Sometimes, the path you’ve laid for your life takes an unexpected turn.
And things are all the better for it.
Fran Fraschilla has been a staple of ESPN’s basketball coverage at all levels for the past 18 years. But it all began as “life-long preparation” on the playgrounds in Brooklyn and then a successful journeyman’s coaching career.
Fran sat down with TBW’s Ray LeBov to share his story and what he’s learned from being open-minded about unexpected paths and keeping family first.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length and is the first part of their conversation:
RAY: How did you get into coaching?
FRAN: I grew up in a basketball culture in Brooklyn during an era when the New York Knicks were in their heyday.
I grew up on the playgrounds of Brooklyn in a sports culture, and I fell in love with basketball at about the age of 13. I knew I wanted to play. I was always the shortest (and sometimes whitest) kid on the neighborhood playgrounds. But this love of the game propelled me after high school.
I did not play college basketball. I got right into coaching at a very early age. I went back to my high school (James Madison) to be the JV coach for the guy who coached me in both baseball and basketball there.
I was hooked on coaching because it was the next logical outlet after playing. I became a lifelong basketball junkie, and I tell people that I have not worked a single day in my life.
I was the youngest assistant coach in college basketball and had a full-time job at 21 back in 1980 when I was hired at the University of Rhode Island. I spent 23 years in coaching as an assistant coach and a head coach and then the last 18 at ESPN.
RAY: Tell us about your stops along the way. If I recall correctly, you had assistant positions at five different schools.
FRAN: That’s right: New York Tech, Rhode Island, Ohio U, Ohio State and Providence.
I grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and the education you get on the streets there is extensive and mostly positive. We lived in a middle class, ethnically diverse neighborhood. I went to an integrated high school. The friends and connections I made and the people I met and interacted with absolutely had an effect on my coaching style.
I was used to being around people of different races, creeds, sizes, and, walks of life. And that informed my career as well because I just had a knack for getting along with people.
Even on the playgrounds of Brooklyn, being the shortest guy, I was always the one who was motivating. We played in legendary places like Manhattan Beach and West Fourth Street Park so I grew up in a basketball environment.
During the summers of my college years, I worked as many basketball camps as I could around the country. I worked at Dean Smith’s camp, camps on the East Coast, in the Poconos, and in upstate New York.
My first real coaching stop was as an assistant at the University of Rhode Island for three years. After I left college, they had an opening and they knew me fairly well from working their camps. I had New York connections in the recruiting world, even as a college kid, so I was lucky enough to be hired at an early age.
I spent a year there and then I went to Ohio University for the next six years under Danny Nee. He was also a Brooklyn guy who had been on Digger Phelps staff. And also Billy Hahn, who played at Maryland for Lefty Driesell on great teams in the 70s.
Those guys really influenced me, and I spent six years there.
Then I went to Ohio State with Gary Williams. I spent two years with him and then three more years at Providence with Rick Barnes.
And the thread that connected all three of those jobs was that, as a college kid, I got to know Billy Hahn really well. And through his ties as a former Maryland player, I got to Ohio State because Gary Williams had also played at Maryland.
And his roommate was a guy named Joe Harrington, who had coached Billy at Maryland. I actually replaced Rick Barnes at Ohio State. Rick had worked with Joe at George Mason. Later on, I left Ohio State to go to Providence to be with Rick, so there was this Maryland thread that I was connected to because of Billy Hahn.
So I was an assistant to three great head coaches: Danny Nee, Gary Williams—who is in the Hall of Fame—and Rick Barnes, who has just gone over 700 wins. Each of them left an impression on me.
And then in 1992, I became the head coach at Manhattan College, which was a great opportunity for me to go back home.
Greatest compliment I could give that 94- 95 @GoJaspers team was that I kicked them out of practice one day late in the season to give them a day off & they practiced without me. https://t.co/05KQ3Gd9VM
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) February 6, 2020
My dream was to be a division one head coach, though because of my eight years in Ohio, I thought I wanted to be in the Midwest as a head coach. But I spent four great years in Manhattan, and we went to four postseason tournaments. Then I moved on to St. John’s where I spent two years.
