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How Celtics assistant Will Hardy’s unlikely bond with Gregg Popovich propelled him from Williams College to the NBA

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure, man, I’m graduating in two weeks,'” Hardy recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, I think I have a job you should apply for. I think you should work for the San Antonio Spurs. ”

It sounded good for Hardy, but it didn’t seem plausible, and he couldn’t understand how this retired Division 3 coach could help. Then Tong casually revealed that San Antonio Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich has been one of his closest friends for over 20 years.

“That kind of leads to a side argument,” Hardy said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘I’m on the basketball team. I’ve known you for years, and you never said you knew Gregg Popovich. Like, I’m sitting in my apartment and watching the NBA games every night, and it never happened? He said, ‘Yeah, I guess I never talked about it.’”

“Dazed, happy and scared to death”

Will Hardy (right) came to Boston with Ime Udoka after serving as assistants together in San Antonio.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Hardy was a standout forward at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va., and garnered scattered interest from low-level Division 1 programs. But when Williams reached out, his mother encouraged him to think about it, largely because of the school’s academic reputation. He visited the campus and was delighted.

Hardy suffered a sports hernia early in his freshman year. Coach Mike Maker wanted to make sure he stayed engaged, so he took Hardy to his office while studying filmmaking and game planning.

“He would bombard me with questions,” Hardy said. “He was explaining things to me, asking me questions and saying, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. Do you think that would be too much for the guys? What do you think of this plan? She was the person who really let me into the process.

Maker often told Hardy that he could become a successful trainer one day, if he wanted to.

“Even though William was young and one of our players, he was wise beyond his years,” Maker said. “And his greatest strength on the pitch was his ability to make his teammates better.”

Maker also remarked on how much Hardy values ​​relationships, a key quality of a good coach evident in Hardy’s connection with Curt and Jinx Tong.

Will Hardy with Curt Tong (left), his trainer at Williams, and Tong’s wife, Jinx.Courtesy of Will Hardy

Hardy would sit in the stands with the couple before Ephs games and talk about his classes, his school work, his personal life. He went to their house for dinner and did odd jobs around the house when they asked.

Tong had left Williams and become the athletic director of Division 3 Pomona-Pitzer College in California in 1983, when Popovich was the men’s basketball coach there. The two maintained a connection long after Popovich was hired as an assistant with Spurs in 1988 and was named head coach in 1996, so it was not unusual for Popovich to call in for help, as he did so in the spring of 2010.

Will Hardy played basketball at Williams, where an injury first prompted him to become a coach.Courtesy of Williams College

“I told Curt I was looking for someone in the movie theater and I needed a smart guy, and I knew there were a lot of smart guys at Williams,” Popovich said. “I asked if there were any players there who showed an affinity for coaching or seemed to have a natural ability. He immediately told me, Will Hardy. And I respected the guy so much that I said, “OK, deal done.” And Will walked out.

Hardy ruled out other potential jobs and headed to San Antonio. He first worked as a front office intern and tried not to get overwhelmed.

“It involved everything from putting information into the scouting database, securing scout credentials on the road, picking up people at the airport, going through note taking on sales calls,” Hardy said. “It was the greatest yes-man work ever.

“I was in meetings and prepping drafts and just got to watch the whole process. You’re not a vocal participant, but being able to be in those spaces is invaluable to someone who’s young and trying to learn.

Whenever Hardy’s intern duties were completed for the day, he would put on shorts and a t-shirt and head out onto the court, where he would help players practice their skills or just bounce basketballs to them. Within a year, he was transferred to full-time in the video room.

“And in a short time he became the boss of it, the guy I depended on,” Popovich said. “If I wanted the post-ups or the pick-and-rolls or why we sucked last night, he’d come in and say, ‘Well look, that’s what they did. He would break it down for me. And I said, ‘Oh, my God, this guy breaks things down the way we do.'”

In the summer of 2016, Spurs assistant Chad Forcier left to work with the Orlando Magic, leaving an opening in the coaching staff. Hardy was in the produce section of a San Antonio grocery store when Popovich called.

“He said, ‘You’re now the coach of the San Antonio Spurs,'” Hardy recalled. “I was stunned, happy and scared to death. I remember calling my wife and saying, ‘I’m pretty sure Pop just made me an assistant coach.’ I don’t know. I need to get some clarification there. on it, because he said it so quickly, like only Pop can. And then he hung up on me.”

A return to Massachusetts

Hardy (right) huddles with Popovich, Tim Duncan (left) and Becky Hammon (centre) during a Spurs game in November 2019.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Hardy became one of Popovich’s most trusted confidants and rose to one of the leading roles on the San Antonio bench. During his first stint as a trainee, Hardy helped Spurs striker Ime Udoka train on the pitch. And after Udoka retired, the two worked side by side as assistants.

When Udoka was hired last summer to coach the Celtics, one of his first calls was to Hardy, asking him to become his main assistant. The symmetry was not lost on Hardy. He was returning to Massachusetts, where his relationship with a retired basketball coach had started him on this journey.

Curt and Jinx Tong used to come to TD Garden to see Popovich and Hardy whenever the Spurs visited the Celtics. Curt Tong died in 2017 at the age of 82, but Hardy’s friendship with Jinx endured.

He calls or texts to check in, and earlier this year returned to Williamstown to watch the Ephs take on arch-rival Amherst. He brought his wife and their two young daughters, and they went to Jinx Tong’s home for a visit.

“Curt was always very proud of Will,” Jinx said, “and he was very happy with the connection he helped him make.”

Will Hardy (left) gives props to Celtics center Rob Williams.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Adam Himmelsbach can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.