Bill Cartwright was an instrumental part of the Dons' last golden age. He's now hoping to help usher in another USF athletics renaissance. (Stan Olszewski/Special To S.F. Examiner)

Cartwright settles into new role at old home

The 7-foot-1, five-time NBA champ is sitting on the aisle, his legs dangling to the side. That’s the only way that Bill Cartwright’s outsized frame will fit inside the red wooden bleachers that line the cozy bowl of Kezar Pavilion — the longtime former home of the University of San Francisco men’s basketball program.

Now in his ninth month as the director of university of initiatives, Cartwright has hit his stride in his new role at his alma mater.

“It’s been great because of the extent of the transformation the school is going through right now,” Cartwright said. “I think we had a period where the teams were attempting to do well, but not really to be the best.”

Tasked with building relationships with alumni, spearheading fundraising efforts and mentoring students from underrepresented groups, Cartwright believes times are changing for the Dons.

“I think that what we’ve seen now — from the transformation of the baseball field, the transformation of the soccer field, from the work they’re doing in the gym — there’s a real commitment to wanting to be the best in our conference and hopefully the best in the country,” Cartwright said.

“So, to rejoin that campaign? It’s awesome.”

At halftime of the men’s 91-59 rout of San Francisco State on Tuesday, Cartwright makes his way to the crowded concourse at Kezar. The Dons have returned to their old court for an exhibition to pay tribute to the teams that made three consecutive Final Four appearances from 1955 to 1957.

As Cartwright moves through the crush, he receives a hero’s welcome. A middle-aged man stops the former three-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year to tell Cartwright that he is the reason he loves hoops.

“I was this tall,” the man gushes, as he holds his hand — palm down — at the height of his waist.

Seconds after taking a photo with his fan, Cartwright spots the 7-foot Wallace Bryant, a former Dons teammate.

“When you see those guys it’s awesome,” Cartwright explains once he makes it outside the gym, his familiar raspy voice cutting through the crisp night air. “It gives you energy, juice. You can reminiscence about the old days. Talk about what’s going on now. So, it’s fun.”

The opportunity to connect with alumni is Cartwright’s favorite part of the job. As the athletic department’s most-famous pitchman, the three-time WCC champ works a demanding schedule.

“It’s a lot of stuff. It can be pretty boring,” Cartwright admits.

Another one of Cartwright’s former teammates is hardly surprised that the three-time All-American has been such a hit back on the Hilltop.

“Bill always struck me as a teacher,” said Golden State Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr. “In fact, his nickname, a lot of guys called him, ‘Teach.’ Short for teacher. He always had an academic side to him. A very serious side, an intellectual side. And I think this is a perfect role for him.”

Standing underneath one of the baskets at the Warriors training facility in downtown Oakland on Tuesday, Kerr recalled playing alongside Cartwright for the Chicago Bulls during the 1993-94 season.

“I was just sort of struck by him,” Kerr said. “What a powerful, understated human being he was. To this day, he remains one of my favorite teammates.”

“As it should be,” Cartwright said with a chuckle when informed of Kerr’s compliment.

That 1993-94 season marked the first of several intersections during Kerr and Cartwright’s basketball lives.

After retiring as a player, Cartwright became an assistant on the Bulls’ staff in 1996. In 2008, when Kerr was the president of basketball operations and general manager of the Phoenix Suns, he hired Cartwright as an assistant coach.

Then in 2014, when Kerr spurned the New York Knicks to take the Warriors’ top post, there were reports that Cartwright would have joined him on the bench if he’d ended up at Madison Square Garden.

“He was a leader for us in Chicago,” Kerr said. “He was just one of those guys who didn’t say much, but when he spoke, everybody listened.”

Cartwright’s return to USF has coincided with the men’s team racing out to a 7-1 start in head coach Kyle Smith’s first season in charge.

As he stands outside of Kezar, undistracted, if only briefly, by his legions of fans, Cartwright envisions a program that is building a foundation for a new era of success.

“I think that everything that happens happens in parts,” Cartwright said. “Like this year, for our team, what’s our goal? Will we win the conference? I don’t know, but we can certainly establish our home court. Establish our players, our rotations and we can find out what kind of team we’re going to have.”

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