Big names go a long way in college basketball.
You don’t get to be a big name in collegiate coaching unless you’ve recruited and coached some really big names of your own.
And first-year Penn assistant Scott Pera, who comes to Penn after five years as an assistant at Arizona State, has coached some of the biggest names in the business.
He’s best known for coaching and mentoring James Harden and Derek Glasser at southern California powerhouse Artesia High School and Arizona State. Glasser went on to be the Sun Devils’ all-time assists leader, and Harden, who had followed Pera to ASU, has become a U.S. Olympian and NBA superstar.
“I was talking to [Harden’s] mom for a long time yesterday morning and we were kind of reminiscing,” Pera said last Friday before practice. “You just can’t believe, a 13-year-old checking into Artesia that summer, to McDonald’s All-American, college All-American, third pick in the NBA draft, [playing in the] NBA Finals, Sixth Man of the Year, where does it stop?
“And then … he signs for $80 million [with the Houston Rockets]. That may be the last step on this ladder that he’s climbing … no, no, hopefully NBA All-Star.”
Pera may be responsible for helping mold the $80 million man, but moving to Penn has already been a priceless experience for him.
“[I had] love and respect for the city of Philadelphia, and for the Penn basketball program,” Pera said. “I just thought if I wanted to make a change, this would be a good change.”
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Pera, whose wife Alyssa graduated from Penn in 1998. He, meanwhile, is a Hershey, Pa., native and 1989 graduate of Penn State Harrisburg who coached Annville-Cleona High School to a Pennsylvania state title in 1999.
Although Pera knows central Pennsylvania hoops better than most coaches, he was still a stranger to Penn head coach Jerome Allen as recently as three months ago.
“No way did I know on Aug. 20, three days away from our first team meeting and first day of school [at Arizona State] that I’d be looking at another job,” Pera said. “So it just kind of happened fast. I did not know Jerome. We had never spoken.”
Allen said the two “had a lot of acquaintances that said a lot of tremendous things about him.”
Nine weeks later, a coaching staff with three new assistants no longer feels new to Allen.
“We’re so past that now,” Allen said. “We’re pretty much running on all cylinders in terms of skill development.”
Skill development has been Pera’s calling card for much of his coaching career, which he attributes to the fact that he taught sixth grade for five years at Palmyra and Annville high schools near his hometown.
“I learned many things from [teaching],” Pera said. “Everybody doesn’t learn the same. That’s one thing you’re taught as you get an education degree, how do you reach every student? It’s your job to bring out the best of everybody in that classroom. So that stuff pertains to [basketball] in identical scenarios.”
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The Quakers’ biggest name heading into the 2012-13 campaign is Miles Cartwright, the top scorer and assist man remaining from a season ago. So it’s no surprise that Pera, the big-name guy and experienced middle school teacher, should have a long and storied history with the Cartwright family.
Pera was the director at the first serious basketball camp that Miles and his younger brother Parker ever attended, Double Pump Skills Camp, in Los Angeles. Miles was just eight years old at the time in an Adidas camp with an age range of eight to 22 — but Parker was just four.
“I knew that Parker would be able to hang with the older kids because Miles has beaten up on Parker mercilessly his whole life,” Miles’ father Ramon Cartwright said. “So even by the time Parker was four, Miles had beat him up into playing like a seven-year-old.”
Parker had been coached to say he was seven but admitted his real age when Pera questioned him. Pera then asked Ramon to take Parker out of the camp.
“So I said, ‘Look, at least for the day, I don’t want to disappoint him that badly, let him stay in the drills for a little while,’” Cartwright recalled. “‘And if he can’t hang, I’ll take him immediately.’”
Pera agreed and young Parker not only stayed for the rest of practice but came back the next day.
“Day two, Miles calls me and says, ‘Dad, you’ve got to come to the gym, Parker got his tooth knocked out!’” Ramon remembered. “So I start going off on Scott, trying to get some Adidas gear out of him, saying, ‘You gotta give me something, my son just lost a tooth!’ So he said, ‘He shouldn’t even be here, what are you talking about?’ It was the funniest thing in the world, man.”
Lost baby tooth aside, the camp quickly turned Pera and the Cartwrights on to each other.
“The thing that impressed me the most was even as a young coach, how organized he was, how well thought-out the drills were,” Ramon said. “He took every play and interaction with the kids real seriously and gave each kid individual coaching.
“That was the reason I lied to get Parker into camp. You could just tell Scott was a genius at work.”
Pera has his own memories of the Cartwrights as well.
“I remember Miles and Parker from that camp, I remember how good they were,” Pera said. “It’s unique to have that previous relationship all the way across the country. I think it’s nice in my transition for me to know somebody here, and also for somebody here to know me. I think that helps with the guys, to have someone that says, ‘I know this guy and here’s how it’s going to be.’”
While he was still an assistant at Arizona State, Pera recruited Miles despite “questions about his ability to play at the next level” elsewhere on the ASU staff, Pera said.
“He’s a great coach, a great basketball mind,” Miles said. “He has so much knowledge of the game. I remember when he was at Artesia High School, the players he had, so he’s obviously a great game coach.”
So good, that Ramon continued to stay in touch with Pera as his sons continued to play.
“During Miles’ AAU and high school career and with Parker, I always use him as an objective soundboard,” Ramon said. “‘Tell me what I got. Tell me what they need and what they’re good at. Good, bad or indifferent, he’ll tell you the truth.’
“And that’s another reason I love him. I want people like that in my sons’ lives. I want people who will tell them directly to their face where they stand and whatever they need to get to that next level, whatever that level is and whatever that pursuit is. Because this guy can be a positive in my sons’ lives whether it’s their basketball, career, married life, family life — this guy’s the real deal.”
Something Pera has told Ramon since Miles’ high school days is that while his son is a solid scorer, he will have to score from the point in order to play at the next level. According to Ramon, Pera wants to see Miles develop the mental approach that will allow him to become a great point guard.
“Managing a relationship with the coach while a game is going on and making sure the hot man gets shots when he wants him — Scott told me in high school Miles needed to develop those things,” Ramon said. “And now he’s still telling me those things.”
Naturally, no one was happier to see Pera come to Penn than the Cartwright clan.
“I was so excited,” Miles said. “I remember talking to coach Allen about it, before he got hired, asking me what I thought about him, and I was like, ‘You gotta do it.’”
His father felt the same way.
“I told Jerome, ‘You’ve got another head coach on your coaching staff because this guy’s the real deal,’” Ramon said.
But while Pera may have mentored many big names in his career, he’s already sent the message that no name is too big for the Ivy League. And as a teacher, skill developer and family man, Penn is where Pera belongs.
“Don’t underestimate the allure of the Ivy League, especially for a guy like Scott,” Ramon said. “He takes that stuff seriously. He cares deeply about having a real mission and being able to carry that out both on and off the court. That’s one of the reasons we love him so much.”