I was a little reluctant to take it, but it was impossible to pass up because they quadrupled my salary. They had gotten turned down from guys like John Calipari and Rick Majerus, and all my recruiting ties at the moment were in the northeast, especially in New York.
We resurrected the program with two top-five recruiting classes in a row. I coached Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton—each a McDonald’s All American—and helped resurrect their careers. I recruited Ron Artest (who later became Metta World Peace) and had a long NBA career.
At the end of my second year, I was offered an opportunity to interview at Arizona State with Kevin White who is now the athletic director at Duke. I ended up turning the job down but in the process alienated the president of St. John’s.
Five weeks after taking St. John’s to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five or six years and after recruiting back-to-back top-five classes, the president of St. John’s fired me for what he said was disloyalty. I had a year off, which whet my appetite for television.
I got a chance to do a lot of media stuff. during that year off. I then spent three years at the University of New Mexico, the home of The Pit. We went to postseason tournaments all three years but I wasn’t a great fit being an East Coast guy in the middle of a uniquely isolated part of the United States.
At the end of the third year (in 2002), I left there and went to ESPN. I thought I would stay for a year or two and go back to coaching, but I learned not to mess with happiness.
I had two young sons. Every single time I had a head coaching opportunity or chance to go to the NBA as a scout or as an assistant, I thought, “Don’t mess with happy!”
Coaches’ wives are like glue. Even when you can’t see them, they’re still holding the family together. Happy Mother’s Day! pic.twitter.com/9gbz5TSH15
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) May 10, 2020
I got a chance to watch my sons grow up. They’re both in the family business now, and I’ve been at ESPN for the last 18 years.
RAY: Now that your sons are grown, would you ever go back to coaching?
FRAN: It’s probably a little too late now. I had so many opportunities in the first seven or eight years after I left New Mexico because I was I was one of the 30 winningest coaches in the country at the time with eight postseason appearances in nine seasons.
But after turning down a number of jobs during those first seven after I left, I think athletic directors figured out that I probably wasn’t going back.
I had two main concerns: Raise my boys and be around them. And also enjoy what I was doing at ESPN and do it as well as I could.
James is now a video assistant with the Orlando Magic, and Matt is the video coordinator at Villanova so I probably would consider going back as an assistant coach, either in the NBA or at a high major college level. But I still love what I do at ESPN.
Handsome guy here. Yes, I remember that day 25 years ago. Happy Birthday, Matt! ????????❤️???? https://t.co/96gsH6suko
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) May 27, 2020
What I’ve done in the offseasons—especially during this incredible time we are currently experiencing—is that I’ve turned myself into a mentor of young coaches, constantly on the prowl for new coaching ideas.
A growth mindset is the best way to put it. When I learn something about the game of basketball, I try to pass it on to other coaches, via clinics.
Most recently, those are Zoom clinics and those kinds of things. I’m also very active on Twitter when it comes to dispensing ways to help young coaches, so I feel like my role now, even as an ESPN analyst, is to be a teacher and a mentor. I can explain the game to people who love the game and to people who just have a passing interest in a way that is easy to understand.
RAY: There are so many intricacies and nuances involved. You don’t want to bore the people who are already knowledgeable while at the same time explaining it on a level that people (who don’t have that level of sophistication) are going to find what you’re saying interesting.
FRAN: First of all, it’s a broadcasting philosophy. There’s a number of ways I’ve tried to improve over the course of 18 years of broadcasting.
I came to ESPN as somebody who had an incredible passion for the game, for the history of the game, and for continuing to learn the game. Given my coaching background, I have tried to explain the game on TV in a way that even an average sports fan would understand.
