When the Utah Jazz’s braintrust interviewed candidates for the vacant head coaching position, there were a ton of applicants who impressed with the prowess of their résumés.
There were storied coaching backgrounds, influential mentors and milestones that had been checked off like items on a grocery list.
All possessed a high-level basketball acumen, are well-regarded around the NBA and had proven in some capacity that they can command a locker room.
So why did Will Hardy — 34-year-old Will Hardy — stand out? How is it that Hardy, more than any of the veteran NBA coaches, blew the Jazz away from the beginning of the interview process?
What is it that made this young man, who had never been a head coach, shine in a crowd?
Hardy has a presence, a calming leadership demeanor that is backed by the power of his own 6-foot-6 frame. He is driven and knows how much he’s accomplished and believes he can accomplish much more, but he also admits that he doesn’t know everything.
He soared through the Jazz’s questions, he aced scouting report and player development plan exercises.
“And on top of all of that,” Jazz CEO of basketball Danny Ainge said. “Many times, in his answers, he spoke my language.”
What language is that? It’s like a basketball love language — one of a defined philosophy and a set of beliefs about how to push players and get the best out of them.
“Toughness, sacrifice and passion,” Hardy said when asked about his mission statement for the Jazz.
When Hardy started to explain to Ainge that three-word motto and how he would approach practices, Ainge lit up.
“There were three things,” Ainge said. “First, he doesn’t like five-on-zero practices, and I don’t either. He wants his players to feel the pressure of a game in every practice scenario.
Second, he wants practices to involve more transition, which is what we all think needs more attention, on both sides of the ball. And third, he wants to practice more.”
Practice? We’re talking about practice?
Yes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s what Hardy’s practice beliefs say about what he expects from the team.
“I would like for everybody to recognize that this is bigger than them individually,” Hardy said. “Everybody’s gonna have to get out of their comfort zone a little bit as they move forward — just the energy that this takes every single day from everybody if you want to be successful.”
Practices might not go for two or three hours. Instead they might only last for 30 minutes, but they are likely to happen more frequently than the players are used to.
They’ll be hard and Hardy wants full energy and absolute commitment through the duration of a practice, no matter how difficult, or how long, or how tough of a loss the team is coming off of.
The sessions will involve 5-on-5, intense workouts and players will have to face their weaknesses and work to develop better habits through increased repetition.
The NBA season is long and grueling, and Hardy will ask a lot of the Jazz players. There will be late nights and early mornings and long conversations, and that means there will be time given to the team rather than elsewhere, like with family or friends or partners.
Hardy wants more from everyone. He wants to help accentuate the strengths in his players and push them to develop skills beyond what they already have.
More practices, more conversations, more analysis, and in order for everyone to be willing to give more, more often there has to be a deep love for the game and for the collective goal.
In order to reach the point where Hardy feels like his expectations and his three-word mission can be met, he has to make the players, his coaching staff and everyone in the organization believe that he too is tough, willing to sacrifice and has the necessary passion.
“It was really important to me and my family to get out here as quickly as possible and start to build those relationships,” Hardy said.
“For me to be an effective leader, I have to have that personal capital built up with everybody, and so my goal these first couple of months is to really hope that everybody here gets to know me as a person before you get to know me as a coach.”
Hardy has sacrificed a lot to get to this point and he’ll be putting in as much if not more work now than he ever has.
His wife Spencer and the couple’s two young daughters will also be sacrificing. Hardy is a long way from home (Richmond, Virginia,) and he’ll miss out on things for the greater good of the team.
He’s going to be someone that is there for his players not just on the court or about basketball matters, but everything else as well.
But in order to understand the sacrifices that Hardy is going to make, in order to understand the passion he has for the game and this job, in order to understand how tough he is going to be as a leader and in the care he puts into preparing and planning, the players are going to have to get to know him.
Mutual respect for equal effort is what Hardy is hoping will drive his players to want to live by his three-word creed.
Toughness. Sacrifice. Passion.