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A 20-year Air Force veteran could just become college basketball’s next star head coach

UCLA assistant coach David Grace, hanging with prized recruit Lonzo Ball. Ball will enroll at UCLA this fall, and could be a 'one and done' player.

Except that while Grace looks like any other coach strolling the sidelines in 2016, his humble beginnings two decades ago are unlike anything you’ve ever heard. At the time he wasn’t some young hot-shot with a basketball dream, but a man in his early 30’s with a family. He had no ties to Division I basketball and no degree, a necessity to coach major college basketball.

Oh, and there was one more thing: At the time he was more than a decade into a 20-year commitment to the United States Air Force, a career that had taken him to places such as Germany and Saudi Arabia, where he was part of the operation that fueled the planes flying over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

So how did he go from the Middle East to that sweltering gym in Virginia to the cozy confines of Pauley Pavilion, where he now sits as one of the hottest assistant coaches in all of college basketball?

It’s a road which includes coaching stops in AAU ball, high school, small colleges and big, while raising a family, getting an education and most importantly, serving his country.  

While Grace’s journey is hitting a wild crescendo, it comes with a pretty modest beginning. Growing up in Aberdeen, Maryland, he was a three-sport athlete and diehard fan who to this day, has a Baltimore Orioles logo as his cell phone background.   

At the age of 12 though, things began to change. Grace’s parents had divorced a few years earlier, and when his mother remarried, her new husband, an Army man, uprooted the family to Fort Riley, Kansas. For the next six years the moves never really stopped, meaning that even as Grace evolved into a Division I caliber point guard in high school, it was impossible for college coaches to keep up. A transfer prior to his senior year made him ineligible to play his final year of high school ball on a team in Louisiana where he would have paired up with future LSU star and NBA draft pick Nikita Wilson.

Still, Grace believed he had the goods to play D1 ball, and planned on enrolling as a walk-on at nearby Northwestern State. At least until he found out his family simply couldn’t afford it.

David Grace looks on, as the man who gave him the opportunity of a lifetime, Steve Alford, draws up a play.

Instead, Grace decided that his best option for future stability would be the military. He opted for the Air Force, ultimately wooed by a recruiter who told him about the job of "fuel specialist." There, he would spend his days catching runs, making sure all the Air Force jets were fueled up and ready to go.

For a man who now makes his living on recruiting pitches, it was one which seemed too good to be true. Until he showed up for the first day of training.  

"I made it through basic training, and from there I went to tech school to learn my trade," Grace said. "And there they show a film ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ which shows people blowing up trying to put fuel in airplanes. It’s very volatile. And so that right there was a significant, emotional event. All of a sudden, it’s real."

Eventually though he adapted to military life, and a couple years in, married a woman he’d known since the eighth grade, and started a family soon after. What he initially saw as something he’d briefly do to help him pay for college had turned into a career.

Yet after a transfer to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, that is where a new career — the one he’s in now — began to blossom. Grace had thought about doing some refereeing to make some extra money for his family, but when he walked into his new supervisor’s office — a fellow fuel specialist named Carl Harris — he noticed a number of coaching plaques on the wall.

Harris was coaching in Boo Williams’ AAU program, working with 13-year-olds. He invited Grace down to his practice that night, and the novice coach was stunned at what he saw.

"We were more organized than your average guy off the street coaching," Harris said. "Practice started at this time, and then, the next 30 minutes, this is what we’re doing, and the next 15 minutes that’s what we’re doing. I think that really kind of caught his eye, being a military guy. Structure exists everywhere but you can have fun doing it."

Days later Grace accepted Harris’ offer to be the team’s assistant coach, one that would turn into a head-coaching gig one when Harris was transferred by the Air Force to Korea.

While Grace continued to work his full-time career, others began to notice his passion for his second job, especially Boo Williams himself. The AAU coaching legend, who counted Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning and Joe Smith among his former players, saw that Grace not only had the skill to succeed, but the work ethic to eventually make it happen.

