By Howie Magner
He’s won before, and LaVall Jordan expects to win again. But as his first season at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee approaches, what matters most to the new head men’s basketball coach is forging the bonds of family within his Milwaukee Panthers team.
Jordan was raised by family in the broadest sense, not just by mom and dad, but also by an aunt and uncle, a grandmother and grandfather. At various points during his upbringing, he lived with them all. Each had a distinct impact, and all held him accountable.
His uncle, Lige Ridley, insisted on driving him to class every morning rather than let him take the school bus. His aunt, Jetha Jeffers, had him mow lawns and tend gardens at the properties she owned, often ending his procrastination with a simple statement: The dreading is worse than the doing. “I tell that to my daughters now,” Jordan says. He has three.
Always implicit was the message that Jordan’s actions represented his family – mother Karen Jordan and father Nate Mitchell, grandparents Lloyd and JoAnn Mitchell, and on down the line. Also clear was that his accomplishments, or mistakes, reflected on his community. And if his grades weren’t good enough, he would not play basketball.
But he played plenty in the south-central Michigan town of Albion, a working class enclave with a small town high school that knew big basketball success. In a state title game, he faced future NBA champ Shane Battier, and did so with a broken nose. From there, it was on to a college career at Butler University.
In many ways, Butler is where Jordan became the man he is today. He won 91 games there from 1997- 2001, more than any previous Butler player. In 2001, he led the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament victory in 39 years. Later, in 2003, it’s where his coaching career began. But Butler’s biggest effect on Jordan was a personal one: It’s where he met his wife, Destinee. “He says I was his best recruiting job ever,” she says.
Their family grew along with his coaching career, which featured assistant roles at Butler, Iowa and Michigan, and now the head job at UWM. During his six Michigan seasons, the Wolverines reached five NCAA Tournaments. In 2013, they played in the national championship game that his youngest daughter, just 3 months old, watched from the stands. “We joke all the time,” Destinee says, “that he has sons in his job and the ladies at home.”
“You do,” LaVall Jordan admits, “end up with two families. You have your basketball family, and your family at home.” But they need not remain separate entities. “You merge them.”
The evidence is right there on his phone. He holds it up and swipes through some photographs. There’s a family dinner in April 2016, one interrupted by a phone call offering the UWM job. There are shots of Jordan’s former players at his home reading books with his children. There are texts featuring Bible scriptures, sent daily by a coach from his Butler playing days.
It’s that type of tight-knit, long-term kinship that Jordan is determined to create on his UWM team.
“You want guys to have that great experience,” Jordan says. “The daily interactions and relationships make that experience for them. The winning makes it, too, but it’s always been about the players for me.”
He knows it can happen at UWM – the friendships and camaraderie, the excitement and the winning – not just because he’s seen it before, but because it’s happened at UWM before, too.
He rattles off the names of former Panthers coaches Bo Ryan and Bruce Pearl and Rob Jeter, and notes that he has big shoes to fill. “That was one of the things that drew me,” Jordan says. “We’ve seen it here before.”
He wants to see it again. To watch it happen, call the UWM ticket office at (414) 229-5886 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Panthers host an exhibition game against Concordia Wisconsin Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Klotsche Center, and start the regular season Friday, Nov. 11, against Milwaukee School of Engineering at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.