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Spezia's ripple indelible amid stormy waters


Mark Woods

Rewind 19 and a bit years. A considerably younger John Spezia fixes his name to the door of Danville Area Community College in the heart of Illinois, a small junior college with no particular reputation for basketball outside its immediate environs. 

Danville is Spezia’s home town. And for 19 years hence, he would remain at the epicentre of its roundball universe, teaching and cajoling young men who passed through its doors and out, he expected, as better rounded individuals.

En route Spezia proved himself as a consistent winner, a banner celebrating the capture of the 1991 NJCAA National Championship hanging in the gym as a permanent testament. There were plenty of unforgettable moments with nothing left to prove, a comfort zone built around his efforts as Coach and Athletic Director. A home to call his own, surely, until retirement called.

Except Spezia likes to challenge and be challenged. He even talks about motivation at conferences and seminars, how to get the best out of people. How to lead.

During his tenure in Danville, Spezia helped more than 55 players receive scholarships to four- year schools to Division I programs. He has had two Junior College All-Americans and six Academic All-Americans plus now Toronto Raptor Keon Clark on his roll call. 

Now though it was time for a change. Then Derby came calling.

No money. An unattractive building. And a history of failure broken up only intermittently by a whiff, if not a meal, of success. Not the place to give up home comforts for. 

Yet Spezia, accompanied by his wife Nancy, did just that last summer, taking the helm of the Storm at a time when its very existence was precariously balanced, seizing a gamble to cross the Atlantic to follow a dream of his own – to coach in professional basketball.

Some dream though.

Fast forward eight months and the Storm are mired, as if in concrete, at the bottom of the Northern Conference. They’ve been there all season, victories barely more regular than British medals at the Winter Olympics. Yet John and Nancy refuse to give up, the project they took on as yet unfinished.

“When I did this I wasn’t looking for a career,” relates the Derby coach. “It came about out of thin air and I still think it’s been a great experience. I’m not happy with where we are record-wise and basketball wise. 

“I’m somewhat disappointed at the overall professionalism of everything. But the experience of the people, the travel, I’d have been foolish not to have taken advantage of that.”

Spezia has a mission statement for his job as mentor and tutor.

It states: “I believe the coach must readily guide and instruct his players to strive to meet their potential and seek the humanistic qualities basketball has to offer. I want the players I have coached to leave with more than just saying they played and averaged a certain number of points or rebounds. My greatest accomplishment is to see my players achieve success in life.”

That Derby’s roster is less talented than any other in the BBL is painfully apparent, even to its chief recruiter.  “Unfortunately a, we’re at the basement of budgets in the league and b, we have the youngest team in the league.  Those are not always conducive to being at the top. It doesn’t mean you can’t be but it makes it just a bit more difficult.”

Yet it has been a rare night when the Storm have been utterly blown away. You could even argue that the Thunderdome hosts the biggest over-achievers in the league. For someone who has been used to winning, it must be hard to take. 

Spezia’s philosophy demands though that hard labour is served, regardless of the opponent or a record which has made his side underdogs in every game.

“We always play teams who are basically better than us but you can beat those teams if you do the little things. Take a charge, get in the right position to get good shots. And execute. And defensively play with the intensity you need to play.

“If you’re not overly talented, you have to do the right things and execute to be successful. Unfortunately when we haven’t done that. 

“Where I come from, it’s about fundamentals. When you see some of what I have seen, it’s disheartening. You can get beat but the other part, that you work at … and then you see mistakes on the court. 

“It’s like maths. Two times two times two. And they come back and say it’s ten after you’ve gone over it for a week. That makes things difficult.”

He sighs: “It’s disappointing more in the teaching and development. When you see those things not coming to fruition that disappoints me. We go through good stretches and then come back and don’t get it done.”

In practice, Derby’s season on the court finished months ago. Off the court Spezia has not rested idle. With Nancy as secretary, administrator and cheerleader in chief, the mission has been to bring people in through the doors and to win over hitherto impregnable hearts.

A formula which worked in Danville has been imported, with minor adjustments. “When there’s just the two of you, it’s hard work,” Nancy interjects with ample enthusiasm.

Working the phones, day and night. Meeting and greeting. Inseparably, the Spezia’s have embraced their adopted city and there have been some signs at least that the favour is being returned. 

“You have to get the community and the city involved,” affirms her husband. “It’s being out there, going into the schools. There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s unfortunate that it’s just the two of us where we started there were four or five of us but they moved on.

“It set up back. If those people had stayed, I think you’d have seen greater improvements because we had a system half-way figured out of what we could have achieved.” 

The effort though is just redoubled and Spezia is quick to praise those who have contributed.

“The thing about Derby, if you asked what are the top ten things about being here, number one would be the people. Two is the people and so is three. We lose and the fans still come and we make sure the players respect that and appreciate it.

“We went after players that were those kind of people first. Maybe in a pure basketball sense, we could have got better. But in being intrinsically involved with what we do in the community and not being a problem off the court, we have great people here.”

Whether Nancy and John remain in the community after May will soon come up for discussion. The job at Danville has been kept open, the path clear for a quick exit from the Thunderdome back to familiar pastures.

Who could blame them? Better the Devil you know than the one which has no money and few rewards.

“September 11 had some effect,” he admits. “And the economic situation, seeing Manchester fold, that changed some of my thinking. I have to be conscious of where I’m going to be in 5-10 years. At 51 years old, I have to be in a position where I take care of Nancy and myself, both from a financial and medical standpoint. It’s not just a basketball thing.

“When I made the decision to do this, I saw it as a business move. I have to look at where we’re going and see where the figures are going to go. It’s a decision I’ll make at the end of the season.”

No regrets then. Except perhaps one. That there wasn’t more luck or more wins. 

“I have been a very lucky person and although I haven’t been lucky this year, in the last ten or twelve years I have been very blessed. If you win the National Championship, which is such a big deal in the United States, you are very fortunate – any of the coaches in this league would love to be in that position.”

John and Nancy will likely leave for home in the summer. They’ll be gone from Derby. But certainly not forgotten. 

For Spezia, like his players, accomplishment and success will not just be measured in points and wins.

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