David Grace took the long road in college basketball coaching. 

"If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they wanted to be a college coach, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you," Williams said. "One thing about him, he’s not that kind of guy. He’s a workaholic. Nine times out of 10, people want to collect the paycheck but they don’t want the work that goes with it. David isn’t like that."

When Grace spoke to Williams about a head coaching career (after that first, moment of epiphany at Williams’ AAU tournament), the legendary coach gave his support. But also a warning. 

"I told him, you’ve got to go get your education," Williams said.

As they say, that’s where the hard part began.

Grace was transferred to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where he’d taken on a more administrative military role.  

And it was there where Grace took Williams’ message to heart: It was time to get his college degree. He had recently gained full custody of his kids after a divorce, was still working full-time and also trying to coach as much basketball as he could.

After several years of going from 5:30 am to midnight to get it all done, Grace eventually completed his college education in 2004. He had begun coaching as an assistant at a local high school named Trevor Browne a few years earlier, and after getting his degree got a head coaching job at another, named South Mountain. By year two there, he took a program which had gone 4-17 the year before he arrived, and turned it into a state champion with a 29-4 record.

Grace with legendary AAU coach, and personal mentor Boo Williams

"He had 100 percent buy-in from his players," said Don DaVignon, who covered Grace for the website ArizonaVarsity.com during those years. "These were rough kids. It was an inner city school filled with gang activity, these were some of the toughest kids out there… this was no joke."

DaVignon saw the turnaround with his own two eyes, and was blown away by how quickly it happened.

"When he first took it over, they were getting wiped out by everyone," DaVignon said. "Then they steadily got better throughout the season, they made the state playoffs, and it’s like a totally different team.  It stuck in my mind the following year was ‘this guy can coach.

"The second year they start killing everyone and it becomes a big deal. Like ‘Did you hear about South Mountain? They just blew out some other team.’"

David Grace coaching South Mountain High School. He led them to a state title in his second year at the school.

However, Grace’s high school success was only part of the coaching groundwork he laid while in Arizona. While there, he began working for the famed Compton Magic AAU program in California, and eventually asked the program’s director, Etop Udo-Ema if he could start a satellite team in Arizona for the state’s top players (which included future NBA players Jerryd Bayless and Louis Almundson). A few years later, it was Udo-Ema who recommended Grace for his first college coaching job, when Sacramento State’s Jerome Jenkins was desperate, just weeks before the season got set to begin.

Despite his reservations about hiring someone with no college coaching experience, Jenkins took a chance on Grace. It took just a few months to see that Udo-Ema had been right. 

"About three months later he called me and said ‘Tope man, holy [expletive].’" Udo-Ema remembers. "I go ‘What’s up man?’ And he said ‘Dude, you weren’t lying. This guy’s a machine.’ And I said "What’s he doing?" He goes ‘Tope, I swear to you, he’s doing all this stuff. Sometimes he sleeps in the locker room.’ And I was like ‘I told you bro, this guy’s relentless.’"

Indeed he was, and after a year at Sacramento State, he moved on to the University of San Francisco in the fall of 2007. That lasted just one season before Grace became collateral damage in one of the strangest coaching firings in recent college basketball history, and it seemed like his college coaching career might be over (Grace actually accepted a teaching and coaching role back at a high school in Arizona).

Then, just as he collected his last paycheck from San Francisco, he got a call from Craig Robinson at Oregon State and hasn’t looked back since. Within months, he went from Director of Basketball Operations to full-time assistant, and during his five years in Corvallis, Grace helped the Beavers land future NBA players Jared Cunningham (who spent part of this past season with the Cleveland Cavaliers) and Eric Moreland, now of the Sacramento Kings.

And then finally he got his biggest break yet when Steve Alford tabbed him as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at UCLA in the spring of 2013. Grace’s recruiting acumen floored the veteran coach; to this day, Grace is the only coach that Alford has hired, who he didn’t know previously.  

