His confident humor has breathed new life into BC basketball. His fire could bring it back to relevancy.
He can’t see me, but that’s not stopping Jim Christian from pretending he doesn’t know who the hell I am. His receptionist, Evan Librizzi, calls out to him that I’m here while he rambles about defensive principles with his longtime assistant Bill Wuczynski.
“Who the hell is this Austin?” Christian cracks as he leaves practice film behind, turning the corner in the Boston College basketball offices. “I’m supposed to talk to some kid named Austin, and I don’t know who the hell—”
I’m in his periphery now. This will be at least the sixth time we’ve talked since Christian was hired as BC’s new coach last April. He knows me, I can only imagine, as the 20-something kid in a hoodie who pesters him with questions about help defense and pick-and-rolls.
“Oh, Austin! There you are,” he says, with a slight grin, throwing his hands up in mock surprise. “How are you doing, buddy?”
Librizzi chuckles, shaking her head at what has become commonplace in this crevice of Conte Forum.
Christian is funny, and he loves his new job. Anyone close to him—his players, his staff, the rest of the athletic department—will tell you that. His biting enthusiasm has spread throughout this place at a rapid pace in the last six months. An atrocious eight-win season, the firing of Steve Donahue, and an extended coaching search left BC basketball about as low as it could be. But don’t ask him about it. As far as Christian is concerned, basketball in Chestnut Hill began on April 3, 2014 after he left Ohio University and the MAC behind. The game film of the 2013-14 disaster is probably burned to bits, with the ashes spread across the nearby Reservoir, unwatched by the new head of the program.
A reporter showed up to practice a few weeks ago unaware of Christian’s refusal to compare his first team to Donahue’s last.
“All I know is the team I have,” he said, cutting off a question mid-sentence. “I don’t know what happened—I don’t care what happened. Why they lost or won—who cares?”
So, we’re not going to talk about last year. Christian’s office door is open, and he tells me to take a seat on the couch. The space was about half empty in mid-June—the furniture strangely arranged almost exactly the way Donahue had it—but the room is complete now. Two cushioned black chairs face each other with a couch to the right and a long table in between. They face a flat-screen TV, paused on a frame of a recent practice.
Wuczynski and Christian were talking about a wrinkle in the team’s “2” defense before I showed up. Christian is a self-confessed Synergy-holic, sporting an obsession with the software that provides advanced statistics and specific video clips of his team and the competition. Every player on the team has an iPad, and Christian can send each one individual video packages of his one-on-one defense or pull-up jumpers or any other important detail that could pay off later on. The players are going to start getting even more video packages from Christian as the season gets closer.
He believes in the use of analytics, seeing it as a measurement tool and a way to understand other teams. If you get him started, he can talk about the little details of defending the pick-and-roll or help principles in man-to-man without stopping to breathe.
Christian’s not crazy about talking with the media, though. You can sense it lingering in the background of interviews. He does it, and for his first year as a head coach in a major conference like the ACC, he does it pretty well, but he’s always itching to just get back on the court with his guys, or back in front of the film, or back to laughing with his assistants.
“Ah, gosh, we’ve got to do this media stuff,” Christian told junior center Dennis Clifford on the way to TD Garden for an event the other week. “I just can’t wait to go to practice.”
He leaves the door open a crack while we start talking. A few minutes into the conversation, some hysterical cackling breaks out in the hall between his staff. Christian gets up out of his seat a hair, desperate to see what is going on. Then he sits back down when he realizes that might be rude during an interview, and he finally gets all the way up when he concedes that he, unfortunately, probably needs to close the door so he can talk about the new mentality he’s trying to bring to the Eagles. That mentality is a mix of ruthless toughness, powerful communication, and unwavering confidence.
“You cold?” Christian chirps at me when I get distracted looking around his office. “You need a coffee?”
When he’s not on the court, Christian’s voice pops, and his shoulders can flare up. His words come out a little gritty and deep, but the tone always sounds light. It seems like he’s always having a good time, hoping no one takes anything too seriously. He enunciates consonants so crisply when he’s messing with you that you know it’s never malicious.
“He definitely has that way about him where he’s always on point,” Clifford said. “He’s more of a jokester off the court. I’ve definitely heard him making fun of guys. That’s a good thing to have, when you’re comfortable hanging out with your head coach.”
Clifford stopped by the basketball offices shortly after Christian was hired. There’s always a jar of candy at the front desk, and Clifford was popping in to snag a sweet. He didn’t bother saying “Hi” to anyone in the office, even though he’d been warned by Christian to do so.
Christian yelled at him for it.
“Oh, crap,” Clifford thought. “These guys are for real.”
“It’s the principal’s office to some, and it’s the basketball office to others,” Christian explains. “It’s not the principal’s office. I need them to come in. I need to know what’s going on.”
During the season, Christian will meet with each player roughly once every four games. He says it helps him, but it helps them, too.
“I think that’s important, because you see them yelling at you in practice, and it’s not personal, you know what I mean?” Clifford said. “You actually have an off-the-court relationship.”
To the right of the TV in Christian’s office sits the room’s one unique form of decoration. It’s a framed poster featuring a young, backlit basketball player with white lettering around him. The heading reads “CHARACTER.” What Christian learns on the TV is important, but when he’s on the court the poster trumps the game film. Training his players’ character and mentality is his main focus, and it takes a lot of yelling.
Christian stops practice in the middle of a defensive drill in late October, hands starting at his sides before moving out in confused exasperation.
