Home is where Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg’s heart is — for now
AMES, Iowa – The house is in a leafy neighborhood four blocks from campus, with pale yellow siding, three bedrooms, two stories, one hulking tree in the front yard, so many memories.
Our story begins here.
It is a love story, a story of a marriage between a man and a place. The story is singular to this man, and to this place, too.
“It’s the most unique relationship in all of coaching,” said Tim Floyd, who coached this man here in college as well as with the Chicago Bulls in the NBA. “Nobody was as revered of an athlete locally and stayed at home to play, and then came back home to coach after an NBA career, like this guy has done. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my career, the love affair that’s going on there.”
The marriage begins nearly four decades ago, when a young professor of rural sociology is deciding between two job offers. One job is at Iowa State. The other job, ironically enough, is at the University of Kansas, the place where James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, once coached. But the young professor and his wife choose Iowa State, and our love story is set in motion.
The parents of 2-year-old Fred Hoiberg move to a tidy, comfortable home in Ames, on Donald Street, less than a mile from Hilton Coliseum. This is the place where Eric and Karen Hoiberg raise their three boys. These boys will become ball boys for the Iowa State basketball and football teams. These boys will take their dog on long walks on Sorority Circle. These boys will call this place home.
This is where the story must start, of course, because this is where every Fred Hoiberg story must start.
These days, though, in the town where Hoiberg has taken Iowa State basketball on one of the most impressive turnabouts in recent college hoops history, the start of the story is not really the question on everyone’s mind. As the man brings unprecedented success to his alma mater, and as he is on the receiving end of constant flirting from NBA teams, the focus instead remains on the story’s one big, unanswered question: Where will the Fred Hoiberg story end?
The mother inserts the DVD and presses play.
“See if I can get through this without crying,” she says.
Karen Hoiberg is standing in her kitchen in the family’s empty-nest townhome at the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban Ames. It’s a few miles from campus, and it’s a few miles from the new home in the country where her middle son, Fred, moved a few years ago with his high school sweetheart, whom he started dating when he was a sophomore at Ames High School, and their four children. That was when he took his first coaching job, as the head coach at Iowa State University.
On the screen, images of her son flash past. First as a high-flying basketball star, running and dunking and draining threes. Then looking helpless in the hospital, tubes attached to his body like puppet strings, nurses having to help the impossibly fit 32-year-old man get out of bed, her grown son leaning on a wheelchair to help him walk, one lap around the hospital hallway all the exercise he was allowed for the day.
It’s not even a minute into the video, but Karen Hoiberg is already crying.
“The music gets me,” Fred Hoiberg’s mother says.
The video is from nine years ago, from the moment when everything changed for Fred Hoiberg. It was then, right when his career was at its height, when Fred Hoiberg’s 10-year NBA run came to an abrupt end. One day he was the reigning league leader in 3-point percentage; the next day he was in a hospital bed at the Mayo Clinic, his chest cut open then stitched shut. The moment marks the end of one chapter in his story.
A few months before, Fred had applied for extra life insurance after he and his wife had had twin boys. The health screening detected problems in his heart. He was thrust into surgery at the Mayo Clinic to repair an enlarged aortic root. Doctors opened his chest and inserted a pacemaker. His older two children, 6-year-old Paige and 4-year-old Jack, visited their father in the hospital. They saw him attached to all those tubes. The grandparents still remember how scared those kids were.
But here Hoiberg was, not long after, sitting in the sun, a pacemaker in his chest and preparing for his return to the NBA. After the surgery, he wasn’t able to lift more than five pounds. For a month he couldn’t lift his left arm over his head because he couldn’t disrupt the pacemaker wires. He couldn’t play catch in the backyard, he couldn’t push his kids on a swing, he couldn’t lift up the 18-month-old twins.
But doctors had assured him it was all but certain that he would be fine. The chance of his becoming the next Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount star who’d collapsed and died on the court in 1990 of a heart ailment? Virtually non-existent. And Hoiberg was at the top of his game. Plenty of teams were interested. Coach Mike D’Antoni of the Phoenix Suns wanted him in his high-scoring system. The Detroit Pistons and Flip Saunders, who’d been his coach at Minnesota, were interested in bringing him in. So were Gregg Popovich and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
In the video, Fred talks about coming back to the league. He talks about getting in some contact drills, about getting his body prepared. He still clearly believes he belongs in the league. He’s a competitive guy, and he wants to go out on his own terms, not on the terms of the tiny abnormality in his heart he’d been born with, a bivalve where a trivalve was supposed to be.
