Text-Only Website
 
December 14, 2011

Danny Nee: What a wonderful basketball life

By Michael Lewis

KINGS POINT, N.Y. -- While many coaches around his age are retired or are preparing to take Social Security checks, Danny Nee still exhibits the energy and fire of a 30-year-old coach.

Whether it is mapping out strategy during a game, giving instruction in practice or just giving a referee a piece of his mind in a tight contest, Nee usually can be found roaming the sidelines of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy shouting instructions, exhorting his team on, applauding good plays or criticizing bad decisions of his players and referees.

That desire, that fire, has not escaped his colleagues and his assistant coaches.

"At that such an age, he certainly has that drive," assistant coach Peter Lipka said. "That's something that I look up to and admire. I hope by the time I am that age I hope that I have the same if not hopefully more drive."

That drive also extends to practice where Nee has been known to yell at players on more than one occasion.

"If he appears to be mad, it's trying to better our players," Lipka said. "At the end of the day, he wants improvement from our guys." 

"You see the passion he has for basketball," assistant coach David Muchnick said. "That's why he has been successful as he has been over the course his entire career. He always had that passion, the passion for teaching, the passion for coaching, and the passion for his players.

"It is a quality that as me, a young coach in this profession, that you want to keep in the back of your mind 30 years down the road. Hopefully, my coaching career, I can go back and say, 'Hey, coach Nee, when I was working for him, he still had that fire and he never lost it.' So few people in this world truly enjoy what they do."

Indeed.

"I don't know anything else. I really, really love the game of basketball," Nee said. "I like the recruiting, I like being in the gym. This stuff in front of me, even talking to you, I don't feel like I'm working. I'm here long hours. It's not work to me. It's like a hobby. I generally get excited get butterflies, as you prepare for games, go recruiting, I get juiced on that." 

Nee would not give his age, but needless to say, he has been around the block and then some. Heck, he has been around the country and the world and then some.

Nee, as they say, has lived in interesting times and has experienced an interesting time, career and life, whether it was coaching in his first coaching job in the trenches of Dodge City, Kansas or fighting for the United States in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

He certainly has experienced more than a lifetime in some 40-plus years of coaching.

Consider who he has known and touched him:

* He was a high school teammate of Lew Alcindor, who may be better known to the world in general as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, at Power Memorial High School.

* He was in the very first recruiting class of legendary Marquette coach Al McGuire.

* And he was an assistant coach under Digger Phelps at Notre Dame for several years.

Not bad, not bad at all -- for starters.

"You are the product of your experiences," Nee said. "Let's go back to Power Memorial, riding on the subways of New York, playing on a great team crafts me in a certain way. The Marquette experience, captain of the team. The Marine Corps, Both my parents have passed away. Different personal issues. The war was an issue. All these you carry scars and you get beat up on. But you adapt. You're forming who you are. All of those experiences you along the way helps you. I'm the father of three children. They're probably the best thing in my life. . . . So it's crazy. This whole process got me to where I am today 

"I am very comfortable in my own skin."

Danny Nee knows what and who he is.

"I'm a career coach," he proudly said. "I've coached at all the different levels. This is what I do. This is my vocation in life."

And a successful college basketball coach. In 26 seasons as the head man at four Division I schools -- Ohio, Nebraska, Robert Morris and Duquesne -- Nee forged a 409-382 mark in 791 games. That doesn't include an 18-16 record at the Merchant Marine Academy, which is a Division III school.

Jabbar and Power Memorial

A native of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Nee grew up playing basketball. He was so good he was offered and accepted a scholarship from a small, Irish-Catholic school in Manhattan called Power Memorial High School. It was located on the west side at 59th Street and Columbus Circle, the spot Lincoln Center occupies.

Nee admitted he was fortunate to be coached and work for some of the best coaches in the game. The list includes Power Memorial head coach John Donohue, who went on to become the Canadian National Team coach.

Donohue's prize student was Abdul-Jabbar.

Nee played with the future UCLA and NBA superstar for two years in his sophomore and junior years. One year Power Memorial went 33-0 and was considered the best high school basketball team in the land.

"He was very bright, very intelligent," Nee said. "He took Latin, geometry. He took all of the college prep courses. He was very bright. His taste of music and mine were North Pole, South Pole. The Beatles were in the sixties and we were listening to rock and roll. Lewie liked to listen to jazz and Thelonious Monk [a jazz pianist] and stuff like, which I thought might have been foreign, might have been Martian."

And then there was this basketball thing at which the 7-foot-2 Jabbar excelled.

"He was a very good athlete for his height," Nee said. "I remember playing softball with him. He was a first baseman. He was a good swimmer. There weren't many things that he couldn't do. God's gift was coordination. Good timing, good everything. "

Who knew at the time that legendary status was in store for Jabbar?

"I knew he was a great player, but I never be one of the greats or the best," Nee said. "His success doesn't surprise me, but I didn't see it coming. When you're a young high school kid, you're oblivious to that. He was a very, talented, very bright, very gifted young man."

Al McGuire and Marquette

Nee called himself "just a journeyman player," but he was good enough to earn a scholarship to Marquette University in McGuire's very first recruiting class and captain the freshman team while averaging 14 points  game. But after a year and a half, Nee had had it.

"I did well on the basketball floor, but didn't do well in the classroom for some reason," Nee said. "I don't have an answer for this,"

Life in Wisconsin was hard for Nee. He was living away from home for the first time and he didn't have a lot of money. During the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he remained in Wisconsin to attend summer school as McGuire found Nee a job on the graveyard shift in a boil factory. Nee worked from midnight to eight in the morning. He would go home, take a shower and go to school and go to sleep in the afternoon.

