Former Notre Dame PF Dennis Latimore finds his basketball calling in coaching

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Once his knees wouldn't stop complaining over competing at a high level, it was easy for former Notre Dame power forward Dennis Latimore to make some difficult decisions.

Playing basketball wasn’t going to take Latimore as far as he first thought after graduating in 2005, so there had to be something else out there for him. Turns out there was plenty.

Life led Latimore in a roundabout way into coaching. Late Thursday, he was named the boys’ basketball coach at Chino Hills High School, which sits 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Chino Hills has become famous — or is it infamous? — as the school that has produced the Ball brothers. The oldest, Lonzo, will be a top-five pick in next month’s NBA draft. LiAngelo, the middle brother, will follow his older sibling's footsteps to UCLA in the fall. The youngest, LaMelo, will be a junior at Chino Hills during Latimore’s first season.

Coaching the youngest Ball means Latimore also will have to work with their famous — or is it infamous? — father. LaVar Ball is not shy about speaking his basketball mind, oftentimes with outrageous statements. Ball and his company — Big Baller Brand — recently released its first signature shoes last week. They cost $495.

“To be honest, I have not met Mr. Ball,” Latimore said late Friday afternoon from his office at Chino Hills, where he also teaches English. “I look forward to it.”

Latimore is aware of Ball’s reputation for being overly - and openly - critical about his sons’ coaches, particularly at Chino Hills. Latimore started at the school in January, so he knows the scrutiny that comes with the coaching job. He not only welcomes it, but embraces it. There will be issues. There will be conflicts. Latimore plans to just deal with it. No big deal.

“There may be challenges, but with anything in life, there are challenges that you face,” said Latimore, about as easy-going as anyone who’s passed through the Irish basketball program during coach Mike Brey’s tenure. “We’ll try to work through any challenges and work together.

“My mindset is to be positive to continue the winning tradition here and improve as basketball players and more importantly as people.”

One long, strange trip

So how does a guy born and raised in rural Kansas, who earned honorable mention high school All-America honors and played two years at Arizona before transferring to Notre Dame where he spent two seasons, including one on the Big East all-academic team, wind up coaching high school basketball in the basin that is Los Angeles?

It’s been 12 years since Latimore left South Bend, but it seems longer. A lot longer.

“Oh, man, so much has changed with me,” the 35-year-old, recently married Latimore said. “A lot of those times, a lot of those memories of Notre Dame almost feel like it was a different life.”

Latimore received his degree from the College of Arts and Letters, where he majored in English and Afro-American Studies, in the spring of 2005. He could have chased a fifth year of eligibility at Notre Dame, but was ready for something different. College life had run its course.

It was off to Europe, where he planned to play professionally.

Latimore signed to play in the Netherlands and lasted about 10 games. He tried to also play in France, but three knee surgeries in nine months in 2008 took a toll on his 6-foot-9, 238-pound frame. He had to find something new, find something that he had long searched for even before his playing days ended.

"Sometimes I don't even think Dennis understood how talented he was," said former Irish assistant coach Lewis Preston, who worked with the guy known as D-Lat during his days at Notre Dame. "But I had a lot of deep conversations with him not even basketball specific. I loved that part of him."

Latimore landed in Southern California after calling basketball quits. He helped run a Boys and Girls Club in Orange County. He went back to school and received his Master’s degree in Urban Education from Loyola Marymount University. Prior to coaching, he found another sport to scratch his competitive itch — boxing.

For three years, Latimore became deeply involved with the same amateur boxing program in Southern California that produced Charles Martin, the former IBF heavyweight champion.

“Getting in that ring is a whole different ball game,” he said. “It’s one thing to be tired on the basketball court, but it’s another to be tired in an eight-by-eight-foot ring watching some guy punch you in the stomach and face.

“I learned a lot about myself mentally and physically.”

That was part of the point for Latimore. Sure, he craved the competition. He loved testing himself. But he also did it to find out about his makeup — who he is as a person, as an athlete — and the ways he could test his limits. Push them beyond normal boundaries.

“That’s what life is about to me — accepting challenges and doing the best you can to overcome them,” Latimore said. “In boxing, every single day, you’re challenged. If you don’t accept that challenge, you get hurt or you look like a quitter who gave up.”

Boxing or basketball?

So what’s tougher, trying to survive three minutes in a squared circle against someone looking to put a serious hurt on you or trying to keep Syracuse power forward Hakim Warrick from dunking on you?

“You had to go there,” Latimore said with a laugh.

Latimore’s numbers in his one season with the Irish were just OK — he averaged 7.0 points, and 4.3 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game with 14 starts in 29 games in a year that saw the Irish go 17-12, 9-7 in the Big East — but he still is best remembered for one particular play.

Playing against Syracuse in an ESPN “Big Monday” game, Latimore was caught flat-footed as the scary length of Warrick elevated from a standstill position on the low block and kept going up, up, up before dunking high and hard over Latimore.

It was ESPN’s play of the day.

So. ... boxing or basketball?

“I’ll take getting dunked on any time over a three-minute round,” Latimore said. “You can be in the best shape of your life, but the mental fatigue, the stress, the pressure, everything, once you step out of that ring, win or lose, you feel like a champion because you challenged yourself.”

Moving forward

Latimore will challenge himself coaching a Chino Hills team that finished 30-3 and 35-0 the last two years but is on its third head coach in as many seasons. He previously coached two years at View Park Prep in south-central Los Angeles and went 23-32.

In his first talk Friday with the Huskies, Latimore spoke of once standing in his players’ shoes. He knows what it’s like to be the star. He knows what it’s like to be unhappy with his role. He knows what it’s like to feel he can offer more but not have an opportunity. He knows.

Latimore will draw on his experiences of playing for Lute Olson at Arizona and for Brey at Notre Dame. Like Brey, he considers himself more a teacher than a coach.

"Dennis has gone through some life experiences that he can relate to a lot of young people," Preston said. "He's an incredibly intelligent young man, and a lot of people don't know that about him. This is a phenomenal opportunity for him."

He’s there to work with each of his players in his own way, make them better not only as basketball players, but people. For today. Tomorrow. Twelve years from now when one of them may be standing in his spot.

“We’ve all got to work together; that’s what I like about it,” Latimore said. “The competitive juices get flowing and it’s a beautiful high to have about life.

“We’ll see where that takes me.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Former Notre Dame power forward Dennis Latimore dabbled in boxing after his professional career fizzled because of constant knee injuries. Tribune File Photo