But he wasn’t blinded to his new reality, either.
“Now I realize how fragile everything can be,” he says in the video. “It puts your whole life into perspective. It makes you realize what’s important in life. Little things you may have taken for granted now seem so much more important. Little things that used to bother you don’t bother you so much anymore.”
Then the face of his wife, Carol, pops on the screen. The two have been together since Fred’s sophomore year at Ames High School, when Carol, a senior, asked him to prom. She knows her husband is determined to return to the NBA. She supports him, she tells the camera. But you can tell her own heart is filled with worry.
“If he does decide to play basketball again, it will be scary every second he’s out on that floor,” she says. “Every minute he’s practicing.”
His wife’s words reflect Fred’s difficult decision. He wants to go back to basketball, but he wants to do so without risk. The man is torn.
Not long after, Fred is close to signing with the Suns. Up until then, the doctors he’d visited with told him that, sure, there was risk. There was risk to playing with a pacemaker in his chest. But there was risk to everything in life: You could fall down the stairs tomorrow morning. You could walk by a building and a rock could fall on your head.
“Mike D’Antoni told me if you can run 3-point line to 3-point line, you can play in my system,” Hoiberg says nearly a decade later. “And Steve Nash had just won two MVP awards. I said, ‘Coach, I can do that.’ ”
Then the Suns’ doctor told Hoiberg something no doctor had told him before.
“Their doctor stepped up and said, ‘There’s not much risk involved – I’m confident in that – but I can’t promise you there’s zero.’ That’s what I was waiting to hear.
“If I didn’t have a family, I would have gone back in a second,” he continues. “What I thought about was this: ‘How is Carol going to feel — how are the kids going to feel – if I’m out on the floor and I take a charge? Am I going to get up?’ To knock out a pacemaker, you almost gotta get hit by a truck. Well, taking a charge from Shaq is pretty much like getting hit by a truck.”
The doctor’s words sealed his decision.
“It was almost like, ‘Somebody give me the answer here,’ and that was the answer.”
That was the moment the NBA playing career ended.
And that was the moment that, through the twists of timing and of luck and perhaps of fate, would lead him back home.
Inside the borders of Iowa, though, Fred Hoiberg is thought of quite differently. He’s the grounded kid from this often-overlooked state who happily stayed put despite a chance to go to supposedly better places. He’s the ultra-talented basketball player from a place where elite basketball talent is as rare as a patch of open land free of corn or soybeans. He’s the boy-next-door type who kids idolize for his basketball skill and who parents cherish for his humility.
He is The Mayor.
But the origin story of a local legend is always best explained by the people from the past, who knew The Mayor before he became The Mayor …
Eric Hoiberg, his father: “There was a baby-crawling contest at the parks and rec in Lincoln, Neb., where we lived before we moved to Ames. He was 11 months old, and Fred was a fantastic crawler.”
Karen Hoiberg, his mother: “You could do anything to entice him to crawl. You’d put up his bottle and we’d practice and practice. He just zoomed down there. Then the morning of the contest, he woke up sick.”
Eric: “But that didn’t stop Karen from taking him anyway.”
Karen: “No, I did not. That is exaggerating. I did not take him. Because Eric said, ‘Is this for you or for Fred?’ I said, ‘Well …’ ”
Eric: “He would have won, though. That’s the thing.”
Karen: “He won a Pac-Man contest at (a local department store) when he was 8. He always won the Punt, Pass, and Kick competitions. I remember when he was in elementary school gym once and they had to stop the game: ‘Fred, can you let the other team score some points?’ ”
Wayne Clinton, his high school coach in Ames: “People around town told me about this young kid coming up with tremendous athletic talent. I don’t know if it was right at the end of seventh grade or at the beginning of eighth, but he stuffed in one of those little girls’ basketballs. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait till this guy gets up into high school.’ ”
Arnie Gaarde, his AAU coach: “His nature is he was always two passes ahead of the game. He had a knack for being at the right spot, for picking up defenses. Here he is coaching, and he’s two passes ahead of that game as well.”
Jim Hallihan, an Iowa State assistant under former head coach Johnny Orr: “He’d put his elbow above the rim at 16 years old. Johnny Orr didn’t see him play until he was a senior. I kept telling him how good this kid from Ames was, and he’d say, ‘He can’t be that good. No one is good from Ames, Iowa.’ Finally we got Orr to come see Fred play, against Indianola in a sub-state game. It was snowing, an ice storm, and Johnny had to drive through it. And Fred ends up getting 51 points without playing in the fourth quarter. And Coach came back the next day and said to me, ‘He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen in my life!’ ”
Fred Hoiberg: “It was one of those games where the ball wasn’t even touching the net, it was going in so clean. It was one of those games as a scorer that you dream about.”
