinal, was suddenly over.
“If there’s anybody I wanted to lose to, which I didn’t, I understand him,” Richardson said of Walker during a phone interview this week.
“We didn’t say a lot,” Walker, a first-team Associated Press All-America, recalled of the group embrace. “[Richardson] just told me that he loved me and to go get a championship. It meant a lot to me.”
A New York native, Richardson is Jones’ Godfather and considers Walker a “nephew” or “little brother.”
He has known Jones since he was a young boy and met Walker through the New York Gauchos AAU program, where Richardson was a coach. Jones and Walker then teamed up for two years in the backcourt at Rice High School.
“I met him the summer going into my junior year,” Walker said of Richardson. “He wasn’t even my coach at the time. He was coach of the older [Gauchos] team, but sometimes I would travel with the older team and play a little and we just started to have a great relationship. Then the next year, that’s when he coached us, and I was just with him all the time. He would travel with us to camps … he was just there all the time.”
During the summer of 2007, Richardson coached a powerhouse 17-and-under team that featured Walker and a Who’s Who of future Division 1 talents.
“When you start looking at that team, at the end of the day, you had guys who could make plays,” Richardson recalled. “I was blessed to have that team because I knew how good they were.”
Back then, Walker would sometimes defer to his talented teammates, including Darryl “Truck” Bryant (now at West Virginia), Jordan Theodore (Seton Hall) and Durand Scott (Miami).
“I think [former Rice coach] Moe Hicks will echo the same sentiment,” Richardson said. “Kemba’s always been dominant. He’s always deferred in terms of he didn’t want to score a lot because guys would say he’s being a ball hog.
“When you think about the summer he had going into his senior year, there wasn’t a better closer in the country.”
Yet Walker was under-recruited coming out of Rice. Cincinnati was initially the first school to pursue him, but UConn jumped in after losing out on Brandon Jennings.
Walker was held in such low regard at Rice, that many doubted whether he would ever see the floor at UConn.
“When Kemba went there [to UConn] as a freshman, I had personally at least 50 people tell me, ‘Why are you letting him go to UConn?’” Richardson said. “
“And I said, ‘It’s going to work because he wants to be there.’”
Much was made of the Jones vs. Walker matchup in the Arizona-UConn game, and Richardson said he hopes Jones learns from the experience and benefits from seeing what Walker has accomplished.
“I think what it did for Momo was it put into perspective how hard it is to get to a Final Four, the things you need to do in terms of maturing and getting better, realizing that what am I going to make of my spring and my summer?” Richardson said.
“Am I going to have a cause, a purpose to get there? Is my purpose going to be bigger than everyone else’s because everyone has a plan, everyone has a purpose to get to the Final Four. It’s those guys who are mentally tougher than everyone else who have that edge all the time. No let up, and that’s been Kemba. He’s been the same way from start to finish.”
Walker will finish his UConn career this weekend, either in the national semifinals against Kentucky on Saturday, or in the national championship game Monday night against either Butler or VCU.
But for Richardson the emotions are still raw, the loss still lingers.
“I’m not sure right now if I’m ready to watch it, especially when they play against Kentucky where [assistant] Orlando Antigua is a brother to me,” he said. “He and his brother [St. Raymond’s coach Oliver Antigua], we’ve been together since we were 14, 15 years old from St. Raymond’s on. It’s tough to watch those games. Having a close relationship with [John] Calipari, with [assistant] coaches Kenny Payne [and] Rod Strickland.
“It’s just tough because you don’t want anyone to lose and I really want Kemba to do well. I want him to win.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.