Four years later, there is just one more step on Grace’s journey.

It also raises this question: Entering a season where many believe that UCLA could be one of the biggest surprises in college basketball, could this be Grace’s last summer in Westwood? Could next spring be the moment where Grace completes his journey to becoming a head coach?

While it’s been over three full years since Grace was hired at UCLA, one of his most important moves he’s made in Westwood came just days after he arrived. One of Grace’s first acts was to invite a relatively unknown high school freshman to campus for an unofficial visit.

That player was a future Naismith High School Player of the Year named Lonzo Ball, who will be a freshman at UCLA this fall and is an almost certain "one-and-done" pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Ball’s family liked Grace so much that both of Lonzo’s younger brothers – LiAngelo (a rising senior) and LaMelo (a soon-to-be sophomore) – have also made verbal commitments to the Bruins.  

"He seemed like the perfect guy, as far being family-oriented; I kind of liked that part about him," LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s father said. "I liked the fact that he was truthful, saying what’s straight on his mind from the get-go. The entire UCLA staff has been like that since Day 1, with our entire family."

Ball’s words follow a common sentiment with Grace: Ask anyone who has spent around him and they all say his greatest gift is his ability to relate with people. Parents feel comfortable with him, and his players swear by him, and his ability to toe the line between military tough-guy and nurturing father figure.

Grace with UCLA players during a UCLA game last season.

"To this day, all those kids he coached in high school, he still talks to them," DaVignon said. "[That’s] mind boggling for a guy at UCLA. He’s practicing at Pauley Pavilion every day. He doesn’t need to talk to someone who played for him 12 years ago that’s like a plumber right now. But he loves that part of the job. It’s not just about him; it’s teaching kids, it’s helping kids."

It’s also why those who know Grace believe he will one day make a great head coach at the college level. DaVignon says Grace reminds him of another military man who once recruited him and his buddy Randy Bennett (now the coach at St. Mary’s College) back in their high school days. 

"Bennett and I were recruited to a small school, Pomona College in Los Angeles," DaVignon remembered. "I didn’t realize until years later, but the coach that recruited us was Gregg Popovich."

David Grace with longtime friend, Etop Udo-Ema, of the Compton Magic. 

"The commonality of those guys [Grace and Popovich] is the will to win is off the charts. And they’re builders; they want to build lives, they want to build dynasties, they want to build programs."

Meanwhile Grace is happy at UCLA, where the Bruins have a potential title-winning team in the building at UCLA, with four starters returning, plus the addition of Ball and fellow McDonald’s All-American T.J. Leaf.

And if UCLA can make the Final Four, it would be a fitting cap, to a wild, storybook journey for Grace.

You never know who you’ll run into when you work at UCLA. Here, two Maryland guys — Grace, and some guy named Kevin Durant — hang after a workout in Los Angeles.

"The Final Four next year is in Glendale (Arizona)," Grace said. "The Final Four is where the (Arizona) Cardinals play. Well, right next door is Gila River Arena, which is where the Coyotes play. Right there is where we won our state title (in 2006)."

Grace continued, allowing the dream to truly unfold.

"What’s ironic about that is its four miles west is Luke Air Force Base, where I retired from the Air Force," Grace said. "And maybe five streets over, a little south, is Trevor Browne where I coached, and where my wife went to high school. That would be a true blessing (to play in a Final Four there)."

If it were the final stop on Grace’s coaching odyssey before he became a head coach, it would be a fitting end. But according to someone who knows Grace well, his best work has already been done.

"David, for 20 years of his life, helped defend our country," Ron Goodwin, his military supervisor in Arizona said. "And now, for the rest of his life, he’s going to help shape his country."

"More than anything, that’s what I hope people take out of David’s story." 

Aaron Torres cover college basketball for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or Facebook. E-mail him at ATorres00@gmail.com.