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Piedmont boys basketball coach Ben Spencer was raised around the game.
Spencer grew up in Storrs, Connecticut, right where the University of Connecticut is located. His mother taught there.
So, that afforded Spencer some reduced tuition at UConn, which is where he ultimately earned his undergraduate degree from. There, he walked on and played for Jim Calhoun.
“Playing for a Hall of Fame coach like Jim Calhoun – I don’t know if there’s any way to really describe it other than just amazing and intense,” Calhoun said. “As a walk on, you get to see both sides of the spectrum. You’re not playing big time minutes, but you get to see what Division I basketball is like and how intense and how talented all the guys are. I’m grateful for that experience.”
During those seasons, Spencer witnessed some of the best basketball there is – and some of those players ended up carving long and successful professional careers and remain among the top players in the NBA.
Those teammates included players like Rudy Gay and Charlie Villanueva. Both spent more than a decade in the league, and Gay is still in the NBA as a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
On a nightly basis, UConn was playing in the mecca of basketball. The Big East featured people like Kyle Lowry at Villanova, a plethora of Hall of Fame coaches at nearly every school, all the while the Big East Tournament was held at Madison Square Garden.
And, one time when UConn was playing at Marquette, Spencer got to meet LeBron James because the Cavaliers were playing at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee the following night.
“It definitely opened up my eyes to wanting to be a coach and definitely motivates me to want to be the best coach that I can,” Spencer said. “It was an unreal experience.”
Following those days at UConn, Spencer immediately turned around and got into the realm of teaching and coaching.
For one year, he taught at a private school in Connecticut. But he always wanted to live in California.
Spencer ended up driving all the way across the country and earned his teaching credential at St. Mary’s College. His first teaching job in the area came in elementary school in Piedmont.
One father from that elementary school asked if he wanted to coach their AAU team. Spencer accepted, and some third graders on that team – Luke Barrett, Paul Davies, Josh Eidam and Christian Hohener – ended up being seniors nine years later for Spencer’s Piedmont varsity squad that won a North Coast Section title in 2020.
Talk about full circle.
“They were in third grade, so I coached those guys just for fun for a little extra cash for moving out here from Connecticut,” Spencer said. “ The JV head coach, longtime coach at Piedmont, John Kirby, saw one of my practices that I was running and basically was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know you, but it looks like you know what you’re doing. You obviously played at some really high level because you’re running a pretty amazing and efficient practice. Would you like to be an assistant coach?’”
In 2011, Spencer joined the JV staff. He then became the head JV coach and later the head varsity coach beginning with this past season.
The varsity program has been put on the map at the high school level, providing similar glimpses to Spencer’s college days around a school with a number of championships. Piedmont is currently the defending North Coast Section Division IV champions.
The Highlanders are dedicated to 100% effort every second. Just like in the Big East, you can’t take one play off in the WACC, not with teams like Bishop O’Dowd – a perennial state title contender who won an Open Division crown just five years ago with Ivan Rabb and Paris Austin – Berkeley, San Leandro, Mt. Eden and Castro Valley all on the schedule twice per year. Name the opponent and name the time, and it is going to be one heck of a 32 minutes on the court.
“I really try to push the motto that if our practices are really the hardest thing out there, games should be easy for them,” Spencer said. “And so we make our practices hard, kids always go full speed, we simulate everything in practice as if it’s a game type situation. That’s always helped, so when kids get on the court they’re not thinking; they’re reacting.
“Going full speed in practices is definitely something that we as a program at all three levels want to teach our kids is that you’ve got to go full speed every possession, can’t take plays off so that when it comes to game time they’re ready for anything.”
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