Some say you can never go home.
Rod Strickland’s legendary basketball career began in the Bronx back as a youth in the 1970s. Now the epilogue of his basketball journey has brought him back to New York as the head coach for Long Island University.
“It feels good,” said Strickland during a telephone interview this past weekend. “I have a lot of friends, and family relationships. Being in Brooklyn with their basketball history, Pearl Washington was my idol. The Nets are right down the street. New York is where everything is and I’m happy to be home.”
You have to be tough to play and coach in New York, as the local media can be harsh in covering its sports teams. Strickland knows the landscape, as he’s been in the public eye since being a high school star at Truman in the Bronx in the early ’80s and then becoming a first round pick (19th overall) of the Knicks in 1988 after a stellar college career leading DePaul University to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
“There’s always a certain amount of fortitude that comes with New York,” he noted. “I’ve been a part of basketball in so many different areas. Coaching is another challenge, another journey, and another opportunity.”
Strickland looks to rebuild a program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2018 after reaching the field in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Since that time, the LIU athletic program has undergone significant changes. Effective beginning in the 2019-20 school year, the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds and the LIU Post Pioneers (DII) athletic programs merged and renamed the LIU Sharks led by university president Kimberly R. Cline and Director of Athletics Dr. William E. Martinov Jr.
With the 56-year-old Strickland in tow, they hope to evolve into a local powerhouse competing in the Division I Northeast Conference. LIU plays its home games in Brooklyn at both the Steinberg Wellness Center and the Barclays Center. “There are guys who went into the transfer portal and looked for different opportunities, the guys who stayed are going to work hard and compete,“ said Strickland. “We have to recruit and add new pieces, and I’m looking forward to getting these guys together in one building and seeing what we have.”
Reconstructing a program isn’t going to be easy, but if anyone can do it, it’s Strickland. He’s been in the trenches before with rebuilding teams, including the Knicks early in his NBA playing career––which spanned 17 seasons––under then head coach Rick Pitino, who is currently the head coach of the Iona College men’s team. In Strickland’s rookie season of 1988-89, the Knicks secured their second straight postseason appearance after missing the playoffs the previous five seasons.
On the college level, Strickland was the director of basketball operations for John Calipari at the University of Memphis, was a member of Calipari’s staff at Kentucky, and assistant coach at the University of South Florida. Most recently, he was instrumental in growing the NBA G League Ignite in his role as program director and left the Ignite to take the job at LIU. Over the past two NBA Drafts four Ignite players have been selected in the first round.
With so many opportunities for top local high school talent at major colleges, the G League and Overtime Elite, which signs players to pro contracts as young as 16, Strickland’s charge is to keep a few at home and offer them a high quality experience at LIU. The pressing question is what are the upsides to playing at home?
“The modern New York player knows what New York is, and all the pressure that comes with it,” he reasoned.
“It’s about raising the bar and bringing the program back to the days when Charles Jones played when they were really good. Playing well and doing great in NY means something, you’re on the big stage. Just being able to perform and develop in your hometown means something, and it makes the journey that much more special.”
Pressure? No problem asserted Strickland, the godfather of Brooklyn Nets All-Star Kyrie Irving. As one of the NBA’s best point guards of his era, Strickland scored 14, 463 points and dished out 7, 987 assists, which is 13th all-time in NBA history.
“I never put pressure on myself,” he said. “I have always been even keel. Pressure to me is like a narrative, I just feel like I have to go in, develop, create a culture, and get guys to compete.”
Can Strickland’s past success as a player, assistant and G League executive translate as a head coach? He already has a blueprint for success. How Strickland implements it remains to be seen.
“You can’t get to the milestones or the wins without a culture,” he maintained. “Playing well and accountability, so that’s the first goal, to get a group of young men to come together for one goal.”
Strickland has finally come home.