The Conner Henry Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Thursday, May 6th, 2004
You practically grew up on college campuses. Your
father worked in the south as a college professor, and
you are currently the Associate Director of Career
Services Claremont McKenna College. Please tell me
about your childhood, and how you came to be interested
My father was a math professor in Decator, Georgia. He taught there until 1959, at which point he accepted a similar position in Claremont, California, so I literally grew up on the Claremont McKenna campus. Our house was directly behind the football field, which meant that you had to walk through the campus to get to it. I was involved in athletics very early in my life, serving as a ball boy in all three major sports at the age of five.
Growing up in a college environment allowed me to gain access to the athletic department and all of the facilities, and it wasn’t long before I gravitated to the basketball court. The fact that it was a safe environment allowed me to flourish as a young child. I was also fortunate to have some fantastic mentors in my life at that time, coaches and students who worked with me and helped to improve the different facets of my game. I remember playing basketball in the gym at all hours. I’d play until they kicked me out, which was usually around midnight, and then I’d run across the football field, crawl through a hole in the fence and slip in the backdoor to our house. That was my routine for ten-to-twelve years. It was a blessing to be in that place at that time, and to be around so many good people.
In four years at UC Santa Barbara you became the career
leader in assists, and your 1,236 points ranks eighth
all-time. Please take me back to your college career.
What stands out most in your mind about this period in
I was fortunate to be recruited by three Division I schools. For me, it was a true thrill to visit each campus and also go through the selection process. I came away from it knowing that Santa Barbara had the worst program of the three and that I needed to play, not sit and watch. I made my decision to go there and hopefully play right away. That was the most important thing. I could have gone to either of the other schools but I knew that I wasn’t going to play right away, and that it might be a year or longer before I’d see any meaningful minutes. By choosing Santa Barbara I only had to wait six games into my freshman year before I started playing.
There was a huge adjustment period in terms of jumping from high school to college basketball. I wasn’t the biggest or the strongest, and initially the coaching staff didn’t know where to play me. I was between positions in many ways, a shooting guard with point guard instincts, and this presented some early problems as they tried to figure out what to do with me. We were so bad I was the only on who could get the ball up the court so eventually I played more and more point. Because of that change I was able to improve my game and eventually play basketball in the NBA.
UC Santa Barbara may not have been a premiere basketball program in terms of championships and All-Americans, but we had some great battles during my four years there. We played the University of Houston when the team was ranked Number 1 in the country and also boasted Phi Slamma Jamma. They came to Santa Barbara with Hakeem (then known as Akeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, and everyone expected them to run us out of our own building. Our tallest player was 6’-7”, and he had to battle Olajuwon on the blocks. It was a great atmosphere. The Thunderdome was sold out, and they were still letting people in – the fire department must have turned its eye in another direction for this game [laughs]. We jumped out to a huge lead, and were up by 19 points at halftime. We played tentative after intermission and nearly pulled off the upset, losing by two points. I ended up having a really good game and with a number of scouts there some of the NBA teams had finally seen me play. I guess that was the first time people had seen me play against a big time collegiate team.
The coaching staff was phenomenal. Ben Howland, the current head coach at UCLA, was an assistant coach at Santa Barbara at that time. Jerry Pimm was our head coach – he’d come over from the University of Utah, where he had developed NBA talents such as Tom Chambers, Danny Vranes and Pace Mannion. These were outstanding coaches – they pushed me to get into the weight room, which helped add fifteen pounds of muscle to my thin frame [laughs]. I was really skinny.
Former athletic director Jim Romeo stands out in mind during that period as well. He provided so much encouragement to a number of players on that team. To this day we are very good friends and we continue to discuss my team here as well as the NBA.
You injured your knee during your junior year at UC
Santa Barbara. For a basketball junkie, what was it
like not being able to play?
It was very frustrating. The injury occurred during practice – I was in a full sprint when someone clipped my heel from behind and I fell hard on my left knee. I was lucky in one respect, because I only stretched the ligament and didn’t actually tear it. The doctor equipped me with a steel knee brace so that I could continue to play. The brace was considered top of the line back then, but by today’s standards it was quite archaic. But it enabled me to continue playing which, in my eyes, was the most important thing at the time. I didn’t redshirt that season but, in retrospect, I probably should have taken the time to recover. I just didn’t fully understand the dynamics of the injury. As it was, the team’s starting point guard was dragging that big, cumbersome brace up and down the court [laughs].
You were drafted in the fourth round of the 1986 NBA
Draft – the eighty-ninth player overall by the Houston
Rockets. You played impressively in the Rockets rookie
camp, averaging 16 points and 3 assists per game.
Ironically, a strong preseason showing against the
Celtics helped you make the team. Did you do anything
special to celebrate?
Not really. It was an uncertain time – the Rockets had drafted Buck Johnson from Alabama with their first round pick, and had also taken Dave Feitl from Texas El-Paso in the second round. Anthony Bowie from Oklahoma was selected in the third, so entering camp I knew that all of these guys had a better chance of making the team than I did. Because of this, my attitude from the outset of training camp was to let it all hang out. All four of us made the team which was surprising because they had just gone to the Finals against the Celtics and got spanked. I think few people thought they would keep all of us but they did.
How I ended up in Houston was a funny twist of luck. Bill Fitch drafted me after watching a tape of one of our games. He’d requested the tape to take a look at the point guard on the other team, but he was intrigued by the way I played. He made some calls based on the tape and then selected me in the fourth round. To this day I have very good memories of Coach Fitch. He had confidence in me, and he showed it by playing me at the one. He knew that I could play the point and also shoot the three, and it didn’t hurt that big guards were the norm at the time. So I had size and not much speed (laughs), which helped, and I had that good game against the Celtics. I made the team, and my rookie year in the NBA was just beginning.
The Celtics signed you to a 10-day contract, and on
January 7th you made your Boston Garden debut
by going 4-of-5 from behind the arc. The Boston Garden
crowd, which had become famous for its chants of “Larry”
and “Beat LA”, where suddenly chanting “Ten More Days!”
Please tell me about that experience, and how it felt to
have the crowd appreciate your effort.
It was a magical night. I had no idea something like that might happen, although we were playing the Milwaukee Bucks and I had a feeling that I’d get into the game. I was very excited, very nervous, but once I got into the game I was able to settle down. I got my legs underneath me, which also helped, but the main thing was being a member of the Boston Celtics. When you have players like Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to throw the ball to, you don’t feel as much pressure to go in and make things happen. They command so much attention that good movement and ball rotation will put me in a position to succeed that night. And that’s what happened. I got open and the first one went in. That relaxed me, and I was able to flow with the game the rest of the way. I kept moving and kept getting looks, and the shots kept going in. I’ll never forget the chants from the fans. It was incredible. By the end of the game I was breathing extremely hard because I was somewhat out of shape. I received a lot of support from that night.