David Ancrum instructs the 2016-17 boys basketball team during a game against Golden Sierra. (Photo by Kevin Huang)

Head basketball coach recalls journey from CBA to Country Day

“You late!”

It’s an all-too-familiar phrase for varsity basketball players as they enter the 85-degree Country Day gymnasium at 7:01 a.m.

“You text me?”

If yes, everything’s fine. If no, prepare to sit on the bench for a while.

Head coach David Ancrum holds strict standards for his players, but he hasn’t always commanded this level of respect on the court.

Ancrum didn’t start playing basketball until he was 15 or 16 years old in Long Island, New York, where he grew up.

After playing on the junior varsity in his junior year of high school, Ancrum was cut as a senior.

“I noticed I still loved (basketball) and wanted to work at it even though I wasn’t on the team,” Ancrum said. “I just played in the playgrounds.”

He attended junior college at SUNY (State University of New York) Morrisville after writing to the coach.

“I said, ‘I’d like to come to your school. I didn’t play (on the varsity) in high school, but I’d like to try out for your team,’” Ancrum said.

In response, Ancrum received a two-page quasi-rejection letter that he used as motivation to eventually make the team.

“I knew once I got the letter back that (Morrisville) was where I wanted to go to school,” he said. “Anytime I didn’t feel like practicing, I looked at that letter and then worked on my game.

“When I got to school, he saw me play, and two weeks later they gave me a scholarship.”

After two years at Morrisville, Ancrum was recruited by Utica College as a transfer and cemented his legacy there in only two years.

Ancrum shoots for the Utica College men’s basketball team. During his two years playing for Utica, he scored over 1,000 points. (Photo courtesy of Basketbook)

Ancrum was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2010 and remains the school’s all-time leader in points per game (23.1) in 47 games. He’s also Utica’s only player to reach 1,000 career points in fewer than four seasons and score more than 600 points in one season.

After completing his eligibility in 1980, the 6-foot-5 Ancrum began his professional career in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA).

“The biggest challenge was coming from Division III Utica College and playing for Phil Jackson the very next year,” he said. “I didn’t really have a jump shot, and I didn’t rebound well. I had to find a position because I was just a basketball player.”

Ancrum credits Jackson, the Albany Patroons’ coach at the time, with transforming him into a true shooting guard and preparing him to play overseas.

“I owe that guy my life,” he said. “He always put me in a position where I would succeed.

“He was very good at managing egos because we had some knuckleheads on our team, but he kept us all in place. Then I look at what he did with Scottie (Pippen), Dennis (Rodman) and Mike (Jordan). And with Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) and Kobe (Bryant), he did the same thing.”

After coaching Ancrum on the Patroons from 1984-86, Jackson eventually won 11 NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, including three three-peats, cementing himself as a legendary coach. 

“He used to give us books to read on road trips,” he said. “Back then, it was magazines because he wasn’t making the kind of money that he (did later). He would read articles, and if it (related to) you or your lifestyle, he would tell you to read it.”

After three years in the CBA, Ancrum continued his basketball journey overseas. He played in Panama and Ecuador, then signed with Iraklis in the Greek League.

“Now, I had a position as two (shooting) guard, and I just worked on getting better at my craft,” he said. “It was wonderful. I got a chance to play all the time and be the man. I had no idea what that meant until I went over to Greece.”

Playing in 104 Greek League games for Iraklis, Ancrum averaged 33.7 points per game. 

“A lot of the games, it was sink or swim how well I performed,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous because I’d been working on my craft the whole time. 

“I didn’t mind us going into a game (where) I had to get 30 points for us to win. I loved it: I got a chance to play and learned how to really be a professional.”

After his first year in Greece, Ancrum visited his sister in Sacramento over the summer and connected with NBA players.

“I was working out with a couple of guys I knew, and I saw Kenny Smith, who played with the (Sacramento) Kings, down at the other basket,” he said. “So I let my ball roll all the way down there. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just asked him to play a game of H-O-R-S-E. He looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know who I am?’”

After H-O-R-S-E turned into multiple games of one-on-one, Smith invited Ancrum to work at a basketball camp at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills. 

Ancrum said Smith told him to bring an extra shirt to play in after the camp finished.

“I see all these cars like Mercedes and BMW pulling up, so I thought it was the parents coming to pick up their kids,” he said. “All of a sudden, I see (then-active or retired NBA players) LaSalle Thompson, Kevin Johnson, Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, Rick Fox, Rick Barry, Henry Turner and Harold Pressley. I was a nervous wreck, and (Kenny) saved me by saying, ‘Hey, come on my team.’

“As I started playing, I noticed that these guys miss shots just like everybody else, (but) they didn’t miss that many. Their game was just sharper. The more I played, the more confident I got. So I felt I might not get on an NBA roster or get a tryout, but I can play with these guys. At the end of the day, that’s all I wanted.”

After connecting with the professionals in Sacramento, Ancrum decided to move to the capital. He’d continue to play overseas and fly home to Sacramento in the summertime.

Due to a knee injury, Ancrum retired as a player at age 40 and pivoted to coaching. 

He learned about Country Day after training Brett Danilson 20 years ago.

“I coached him in the eighth grade, and when he got to ninth grade, the position (as boys varsity basketball coach) became available,” he said. “So, I applied for it, got it, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Training B-Love, as Ancrum nicknamed Danilson, kick-started the “lab” in the SCDS gymnasium. 

“I was outside in the back training (Danilson), and his father told us to go to the gym since nobody was in there,” he said. “B-Love would tell his friend, (who) would tell somebody else, (who) would tell Robbie Lemons (‘10), who’d tell everybody else, and then it became a workout place for Country Day kids and professionals.

“(The Kings’) Donté Greene found out about it, then he brought in (teammate) Jason Thompson, and then (teammate) Kevin Martin would come in. Guys started coming in because they enjoyed that they could be themselves and get their work in along with their sons, daughters or cousins who just came in town.”

Lemons, one of Ancrum’s all-time best players, finished second nationally with 36.4 points per game as a senior. He said he thinks of Ancrum as a “second father.”

“(Ancrum) was so supportive,” Lemons said. “He did everything he could to make me realize my dream, including driving down to Stanford to talk to coaches. 

“He was always willing to come to the plate for me, which is instinctual for him and reflective of who he is. I’ll always be thankful (because) he’s a big part of why I had any success in basketball.”

Lemons walked on at Stanford and eventually earned an athletic scholarship.

Remind you of anyone?

By Jackson Crawford

Originally published in the April 28 edition of the Octagon.