Leila Gray Shapiro entered the world last October 23. Because the Sacramento Kings’ NBA season was then beginning, her uncle Daniel, a coach on the team, couldn’t see little Leila for a while – so her Jewish baby-naming ceremony had to be delayed until last Sunday.
With the regular season long-over and the woeful Kings again missing the playoffs,
Shapiro would be back in his native Seattle to celebrate with his family.
Shapiro’s schedule promises to cause far less disruption going forward because he’s just begun working as the strength and conditioning coach for the University of Washington men’s basketball team in Seattle, in America’s Pacific Northwest.
Shapiro, 35, very nearly moved home this spring, anyway – with the very same Kings, then on the verge of being sold to a Seattle technology tycoon who planned to move the team there.
But the sale fell through in May when a buyer emerged who pledged to keep the team in Sacramento, and the city – whose mayor, Kevin Johnson, had been a star point guard in the NBA – committed to building a new arena for the Kings.
Keeping the already-well-traveled Kings in Sacramento apparently was the NBA’s preference all along. The franchise, launched as the Rochester (NY) Royals in 1945 and later relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio, and Kansas City enjoys strong fan support, a function, in large part, of its being the only major professional sports team in the California capital.
The family that sold the Kings last month, the Maloofs, is, interestingly enough, of Lebanese descent. Gavin Maloof, one of the owners, told this reporter in 2011 that, with the Israeli forward Omri Casspi on the Kings, he wanted to bring the team to Israel for an exhibition game. Maloof’s goal went unrealized.
While Casspi didn’t get to go home then, Shapiro is doing so now. In a telephone conversation Monday night, Shapiro said that “it was always a long-term goal [and] always a dream” for him to move back to Seattle, “but I didn’t know when” the opportunity would arrive.
The best he could do in recent years was to return every December 24 – the Kings usually had Christmas off – to partake in the Seattle Jewish community’s large singles event. That’s where Shapiro met one of his girlfriends and where his brother, Elan, met his future wife, Emily.
The gatherings, known as Latkepalooza, turned out to be “very good for the Shapiro boys,” Shapiro said. But beyond the singles-scene aspect, the annual event presented a welcome opportunity for the still-single Shapiro to catch up with old friends. Shapiro grew up in the suburb of Renton, went to Hebrew school, attended Jewish summer camp and belonged to the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO).
Since starting his new job in late May, Shapiro has been settling in. He found an apartment to rent in nearby Kirkland and plans to join the synagogue he was raised in, Herzl-Ner Tamid, in nearby Mercer Island.
‘He’s a class act, one of the nicest guys there was in the league – aside from his ability as a strength and conditioning coach’
Shapiro spent eight years with the Kings. They reached the playoffs his first season there, but quickly sank to mediocrity and then irrelevance and haven’t returned to the postseason.
Throughout his career, which began with Ohio’s University of Dayton in 2003, Shapiro said he has not worked with another Jewish coach or player – with one notable exception. That occurred for two seasons, beginning in 2009, when Casspi joined the Kings and became the first Israeli to reach the NBA.
Casspi and Shapiro quickly became friends. They often shared meals in Sacramento and on the road, and celebrated Jewish holidays together. The two even lit Chanukah candles in a room in the Kings’ arena following a 2009 game, joined by their mothers, who were visiting.
Casspi’s trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers two years ago curtailed their get-togethers. Shapiro and Casspi last saw one another in January, when the Kings and Cleveland played each other twice.
“I’m happy for him,” Casspi, reached Tuesday in Tel Aviv, said of Shapiro’s job with the Huskies. “He’s a class act, one of the nicest guys there was in the league – aside from his ability as a strength and conditioning coach.”
With the Kings, Shapiro helped players rehabilitate from various injuries, devised regimens to keep them in top physical shape
“We had some wonderful years in Sacramento,” Casspi said, likely referring to their friendship rather than the team’s play during their two seasons together that produced a 49-115 won-loss record. “The organization and players love him. He matured and grew up as a man there. Going to the University of Washington – I’m so happy for him.”
With the Kings, Shapiro helped players rehabilitate from various injuries, devised exercise and nutritional regimens to keep them in top physical shape and even helped them stretch their bodies before games. His job is much the same at Washington, which is a member of the Pacific-12 Conference and plays most of its games in-state and in such neighboring states as Arizona, California and Oregon.
Huskies players so far seem impressed by Shapiro’s NBA pedigree, although the team’s head coach, Lorenzo Romar, actually played in the league. The players, Shapiro said, have asked how he enjoyed training such Kings stars as Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins.
One thing the professional and collegiate teams share is a record of near futility. The Kings enjoyed five consecutive excellent seasons early in the last decade, but otherwise their history is fairly dismal. Washington’s basketball team hasn’t ever reached the NCAA’s championship game.
But improvement will eventually come, and the challenge of helping young players to achieve their potential remains consistent in Shapiro’s new position.
‘I’m training kids who are trying to get where I’ve been. I can help them work toward the same goal’
“I’m training kids who are trying to get where I’ve been. I can help them work toward the same goal,” Shapiro, referring to the NBA, said Monday night while heading to a friend’s house to watch the deciding game in the NBA’s Eastern Conference championship between Indiana and Miami.
Huskies players already have “asked me certain questions: How high did this guy jump? How strong is that guy?” Shapiro said.
“I’m excited about the new challenge: to get the most out of young athletes, to be a role model to some fine young men, to be an important character for teens in their development as winning athletes.”