Shantay Legans had accepted the inevitable back in the spring of 2011: He was out of a job.
Eastern Washington had just fired his boss, basketball coach Kirk Earlywine. His assistants, including Legans, were resigned to, well, resigning.
By the time new coach Jim Hayford arrived in Cheney that spring, Legans’ bags were all but packed and his mind was stuffed with self-doubt.
Perhaps Legans’ mom was right: He should get out of college coaching, move back to California and triple his salary as a high school teacher and coach.
Hayford met briefly with the holdover assistants before telling them, “I’ll let you know.” He also asked a favor of Legans and his colleagues: a scouting report on Eastern’s returning players.
Legans saw the request for what it was: a second chance.
“I really wanted to stay, so I got on it right away,” said Legans, who spent all night compiling a detailed report that went far beyond Hayford’s request.
Impressed, Hayford replied with a dinner invitation – and an offer to stay.
“I knew within 48 hours that I could enjoy working with him every single day,” Hayford said. “Shantay has a unique ability to win almost anyone over at, ‘Hello.’ ”
Now it’s time for “goodbye,” and Hayford is still impressed. Pursuing the opening at Seattle University was easier because he knew Legans would be in the running to succeed him.
“He’s been a blessing to me,” said Hayford, who spoke like a proud parent two weeks ago when Legans was named Eastern Washington’s 18th head coach.
The moment was even more profound for Legans, who’s waited half a lifetime for this moment.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Legans said.
A basketball life
Legans could have been a Zag.
He also could have ended up on the streets. With both parents jailed on drug charges, Legans moved as a young child with his grandparents in Los Angeles.
After his mother Susan got her life back together, Legans rejoined her in Goleta, California, near Santa Barbara.
His father was still out of the picture. Susan turned to the local Big Brothers and Sisters of America, which turned up one match – a 29-year-old assistant basketball coach at UC Santa Barbara named Ray Lopes.
“I was bummed because he wasn’t a player,” Legans said.
Disappointment turned into something special: Lopes was there as Legans developed into a talented point guard.
A trash-talking point guard.
“Fiery” is how Legans describes himself as a high school player. By that time, Lopes was an assistant at Washington State and Oklahoma under Kelvin Sampson, but he still found time to give Legans a few long-distance lectures on basketball etiquette.
“I calmed down when I realized that it wasn’t the way to act,” said Legans, who by his senior year in 1998-99 was the seventh-ranked point guard in the nation, according to Recruiting USA.
Offers came from California, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Davidson and an emerging program at Gonzaga.
Mark Few was once on the other end of the line.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to take a visit to Spokane,’ ” Legans said.
“I wish I had.”
Legans had all but committed to Cal. He spent the next three years in Berkeley, averaging 10.4 points and 4.4 assists while helping lead the Golden Bears to a 61-35 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
With a year of eligibility left, he transferred to Fresno State, where Lopes was head coach. Friends and Cal teammates “said I was crazy,” said Legans, who had to sit out a year.
“But I wanted to play for my mentor,” said Legans, who averaged 15 points and 5.6 assists while averaging more than 38 minutes per game in his final college season.
After chasing his NBA dreams to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, Legans was struck by reality at age 26: “I’m good, but I’m not that good.”
The road to Cheney
A degree in African-American studies from FSU in his pocket, Legans considered a career in social work. He had spent two years as a high school assistant in Santa Barbara when Earlywine called in 2009.
It wasn’t exactly the sweetest contract: no office, no car and a whopping $16,000 annual salary. His girlfriend wouldn’t leave home, but that’s life.
“All I could think about was coaching,” said Legans, who was 28 at the time.
The Eagles struggled under Earlywine, going 42-78 over four years. Legans got his feet wet and learned a few things about defense before Earlywine was fired.
He learned even more under Hayford: how to find mismatches on offense, dealing with donors and other factors off the court and how to relate to players.
Legans emerged as the Eagles’ main recruiter, helping Hayford make a presence in Australia and in Europe.
“I could turn over a recruiting contact to him and nobody was going to beat Shantay,” Hayford said. “Once that recruit met Shantay, they loved him.”
That charm extended to Legans’ personal life. He met his future wife, former EWU basketball player Tatjana Sparavalo, while playing table tennis at the Eagle’s Pub in Cheney.
“She’s very competitive, and so am I,” said Legans, who married Sparavalo in 2014. Daughter Zola Lee was born last summer.
Two years ago, as the Eagles marched toward an NCAA Tournament appearance, Hayford told Legans that he had the stuff to be a Division I head coach.
“That gave me a lot of confidence,” Legans said.
A new beginning
It’s been a busy month for Legans, who still hasn’t found time to move into Hayford’s old office. His time is dominated by recruiting players and finding two new assistants. David Riley is the lone holdover.
Now 35, Legans talks excitedly about the future. The Eagles lost two starters from last year’s 22-12 squad but have a solid group of returnees led by forward Bogdan Bliznyuk.
The backcourt will be more experienced, with Sir Washington, Ty Gibson and Cody Benzel.
“We’ll have a team that can run a little more,” Legans said.
After helping Hayford build a winning culture, Legans wants to preserve it. That means finding selfless players and no cliques.
“It’s all about finding guys, that when you sit down with them, you can tell there’s something special about them,” Legans said.
Legans also draws inspiration from the school he turned down almost two decades ago.
“At GU, they have great kids there – you want to follow their example as much as you can,” Legans said.
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