Bud Legg, an assistant coach for Hoiberg’s high school team: “I remember a game his senior year. Every time he’d touch the ball, opposing fans (of rival Dowling Catholic High School) would chant, ‘Hoi-berg sucks!’ They’d try to rattle him. At the end of the game, 2 or 3 seconds left, he jumped up from well beyond the arc: Swish. He won the game. He didn’t say a word, didn’t do anything, just turned around to the Dowling student body and smiled. And they applauded for him. I won’t ever forget that as long as I live.”
Tim Floyd, Hoiberg’s coach his senior season at Iowa State: “I had to manufacture something to get the team’s attention. I remember calling a meeting that first year. It was after a football game. And I went off on Fred, told him I heard he snuck some beer into the football game, and I said, ‘By God, if you ever try that again, I’ll run you out of here.’ I just wanted to let them know about discipline. Afterward he came in my office, and he said, ‘Coach, what was that about? I never had a beer at a football game!’ And I said, ‘I know, I just wanted (teammate) Loren Meyer to hear it. And don’t you let him know about it, either.’ ”
Gary Thompson, a former All-American at Iowa State who called Hoiberg’s games for television: “Before the games, Johnny paraded up and down the whole sideline, pumping his fist and loving it the whole way. And Fred, he kind of comes out like, ‘Oh boy, here it comes. I gotta get this ovation over with.’ ”
Rick Wesley, who recruited Hoiberg to Iowa State: “It was last season. Coach Orr was sick. He was having good days and bad days. Iowa State was hosting Michigan, and they had a recognition for Coach Orr, who was the all-time winningest coach at both schools. So he came out of the tunnel to the ‘Johnny’ song, just like he used to. Fred walked out with him, then he stepped back and allowed Coach Orr to have his moment. The way things played out, that was his last time there at Hilton Coliseum (before he died). Now that Fred’s back there, it’s a deeper level of connection between a coach and fans than just about anyone can get. He’s got a sense of the history, of the people who’ve gone before him.”
Eric Hoiberg: “Fred has a way of landing on his feet whenever he makes a decision. He’s been in the right place at the right time. He seems to have a little bit of a halo over his head, combined with the really hard work and dedication.”
Karen Hoiberg: “I was really worried how Fred would handle this heart issue. Because he’s never really had anything go wrong his whole life.”
It’s a rainy fall day in the Midwest, not long before Fred Hoiberg and Iowa State will begin a season filled with expectations so high that they would have been considered absurd just a few years ago. The Cyclones are 14th in both the AP Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll. I picked them as my dark-horse Final Four team.
They’re considered among the top four teams in a stacked Big 12.
A year ago, Hoiberg led Iowa State to its first Sweet 16 in 14 years, only the fourth in school history. Yes, he lost leading scorers Melvin Ejim and Deandre Kane from that team, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the Fred Hoiberg Era, it’s that I shouldn’t doubt there’s plenty more talent on its way. Junior matchup nightmare Georges Niang is back, healthy and 25 pounds lighter. Point guard Monte Morris, who set a national record as a freshman for assist-to-turnover ratio last season, will direct the offense. Senior Dustin Hogue will be the glue guy. And true to the Hoiberg Way, the holes will be plugged through the transfer market, with high-scoring UNLV import Bryce Dejean-Jones and big, strong Marquette transfer Jameel McKay adding to the homegrown base.
On a flat-screen television in Hoiberg’s office, film of a recent team workout is paused.
On a coffee table is an open binder filled with plays. It’s a high-flying offense he runs, with some goofy names for sets — the binder is open to two plays are called “SLOB” and “BLOB.” The up-tempo, NBA-style offense has been hugely successful for Hoiberg, both in wins — the Cyclones have made three NCAA tournaments in a row after missing the five seasons previous to Hoiberg’s arrival – and in statistics. Last season, the Cyclones finished sixth in the nation in scoring, first in assists, eighth in in average length of possession. These statistics can be traced directly back to the coaching philosophy Hoiberg began to develop in Minnesota, when he spent hours watching film alongside Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.
“His sideline demeanor is better than any coach in the country,” Floyd, his former coach in college and in the NBA, explained to me. “He tells his players that when they’re open, they need to shoot it. It’s freedom. He doesn’t pull them out for missing a shot that’s a quality shot: You’re open, shoot it. And the kids believe the next one is going in.”
