The college basketball season was winding down to the last precious days; the grind of three full months of workouts was coming to an end.
But a quick peek at the Yanitelli Center’s gym at St. Peter’s University did not reveal a team playing out the string.
Shaheen Holloway’s first year as head coach of the men’s basketball team at “Harvard on the Boulevard” was drawing to a close. During Holloway’s first campaign, the Peacocks lost three times as many games as they won, but you’d never know it, judging from this practice session.
This team was alert and hanging on to Holloway’s every word, as energized as their boyish 41-year-old coach; Holloway looks almost the same as he did when he was a McDonald’s All-America at St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth (now known as the Patrick School) or as a standout point guard at Seton Hall University.
He’s in Charge
Holloway wasn’t about to take a day off; it’s his program now. He’s no longer the dutiful assistant coach, sitting for over a decade next to Kevin Willard at his college alma mater. Holloway was selected to be the new face of the basketball program and maybe the entire school. Unbelievably, he’s the first African-American to hold the job; 15 white men preceded him.
“I didn’t know that until the second or third day I was here,” Holloway said. “I’m a basketball coach. I’m not a black coach or a white coach. It doesn’t matter at all. I’ve been around diversity my whole life.”
But Holloway’s hiring meant a lot to a lot of people, especially the new athletic director who had to pull some strings to make it happen.
Bryan Felt arrived at SPU as athletic director in September of 2017 from Seton Hall, where he served as an associate athletic director in charge of the Pirate Blue Fund. Felt knew that he had to make a gigantic splash with his first big hire.
Felt found the funds to land Holloway by getting affluent alumni to kick in. It was a gamble, hiring a prospect with no prior head coaching experience to head a program that wasn’t as successful as it once was.
“I’ve known Shaheen for a long time,” Felt said. “We were at Seton Hall together. When I came here, I had a list of things that I had to do, but hiring a basketball coach was the last thing I thought I was going to have to do. When John [Dunne] left, and I immediately thought of Shaheen. I knew that his goal was to get an NCAA Division I coaching job. Looking at this university and how much it has changed, becoming one of the most diverse communities in New Jersey, it was time to have an African-American men’s basketball coach. I knew we would have some challenges; he had never been a head coach before.”
Accepting the Challenge
“I believed in myself,” Holloway said. “Not that I’m cocky, but I’ve had to handle challenges my whole life. The situation was right, and the timing was right. You always want to be your own boss.”
Felt was willing to roll the dice.
“Shaheen embraced Jersey City,” Felt said. “He engages with people and tries to meet with the community. He has a reputation of developing young men. He’s so good at being a mentor.”
Shaheen Holloway has always been a positive role model, first as a player and later as a coach. He was an attention-grabbing point guard at St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth, where he played for former Peacock point guard Kevin Boyle and helped put St. Patrick’s on the national scholastic basketball map.
Holloway earned Parade All-America in 1996, leaving St. Patrick’s with 2,151 points and more than 750 assists.
Holloway was the object of a fierce college recruiting battle, with Duke, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and UCLA all coveting his services. But he chose to stay home with the Seton Hall Pirates, scoring 1,588 points and collecting 688 assists, which remains a school record. Holloway led the Pirates to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in 2000.
Coming up Short
Holloway tried to make it in the NBA, taking invites to three training camps, including the New York Knicks. His lack of height hurt his chances, but he did play in the United States Basketball League, as well as overseas in Israel, Turkey, Germany, Great Britain, and Venezuela.
When his professional career ended in 2007, Holloway turned to coaching, first at Bloomfield Tech, then at Iona College and finally Seton Hall, before getting his chance to be a head coach last September.
“When I first came, I reached out to the seniors,” Holloway said. “I wanted to make sure that they went out with a bang, give them something to remember.”
Holloway’s arrival was applauded by the returning players.
“When he first came, I did my research,” said senior point guard Davauhnte Turner. “I Googled him and found out who he was and what he’s done. I figured he knew the game, and I could learn from him. I became a sponge.”
Fellow senior Samuel Idowu was also impressed.
“I knew he played at a high level,” Idowu said. “I was enthusiastic about him coaching. I thought we would learn a lot from him.”
Turner appreciated Holloway’s style.
“This may sound crazy, but when he’s coaching, it feels like he’s still playing,” said Turner, the Peacocks’ leading scorer who averaged close to 17 points per game this season. “He’s so pumped up, and that gets me pumped up as well.”
“I had to get used to it,” said Idowu, who averaged close to 12 points per game this season. “He’s definitely pushed me to higher limits that I never thought I could do.”
In the Stars
For Holloway, coaching was in the cards
“It was always part of the plan when I was playing,” he said. “From day one, I wanted to get into coaching.”
But Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither is a Division 1 basketball program.
“I knew that it was going to be a challenge,” Holloway said. I have to look at the big picture. It’s all part of the process.”
There’s one part of the process that Holloway wasn’t ready for: the losing part. For his entire basketball life, Holloway has been a winner. What did it feel like to lose? Holloway paused and took a deep breath, like he was standing at the free throw line late in a game.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “I don’t like it. I want to win right now. That’s who I am. I understand that it’s going to take some time. I’m always very hard on myself. I have to get used to certain things, like travel. But losing is not one of them.”
But Felt is happy with Holloway’s progress.
“I’m looking at the whole picture,” Felt said. “I see the way the student/athletes respond to him. I’m impressed with his game preparation. He has this special toughness as a coach. He has a ton of potential. This program has a ton of potential as well. He’s brought in a different perspective.”
Holloway is enjoying himself. You can see it in the energy of his practices.
“I’m learning on the job too,” he said. “Everything starts with me. I have to do a better job. I’m getting there.”
The players agree.
“I love Coach Holloway,” said Davauhnte Turner. “I never had anyone believe in me the way Coach Holloway does.”—JCM