The money was good, the hours were horrible.

"It just wore me down psychologically. It wore me down physically," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to the NBA. I was a journeyman-type player. I was good enough to get a scholarship but I wasn't going to be any star."

Vietnam hell

So he quit school and joined the U.S. Marines.

"I just felt it was something I wanted to do," he said.

The Vietnam War was a living hell. Nee survived, although it was not without its scars (see sidebar). He received Combat Air Insignia Medals and was honorably discharged in 1968.

"For a tremendous amount of time, I had this guilt, a question of why I made it and why other guys didn't make it," he said. "You can't answer that."

He started to rebuild his life, earned his degree from St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge, Kansas. After getting out of Dodge, Nee coached at the high school level in New Jersey at Red Bank Regional (1972-73) and Brick Township (1973-76) High Schools before he was discovered by Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps.

"I built it up [Brick Township], had fun, worked basketball camps, visited places," Nee said. "My only goal was to be a college coach. But I never thought, in my wildest dreams, my college career would start out at Notre Dame. I met Digger at basketball camps for numerous years."

Digging Digger and the Fighting Irish

Nee wound up helping then Irish assistant coach Frank McLaughlin, now the Fordham athletic director, with recruiting in New Jersey.

"I got to know Digger and Frank and got a job," Nee said. "From Notre I went to Ohio and the rest is history."

But that history would not have happened if it wasn't for Phelps.

"If Digger Phelps doesn't pull me out of the trenches of high school, then I don't have a chance being anywhere else," Nee said.

As a Fighting Irish assistant from 1976-1980, Nee helped recruit some of the best players in the land. He also had an opportunity to learn from one of the best coaches around in a college and athletic environment that is second to none in the United States. The Irish reached the NCAA Division I tournament four times, including the Final Four in 1978.

The Irish were America's team in football and basketball even back then. In the seventies, they were the only team consistently on national TV along with UCLA. Remember, this was years before ESPN became a powerhouse in broadcasting sporting event.

Nee learned about recruiting under high pressure and at the highest level.

"I really got an advantage of recruiting the greatest players," he said, before rattling off a list of players that included Kelly Tripucka, Tracy Jackson, John Paxson and Bill Hanzlik.

"I went to Nebraska from Notre Dame not to be afraid to recruit great players," Nee said. "I think I learned how to identify talent and not afraid to venture out to Gaffney, South Carolina, San Antonio, Texas. Sunnyside, California. I didn't care. And at Nebraska we had to recruit nationally and that helped me later on."

Nee has coached more than 20 NBA players, including Eric Piatowski, Rick King, Tony Farmer, Erick Strickland, Mikki Moore and Tyronn Lue at Nebraska.

Notre Dame was something else.

"I never get tired going back to Notre Dame," Nee said. "It's the greatest university in the world and how they do things."

Spreading his wings in Ohio and Nebraska

Serving under Phelps was great, but Nee wanted to spread his own wings to direct his own team, so he became the Ohio University coach in 1980, giving its basketball team to a pair of NCAA appearance and one National Invitational Tournament appearance.

He joined Nebraska in 1986 and stayed there until 2000, directing the Cornhuskers, who did not have much of a basketball reputation when Nee arrived, to five NCAA tournament berths and to the NIT crown in 1996.

"The Ohio experience -- being the first coach of the Ohio Bobcats, and having success with those players, then Nebraska," Nee said. "I don't think there's a better place in the world to live than to raise a family. There's no place like Nebraska is the saying and there isn't. It's the uniqueness of it. It's the only state that has only one Division I football team in it. There's no Nebraska State. It's such a good rallying point. Lincoln, Nebraska -- Memorial Field becomes the third largest city in the state of Nebraska.

"Recently, I was down on 44th Street and Second Avenue at the Irish Rouge, a bar that honors the Huskers every Saturday for football games. I went down there for the experience. I will always be a Husker fan."

After the Huskers, there were stints as assistant coaches at Robert Morris, Duquesne, Towson State and Rutgers University. He also worked as a scout for the Utah Jazz.

It was work, it was a job and it fueled some of Nee's passion. But . . .

"I got an itch to become a head coach again," Nee said. "I really didn't feel was going to ever have the chance."

Head man again

When an opportunity arose to guide the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy arose last year, Nee jumped at the chance as he took over the reins only 10 days before the first practice.

"I was a little bit overqualified, but with [President] Obama hiring veterans in different things, I became a dinosaur and very unique," he said. "There weren't very Vietnam vets, with masters, 26 years of experience, disability. So I went into another category. I got the job and I was really excited about that."

The Mariners went 14-12 in Nee's first season in 2010-11.

"After doing what I've done at all the different levels, I like the structure of the Merchant Marine Academy," he said. "I respect the discipline. I love the academics. I don't give a damn how hard they make them. These guys come in here, They work hard. They are focused. Being an ex-Marine, I totally respect the regimen and the structure, the discipline and leadership, its academics, the regimen and basketball.

"We have a balance here. Even with the uniforms and the haircuts and the kids coming in and how polite they are. Sure, I'm getting guys late [off ships and boats during their Sea Year]. It comes with the job. I'll take it any time. It's all good to me.

"This isn't work to me. I get off on this. I really enjoy it. I am very appreciative of the moment, where a person of my age; that I can get into a situation that fits me as well as this fits me. Is it perfect? No. I have a team, I have a schedule and I have an opportunity to coach and I can make my living doing that. I don't know much more to ask."

Photo: Danny Nee talks to his troops during a recent basketball game. Photo by Shawn Antonelli