But still, Hoiberg can’t resist the temptation to fiddle with his offense because this year’s team is a little bit different than last year’s: a little taller, a little deeper.
“I’ve completely changed some of the things we’ve been doing offensively,” Hoiberg says. “And I wonder, ‘Why?’ Because we’ve been so successful.”
It’s funny, really, the contradictions in between the Hoiberg we think we know and the man Hoiberg really is. He’s known for his extraordinarily calm sideline demeanor — he never got a technical foul in 10 NBA seasons, and has only had two as a college coach — but he’s one of the more quietly competitive people you’ll meet.
There are stories of him as a kid, throwing board games across the room when he lost, running home from the neighborhood whiffle-ball game when his team was behind. There are stories of him in the NBA, frustrated with a poor shooting night and tearing a cabinet door off the locker-room wall.
Then there are the contradictions of what we all assume Hoiberg someday will do — take the bigger, better job in the NBA, right? — versus what Hoiberg actually will do.
Will he leave his childhood town, his alma mater, a place where he can do no wrong and lately has done very little wrong, for the NBA?
Like life, these sorts of decisions are complicated. They cannot be simply reduced to which is the bigger, better opportunity or the bigger, better contract.
There are the intangibles. How do you weigh coaching the greatest basketball players on earth against coaching every home game in front of your parents and in-laws? How do you balance a second shot at the NBA career that ended too early with building a legacy as the man who turned his often-overlooked alma mater into a perennial national power? Which is more taxing on a family, the never-ending pressure of an NBA head-coaching gig or the never-ending travel of recruiting in a college gig? And when is the right time to leave Ames and take an NBA job: When your daughter is a senior in high school, which she is this year? Or when your son is a junior in high school, which he will be next year? Or when your twins are in ninth grade, which they will be in three years?
The complexity of these decisions, of course, will not stop the rumors. After last season, when Hoiberg led the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 with an up-tempo, mismatch-focused style that seems fit for the NBA, his name was mentioned in the rumors surrounding virtually every open job: Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland.
He took none of them.
You assume that, someday, he probably will.
You guess that it won’t be any time soon.
You ask Hoiberg about it, and he speaks with honesty: “God, who knows.”
One thing you can tell: He clearly is in no rush.
“He’s not a guy who gets carried away with the emotional part of it, just a very cerebral guy – and that plays well in coaching now,” said Wesley, the former Iowa State assistant. “As you look across the country, the Brad Stevenses, the Erik Spoelstras, that’s the model now. That old-school, in-your-face, my-way-or-the-highway, that’s not flying now. Fred gets people’s respect without standing over top of you.”
So much of Fred Hoiberg’s past — his lifelong love affair with a town and a university, his perspective-granting experience of nearly dying at age 32 –plays into Fred Hoiberg’s present. And surely all of it will play into his future: Why he means it so deeply when he speaks of bringing a Final Four to his alma mater. Why, as he weighs his coaching future, he carries with him burdens and responsibilities that are far deeper than wins and losses. Why he sounds like a bubbly college student on a recent afternoon as he teases his top returning player, Niang, in the players’ lounge, and why he walks out to the team’s workout with a hop in his step, as if right now there’s no other place he’d rather be.
And, of course, there’s that heart, and its abnormal valve, and the medical device that keeps it ticking. He can feel every single beat of his heart — did you know that? It’s a constant pounding sensation. Sometimes his wife will be sitting next to him, and she’ll be able to hear his heart beating.
This summer, his past revisited his present. It was during the July recruiting period, and Hoiberg was watching high school players in St. Louis. Twice, he nearly fainted. He figured it was all the early mornings, all the early flights, all the long days of recruiting. Back home, he was working out with his wife, and he felt weird. He took his own pulse, but his heart rate wasn’t elevating. He called his doctors at the Mayo Clinic. They told him the pacemaker was in reserve battery mode. The next day he was up at the Mayo Clinic, getting his pacemaker replaced.
“It wasn’t immediate danger, but if it went another month it could have been some serious trouble,” he says. “I’m glad I listened to my body. I’m so hypersensitive to what’s going on with my heart that I knew something wasn’t right in there.”
When he speaks about being hypersensitive to his heart, he means the physical heart, the organ that pumps blood through his body. But when you think about his future and where it might lead, you just as easily could think he’s speaking about the metaphorical heart, the intangible and personal and often inexplicable thing, which is the thing that keeps him grounded, right here.