“If you cannot talk and play, you will never play,” he says.
His team is working on closeouts and rotations against stationary offensive players. Senior forward Eddie Odio isn’t communicating as loudly or effectively as he needs to.
Christian pauses, but then he keeps going. They need to get this.
“On this basketball court, if you can’t open your mouth, you will never get in the game.”
Why does he harp on this so much?
“It keeps you in games,” Christian tells me. “The more you vocalize, on both sides, on offense and defense, it keeps you engaged. It keeps your teammates alive in play. They can be aggressive because they know you’re in the right spot. Everything is revolved around everybody understanding where they’re supposed to be.”
He expects it out of every guy.
“I tell them every day—I don’t really care about your off-court personality,” he says. “You can be anybody you want, but the on-court personality for our team has to be the same. You can’t be quiet out here. You can be a guy that’s into yourself out there. I don’t care who you are out there. You can do that all you want. But for the amount of time we’re on that floor, everybody has to have that outgoing personality.”
Christian does his best to emphasize that communication, but he gets a huge boost from his staff. The first thing he asked for from the BC administration when he was hired was money to hire the right assistant coaches. Wuczynski has worked with him for seven years. Scott Spinelli, whom Christian has known for 20 years, left Maryland to come here. He received a significant raise on his $200,000 salary with the Terrapins, according to The Washington Post. Preston Murphy and Christian, both University of Rhode Island grads, have known each other for 15 years, and Murphy previously served on the BC staff under Al Skinner. Clifford said the trio of assistants basically comes sprinting into the gym every day for practice, yelling and joking like it’s the best part of their day—because it is. That energy was key from the start, helping the players dig out of the dark March depths and embrace intense spring and summer workouts. Christian and his staff want to inject positivity into every aspect of BC hoops.
Everyone in the program—the players, the coaching staff, Librizzi, the trainers, the academic counselor—wears a black wristband with an eagle logo and two messages written in white: “STAY POSITIVE” and “TRUST THE SYSTEM.” It was one of the first things Christian gave his team this fall. One player showed up to fall workouts without it, and Christian asked him why he came to practice naked. The player, whose name Christian and Clifford wouldn’t give up, looked at the coach confused.
“You’re naked right now,” Christian told him. “Get the hell out of here. Go get your bracelet.”
Christian’s other character-building goal, besides communication and positivity, is competitiveness. Midway through practice, one of the managers puts 16 minutes on the clock. For one squad to get off of defense and win the drill, it has to make three straight stops—one in the halfcourt, one off of a high pick-and-roll, and then in a one-on-one matchup with two players handpicked by Christian. He calls these one-on-one matchups being put in the spotlight.
Olivier Hanlan, Patrick Heckmann, Dimitri Batten, and Odio start off defending in red jerseys. They have trouble even forcing one spotlight play. Anytime there’s a lull, Christian or one of the assistants will scream for more talking, and the team will oblige, eventually keeping the communication up itself.
With the minutes ticking down, Hanlan swipes Alex Dragicevich for the team’s second straight stop. He slams the ball on the floor in relief and lets out a brutal yell. Christian beckons freshman Idy Diallo to challenge Odio in the post. The gym starts going crazy. What was once an organized drill becomes flat-out chaos. Murphy pounds the floor. Everyone is cheering for Diallo except the guys in red. Diallo makes Odio bite for a fake and finishes at the other side of the rim. The red team goes back to defense defeated while Diallo is mobbed by teammates.
“Show me some f—ing heart,” Christian tells them after another stop. BC football coach Steve Addazio could make Vines of Jim Christian, and the hashtags would all be R-rated.
Christian knows that his players care about battling for starting spots, but right now he’s just looking for guys he can comfortably put on the floor.
“I don’t even, I mean, who starts is important to them,” he says back in his office. “It’s not important to me. Those guys need to be worried about who’s playing. Who understands enough to get in, more so than who’s going to start. I mean, you have to worry about that, and they love that because they like to hear their name called, but we have a lot of guys who have to fight to show they have enough understanding to get in the game.”
The red team never gets those three stops. The 16 minutes hopelessly tick off the clock.
“Get on defense yellow,” Christian booms. “They don’t want to play.”
Christian likes what he sees out of the yellow squad, and he calls out to video coordinator Chip Cunningham to take a goofy-looking eagle off of BC’s identity board. The board is on the sideline of every practice. The players need to make 15-20 identity plays throughout the day—things like taking a charge or having every player on one side of the ball communicate properly and force a stop.
Christian ends practice and brings his guys to the middle of the floor. He talks to them about mental toughness. He explains to them that they need to play hard, always, but that playing hard doesn’t mean running around faster. To Christian, it means playing more fundamentally sound. It means getting beat on one play and coming back on the next one and being in the right spot. Playing hard means establishing the right habits.
“That’s the only reason we practice,” he says.
He’s not finished.
“We will do this every freaking day until we become killers.”
And they’ll do it because the competition will be relentless.
“They’re coming for our head.”
When Christian sits at his desk, he can see a row of family photos on a shelf to his right. Follow the photos, and there’s a wide shot of a full Conte Forum behind his head. Not full like it sometimes got during the past four years—with BC colors blending into seas of visiting blue—but legitimately packed with gold. It’s a respected BC team protecting its home court. When he looks up, he can see the two ways to bring the program back to that point: the TV locked on film study, and the poster emphasizing where everything starts. He knows that’s what matters now.
Featured Image by Emily Sadeghian / Heights Editor