LOS ANGELES — Bob Thate stood on the sideline with his hands folded against his chest an hour and a half before tipoff of the Los Angeles Clippers and defending champion Miami Heat game at STAPLES Center Nov. 14.
He was eyeing the cornerstone of the Clippers offense, 6-foot-10 All-NBA forward Blake Griffin, shooting jumper after jumper, stepping back further out of his comfort zone, the paint.
Make. Miss. Make. Make. Griffin looked over at Thate, the team's new shooting coach, to see if he caught the last one.
Thate nodded back as if to say, "Good. Keep holding that follow-through. Extend."
Over four decades ago in Rush Gymnasium, Thate was the one with his arm stretched straight up, hand curved down after a release so pure the rim rarely said no to the ball. A transfer from USC, Thate was a two-time all-American at Occidental from 1968-70. He is second all-time in points per game in a SCIAC season with 28.4 a contest in 1970.
"I lived in the gym at Oxy," Thate said. "I was crazy. I didn't want to think about anything else. I would work out three hours every day of the week. It was my life."
Eric Newhall '67, Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies, remembers playing pickup basketball against Thate at Oxy while in graduate school at UCLA.
"I was on one end of the court watching Thate shooting on the other end," Newhall said. "He just had a smooth stroke, fundamentally sound, nothing herky-jerky, no hitches in his form—just smooth.
"To tell you the truth I wanted to match up on him," Newhall laughs.
Thate, from Highland Park, was first recruited out of Franklin high school by both USC and UCLA, who had won back-to-back titles in 1965 and 1966 with John Wooden. Yet two years after he selected the Trojans, a coaching change left Thate out of the lineup, as the new coach brought in his own recruiting class. Thate transferred to Division IIII Occidental to avoid losing a year of eligibility.
Though focused on upsetting SCIAC rival Whittier, who won two consecutive league titles in 1969 and 1970, Thate's intellectual curiosity began to take shape off the court.
"I had a phenomenal experience at Oxy. I was able to take classes I could never take at a big school like USC," he said. "I loved my religious studies and philosophy classes, which both made me think in ways I never did before. It made me think of more than just making the next shot."
He appreciates the mentorship of Dean Ben Culley, who strongly supported Occidental athletics during his four-decade tenure (1943-82) at Occidental.
After graduating in 1970, Thate was drafted late by the Lakers in the same class as future NBA Hall of Famers Bob Lanier, "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Dave Cowens, Calvin Murphy and Nate "Tiny" Archibald. Thate, however, was cut early on and left the States to play professionally in France for several years.
Current Occidental men's basketball head coach Brian Newhall '83, who also played (and coached) in France many years after Thate, remembered hearing about him while overseas.
"All I kept hearing was about a guy named Bob Thate. People said he scored something like 81 points in a divison game years ago in France," Newhall said. "He could shoot the hell out of the ball. Just an uncanny shooter."
Though Thate could still shoot, dribble and pass, his knees weakened. Unsure of what to do next, he returned to L.A. He decided to take a graduate assistant coach position at Pepperdine, which led to a combined 23 years of coaching at the Division I college and high school levels, including stints at Long Beach State, UC Irvine, LMU and Foothill and Irvine high schools.
"It's been a great experience helping young kids get better and achieve their dreams and aspirations," Thate said. "I found that I really liked helping people, and I've been fortunate to do it."
The turning point in Thate's career came when word spread that he had been improving the shooting of NBA forward Mike Miller, who became a 40% career three-point shooter.
Thate then became the New Jersey Nets' shooting coach from 2005-08, earning a reputation as one of the most highly regarded shooting coaches in the country. He's credited with turning the former dribble and drive skillset of point guard Jason Kidd into more of a stand-up shooting game.
After accepting the position as shooting coach of his hometown Clippers this summer, Thate's basketball life has come full circle.
He is specifically working on the shot of both Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan. Both struggled from the charity line last season, as Griffin shot 52.1 percent, and Jordan shot 33.3 percent in the playoffs. Thate is also working to eliminate a hitch in Griffin's shot, molding the forward into a more versatile scorer outside of the paint.
"Blake's been working his butt off. He's very focused," Thate said. "I've never worked with a guy that's improved so fast. Where he's going to end up is going to be unbelievable. I think Blake will be the best big man shooter in the league if he keeps up his repetitions."
Griffin's focused on converting those reps into muscle memory.
"It's about getting the ball in the right spot and doing what [Bob Thate and I] worked on," Griffin said. "My teammates also give me the confidence to keep shooting. They see me out there working every day and it's encouraging."
All-star point guard Chris Paul believes Griffin's work will pay off.
"Once he has that confidence in his shot, he will become un-guardable," Paul said.
Thate has come back to watch a few Oxy basketball games in recent years, and was inducted into Occidental's Athletics Hall of Fame in 1995.
But he's most excited about another Oxy alum: President Barack Obama '83.
"He's great," Thate said. "I wrote him a letter when I was in New Jersey that said, 'You went to Oxy and I went to Oxy. You love hoop and I love hoop, and I've seen your shot on T.V. and if you ever need some help on it, call me.'
"He never wrote back, but my offer is still on the table," Thate laughs.
Though it is far less common nowadays for a Division III student to make the jump to Division I or professional sports (as an athlete or coach) like Thate did, Thate feels a liberal arts education can be beneficial.
"It's absolutely possible to make it in sports from Oxy," Thate said. "It might make it more difficult, but if that's your dream, you should chase it and do everything you can until you make it or it doesn't work out. Oxy is not a barrier.
"I'm proud to say I went to Occidental. I loved it."
Mirin Fader is the Oxy men's basketball beat writer. She also writes feature stories on Oxy athletes, coaches and alums. She is currently a Team Writer for the Los Angeles Clippers (Clippers.com), and also contributes articles to Dime Magazine (dimemag.com). This past summer, Mirin wrote for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. All of her work, including her archived Oxy stories can be found at her website: mirinfader.com