HILLSIDE, N.J. — The wooden doors flung open and Mike Rice strolled into the cozy gym at the Patrick School, anxious to get going with his latest appointment.
Already that morning, Rice had worked out six high school and middle school basketball players in his day job at the Hoop Group in Neptune, N.J., and later he would return there to run two or three middle school-age teams through their paces before finishing up the night shooting with his daughter, Katie, and her friends at Red Bank Catholic High School. Between each stop, he said, he is usually in the car, “with a sandwich at my side.”
But now, arriving in the Patrick School gym, Rice, his voice perpetually hoarse, cracked a couple of jokes to the dozen or so players stretching in a circle who form his new team. At least four of the players stand 6-foot-9 or taller, and five of them recently committed to play for Division I programs, including Kentucky, Minnesota, Monmouth and Tulane.
For the next two hours, Rice, dressed in gray sweatpants, gray sneakers and a green T-shirt, ran the team through drills and some five-on-five play. With a whistle bouncing on a string around his neck, he pointed, gesticulated and stalked. There was the occasional burst of profanity, but never more than an average coach might let slip during a practice.
“People say, ‘Oh, are you getting back?”’ Rice said. “I’m back every day. I’m back in the gym every single day, and I’m in the gym 100 times more than I’ve ever been in the gym when I was a college coach.
“People said they took basketball away. No, it’s just they took college coaching away. I got in my own way and so it’s something you learn from. And I use that time in my life as a kind of an understanding of the mistakes I made and to improve upon those mistakes.”
The story of Rice’s professional comeback is a mix of trusted friends, timely connections and a frank assessment of his failings. John Lucas, the former N.B.A. player and coach who runs a wellness and addiction aftercare program in Houston, took Rice in for a month after he was fired and has become a mentor. Rob Kennedy, who has known Rice for more than 20 years and founded the Hoop Group, was the first to hire him, and before long his own son was raving about Rice’s training sessions.
It was through Rice’s work with Kennedy’s training programs — including at least one particularly memorable off-season workout with the Patrick players — that Chris Chavannes, the principal and coach at the Patrick School, came to bring him aboard. By his own admission, he needed the help.
In December 2014, Chavannes had collapsed on a flight home from a tournament in California, an incident he attributed in part to stress and to his diabetes. That scare, as well as the stress of his search, as principal, for a new home for the school, which was originally a Catholic school known as St. Patrick, convinced him that it was time to get some help running the basketball team. He initially hired Rice on an interim basis, to get through the 2015-16 season.
Chavannes said when Rice first got the job, college coaches would rush to get a peek inside the Patrick School gym, not so much to recruit the Celtics’ talented players as to get a look at Rice running them through their practices. Chavannes said it was partly curiosity and partly espionage.
Away from the court, Rice quietly sold himself. Chavannes said he heard no resistance from the administration, the players or their parents when he decided to hire Rice despite his history at Rutgers. He said Rice’s openness about his mistakes, and about what he was doing to address them, soothed any doubts.
“I didn’t really pay attention to any of that Rutgers stuff that happened with him,” said Jamir Harris, the Patrick School’s starting shooting guard, who has signed to play at Minnesota. “That wasn’t in my thought process at all. The only thing I was thinking about was having an opportunity to have him coach us, and I knew how great a coach he was.”
The result of his pairing with Chavannes, though, is that the Patrick School is in the unique situation of having co-coaches, both of whom are type-A personalities.
Chavannes, who set up the arrangement, said he was comfortable with it because he worked for two decades as an assistant to the former St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle, helping to develop the N.B.A. players Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. And while Chavannes does not hesitate to shout his own instructions from the bench, Rice is clearly the more active half of the tandem, usually standing on the sidelines and running the show during games.
“His energy is like no other,” Harris said. “I’ve seen coaches that get hyped up, just like most coaches would, but Coach Rice’s energy is on a different level.”
Now, as he seeks to take that energy to a higher level of coaching, Rice acknowledged that channeling remains a continuing process. After spending a month in 2013 working with Lucas on anger management, he says he returns to Houston every year to seek out Lucas’s advice and counsel.
“I go back at least two weeks a year and spend time with his family,” Rice said, calling Lucas “a tremendous plus and positive in my life, because he’s got such a different way of looking at things and he’s been through so much himself.”
Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks forward, sat nearby, and three hall of fame coaches, John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo, along with Bill Self of Kansas, worked the sidelines Rice once stalked for Rutgers.
Rice probably was not the only one who wondered if he might one day be back working among them. Last year, Robert Morris expressed interest in hiring Rice as an assistant coach, but no concrete offers materialized. Several of Rice’s current and former colleagues still would like to see him get another chance.
“I think that time heals all wounds,” said Bob Hurley, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame and the longtime coach at St. Anthony’s High, the nationally ranked New Jersey powerhouse. “But I also know how conservative the coaching community is.”
Hurley, who has known Rice for years and vouched for him when he was up for the Rutgers job, suggested that Rice might be better off working with professionals, possibly as an N.B.A. assistant or in the D-League, “where he’s working with older guys.” Chavannes said he thought it would take an established coach who was willing to persuade an athletic director or a university president that Rice had put his past behind, and that he could be an asset instead of a public relations concern.
Whether or not he lands a new job next season, or the one after that, or much further down the road, Rice said that he knows one thing for certain: He is a coach, now and forever.
“Unfortunately for my wife, I’ll always be coaching,” he said. “Whether it’s a workout, whether it’s an A.A.U. or a high school team or a college team or scouting an N.B.A. team, I can foresee myself figuring something out.”
“Every day I go to work with a smile on my face,” he added. “And it’s because I’m in the gym. It’s because I’m interacting with student-athletes who have a passion to want to improve and develop and get better. And so it fits.”