I think back to my days as a coach, and what I was trying to communicate then was an easy way to explain something I was teaching so that even my slowest learner (as a player) could understand it.
And if your players don’t understand a particular coaching or basketball concept, it doesn’t matter how great a basketball mind you have. I’ve tried to translate that ability to every broadcast.
I’m trying to explain something to the viewer that they may not have ever heard before so that they have an “a-ha!” moment and they can say to themselves, “I love the way he just explained how to pick and roll work so effectively.”
Coaches: I always love a play that can take on many layers. Here’s a staggered double play out of Horns that can morph into a variety of Spread PNR actions & reads based on PNR coverages. Use your imagination on offense. pic.twitter.com/Pg5zDuZkon
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) May 13, 2020
If I get too complicated in my verbiage, I might lose that viewer. So I’ve always been a teacher first when it comes to the game. Teaching at its core is to translate what you know in a way that’s easy to understand.
RAY: One of the things I’ve observed in each of the first four interviews in this series is the great level of preparation that goes into being able to do exactly what you’re talking about.
FRAN: I’m often asked that question by people getting into broadcasting, even by former players and former coaches.
First of all, my preparation is a lifelong preparation. It literally is 365 days a year. I’ve been blessed to be in the playground my entire life.
My preparation is a daily ongoing preparation that encompasses reading everything I can about the game, talking to people that I think I can learn from—and not just people who have been around the game forever. It’s also learning from the young people I cover on the college level or during the NBA assignments I might have at summer league or the NBA Draft.
You could wake me up at three o’clock in the morning and put me on the air, you know, five minutes later. And I probably have enough depth of knowledge just because of this lifelong passion.
I’ve never considered broadcasting a job. The micro version of the preparation begins in the fall when we get ready for the season. I continue to read everything I can on the internet about the teams, the players, and the big picture college basketball trends, as well as on the teams I know I’m going to cover.
So I’m constantly up to date on the bits of information I need to know about the new players, the new coaches and things of that nature.
And I will try to get around the country and spend time with a number of my coaching friends and watch practice. I cover the Big 12 at ESPN, so I try to get to every Big 12 team in September and October to watch practice.
I want the coaches and the players to know that I don’t just show up in January and mail it in or go on a broadcast and regurgitate a bunch of notes that I have in front of me.
I’ve gotten to know the players. I’ve gotten to know the coaches through the years—many who I’ve known for 20 years or more. For example: I’ve known Tom Izzo since 1980. I’ve known Bob Huggins since 1982. I’ve known Bill Self since the 80s. I’ve known Rick Barnes since I was a teenager.
I’m very lucky that I’m able to connect at a level with the athletes and the coaches in a way that they trust what I say on the air even when they disagree with what I say. They know I do my homework and put my preparation time in.
To me, preparation is akin to breathing because it’s ongoing!
Coaches: From junior high to the pros, do you teach BALL FAKING anymore? Faking moves a defense. Sneaky sideline OB play, too. That dunker is former @IowaHoops @Aaron_White30. ???????????? pic.twitter.com/lA9IVELAM7
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) May 21, 2020
RAY: Another aspect that interests me is your versatility. I was thinking about all the contexts I’ve seen you in. I’ll try to list them all, but I may miss I’ll miss one or two. You did the Olympics. You’ve done college ball, the NBA and the TBT. You’ve done studio work, including the draft. You’ve done women’s basketball. I’m sure I’ve left something out.
FRAN: I’ve also done the big high school games at ESPN.
RAY: Do you have a preference among those?
FRAN: No. Because I was not a great player and I wasn’t a guy that stayed in coaching long enough to develop a reputation as a Hall of Fame-level coach, I have had to learn to be able to handle many different types of assignments. I have a passion for everything.
When I did the women’s NCAA tournament, the biggest challenge was that, unlike on the men’s side, there were teams that were in a particular region that I covered that I hadn’t seen during the season.
