The basketball promise of Shantay Legans caught the eye of a News-Press journalist more than 32 years ago.
“Look at him,” Susan Legans told the reporter as her beaming son launched a basketball through a hoop. “He’s always cheerful.”
Shantay was 6, his mom was on probation from a drug possession charge, and the basketball court had been set up at a shelter near downtown Santa Barbara. The reporter was there to chronicle the plight of the homeless, but he couldn’t help but marvel at the spunky kid.
“He thinks life is wonderful,” Susan said through a hopeful smile.
Life did turn out wonderful, her son will tell you, because of a dutiful mother who turned her life around and a bevy of mentors. Their guidance the last three decades led Legans to the University of Portland last week to be introduced as the Pilots’ new head basketball coach.
“I put them through so much, and they stuck by my side,” he said.
Legans, who was rated as one of the nation’s top point guards when he played for Dos Pueblos High School in the late 1990s, is now considered to be among college basketball’s top young coaches. ESPN ranked him No. 11 for those under the age of 40. He will turn 40 in July.
Portland’s job offer came after he had coached Eastern Washington to its second-straight Big Sky Conference championship last month. The Eagles even came close to upsetting third-seeded Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
“The University of Portland got a home run in this hire — in terms of work ethic, in terms of knowledge, in terms of teaching and motivating,” said Ben Howland, another Goleta native who now coaches at Mississippi State. “But most of all, Shantay is a great example of what ministers want as a mentor for young people and young athletes.
“It’s a phenomenal story, what he’s accomplished in his life so far.”
Legans’ odyssey from Santa Barbara’s Transition House to Portland’s Chiles Center covered a lot of rough road. He developed a hard edge as a young boy when his father left the family.
“I’ve done some crazy things, I’ve done some dumb things,” he said.
Legans got kicked out of the Boys Clubs on both the Eastside and Westside, and then even from the club in Carpinteria. The Goleta Boys Club was his last chance.
Sal Rodriguez, the club’s director at the time, clearly remembers the first time Legans’ grandfather brought him to the facility.
“Shantay was in the third grade, probably,” he said. “He was handling the ball and talking all this smack and stuff … and even in third grade he was pretty good.
“His granddad picked him up later that evening and I told him, ‘Hey, this kid is going to be a good basketball player.’ He said, ‘How do you know?’ And I said, ‘Believe me, I know … This kid is good, even this young.’”
Others only saw the bad in Shantay. Several demanded that he be banned from their club.
“They’re saying, ‘This kid is a bad influence on my kid,’” Rodriguez said. “All I told them was, ‘Kids like Shantay are what we’re here for.’”
Rodriguez was not only there for Legans, he was everywhere for him. He even took him on family trips to such places as the Grand Canyon.
“He spent a lot of time at my house, and he and my son are good friends,” he said. “He was a good kid, really. I had to protect him … His mouth would get him into trouble sometimes.”
Basketball, he figured, would help Legans find his way. Rodriguez eventually formed an all-star team and took it to tournaments throughout the West.
“We’re beating this team from inner-city L.A., and Shantay is talking smack the whole time,” Rodriguez recalled. “One of our players — Danny Grace — finally comes up and says, ‘Coach, please tell Shantay to shut up because these guys are going to beat us up afterwards.’”
Rodriguez eventually issued an ultimatum to Legans’ mother.
“I told her, ‘Shantay is out of control … If you don’t come to the rest of the tournaments, I’m not taking him with me,’” he said. “And so she went to every single tournament.”
Susan Legans also asked the Big Brothers & Big Sisters of America to provide a mentor for her son. They matched him with Ray Lopes, a UCSB assistant coach at the time. The strong male influences soon had an effect on the precocious youngster.
“I calmed down when I realized that it wasn’t the way to act,” Legans said.
He wound up earning a basketball scholarship to the University of California, averaging 10.4 points and 4.4 assists per game over a span of three years. He led the Golden Bears to a pair of NCAA Tournaments, advancing them to the second round in 2002. They were knocked out by Howland’s third-seeded Pittsburgh team.
“He kicked my butt,” Legans said with a laugh. “I’m still mad at him for that.”
His teammates called him “crazy” when he transferred to Fresno State the following year. Lopes had just become the Bulldogs’ head coach.
“I wanted to play for my mentor,” Legans explained.
He averaged 15 points and 5.6 assists for Fresno, earned a bachelor’s degree, and spent the next few years playing professional basketball in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
But when his playing days ended, Legans headed right back to his roots.
“I hired him at the Goleta club for a part-time job,” Rodriguez said. “And when I started coaching at Laguna Blanca, I asked him to be my assistant.
“He had a real knack for it. He was in charge of the defense and I let him do all the substitutions. And we did great. We had two really good seasons.”
Rodriguez called the head coach at Eastern Washington and asked him to give Legans a chance. He started out at the lowest level, making just $16,000 a year.
Legans was afraid his coaching career was over when the Eagles’ head coach was fired after four losing seasons. But when Jim Hayford was hired as the new head coach, Legans stayed up all night to write him a detailed scouting report on each returning player
“I really wanted to stay, so I got on it right away,” he said.
Hayford invited him to dinner and quickly realized that he had a gem. He kept him on staff and then turned the program over to Legans when he took the head job at Seattle University in 2017.
Legans’ 75-49 record the last four years is the best in school history.
“Shantay has a unique ability to win almost anyone over at, ‘Hello,’” Hayford said. “I could turn over a recruiting contact to him and nobody was going to beat Shantay.
“Once that recruit met Shantay, they loved him.”
So did Tatjana Sparavalo, a former women’s basketball player at Eastern Washington. They were married in 2014 and now have two children. Her influence on Legans became as profound as that of his mother.
“In certain senses, she reminds me of and does things like my mom,” he said. “My mom had no fear — ever — and neither does my wife.
“Before I even thought I could be a great basketball coach, my mom put the faith in me that I could be.”
Susan Legans died last year on the eve of the Big Sky championship game. She was 70.
“She’s the type that would have hid her death from me, just so I wouldn’t be distracted,” Legans said. “Sometimes I listen to a voicemail from my mom … and it gets tough.
“When we won the championship, I listened to an old voicemail.”
He remains close to his Boys Club family. He has constantly sought Howland’s advice, especially when he fretted about taking the Portland job. The Pilots have won just one game in the tough West Coast Conference the last three years.
Howland told him that he was up for the challenge of a tougher league which includes NCAA finalist Gonzaga.
“To win at Eastern Washington is literally a miracle,” Howland said. “To get them into the tournament is such a huge accomplishment. Having coached in the Big Sky myself at Northern Arizona, I understand it very clearly.”
Legans didn’t need much convincing.
“You have to have a chip on your shoulder,” he said. “It’s always going to be tough. If you don’t have a chip on your shoulder, that means you’re ready to get beaten up.”
He learned that hard lesson as a child.
“They bounced around a lot when he was a kid,” Rodriguez explained. “At one time, they were living in a shelter.
“It made it really hard on him, hanging out with middle-class and upper-class kids who lived in beautiful homes with two parents. He’d see them and it would make him wonder. He talks about that.”
When Rodriguez asked him to speak at a Goleta Boys Club fundraiser, Legans brought up that subject — of the angry kid from the one-room apartment and single-parent family who found himself at that very same club.
“He must’ve gone on for half an hour, telling that story,” Rodriguez said. “When we started asking for donations, the hands went up. We raised a lot of money that night.”’
The trash talk had given way to the sweet talk a long time ago.