So, for example, if I had to cover the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State, I tried to do my homework in that particular week leading up to the women’s NCAA tournament in a way that I treated their players and coaches like I treated Bill Self at Kansas or Tom Izzo at Michigan State.
So that takes a lot more preparation, but I could watch tape and get to know these teams fairly rapidly and then do my research on their stories.
I’ve always prided myself on the viewer saying that, “This guy has done his homework,” regardless of what assignment ESPN has given me. I feel like I’ve never shortchanged ESPN. I’ve probably done over 1000 basketball events for them.
I believe that every person I’ve worked with on a broadcast has probably said, “This guy comes prepared. And he’s easy to work with because he’s a great teammate on the broadcast. He makes people around him better because he’s going to come prepared and with fresh ideas.”
That’s my goal on every broadcast, no matter what assignment they’ve given me. I think part of the reason I stuck around 18 years is that you’re always going to get 100 percent of my effort.
ESPN’s Fraschilla gives favorite KU Jayhawks basketball play | The Kansas City Star https://t.co/zwcR8dsuwb
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) April 9, 2020
There were times during my college coaching career when I told myself that I wanted to be a broadcaster someday. I didn’t know when my coaching career was going to end but I wanted to be a broadcaster because I wanted to maintain my love of the game beyond when my coaching career might end.
I always had a curiosity about the mechanics of broadcasting. Manhattan and St. John’s, being in New York, the media capital of the country, I always had access to the camera.
I wasn’t seeking it out, but if a legendary figure like John Wooden would pass away, one of the local TV stations would send a camera crew out to Queens to get a sound bite from me. If there was something relevant to basketball, I was constantly in front of the camera.
So I got comfortable with doing that.
So that, along with my gift of gab that I grew up with in Brooklyn and the love of the game, married well together. It became a natural segue into a second career.
RAY: You’ve done TBT games. What are your thoughts about that tournament generally and, more specifically, about the Elam ending?
FRAN: What I love about the TBT and its founder Jon Mugar is that he’s created a basketball event that has great summer buzz.
The object of the tournament is a winner-take-all prize of $2 million. The players have high-level college and professional basketball experience from around the world. The rosters include many young former NBA players who didn’t have long careers and guys that are playing overseas currently but are still at the top of their game.
For example, there are guys who played at Marquette or Ohio State at 18 or 19 and then played the next eight years either in the G League or at the highest levels around the world.
We loved watching them play in college, and they are way better players now as professionals than they were then.
So the level of play of an Aaron Craft or a Travis Diener or a Mike James, (who is one of the best players in Europe), is way higher than the college games that I covered during the season. It’s fun to watch guys make shots consistently, like in an NBA game.
So there’s that mystique of the $2 million prize as well as a high level of play.
As it relates to the Elam ending, Jon Mugar has always looked outside the box. The Elam ending is no different than what we all did in the playground, when we were playing to a point total.
In my schoolyard in Flatbush, if we played five on five, generally it was to 11, 15 or 21, and you had to win by two. If you lost, you were off the court.
And on some Saturday mornings, you didn’t get back on the court for an hour after that.
The Elam ending is no different than what we all grew up with. It is perfect for the TBT, AAU basketball and for the NBA All-Star game. Whether it has a shelf life for the NBA season or the NCAA tournament remains to be seen. But it is carving out a niche in basketball with a different kind of exciting flair to it.
Part 2 of this interview, in which Fran dishes on the NBA, G-League and college basketball, can be found here.
Ray is a co-Founder of TBW and frequent contributor. He has a B.A. from Yale University and J.D. from the University of Southern California and is the owner of Ray LeBov and Associates lobbying and consulting firm as well as Capitol Seminars. He is currently Executive Director of the Association for Professional Basketball Research (i.e. the world’s’ pre-eminent professional basketball historians organization) since 2010. He is the founder, publisher, curator and editor of Basketball Intelligence (BI), including a daily email of the best 20-25 NBA-related internet stories as well as original content and podcasts.