Coming out of Columbia High School in Maplewood, Mark Bryant could have played college basketball anywhere. The program up the street, the dregs of the Big East, was a longshot.
“The beginning of my senior year I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to Seton Hall,’” he said. “I’m not staying home.”
But head coach P.J. Carlesimo and assistant Mike Brown added his older brother Spencer to the team, appealed to his close-knit family about the virtues of staying local, and offered Mark plenty of playing time in the best league in America.
Visits to Ohio State and South Carolina turned him off – too big – so Bryant took the leap of faith. He became Pirate, tipping the first domino in a chain reaction that would put Seton Hall on the hardwood map.
“I had no idea that would happen, but I knew we had good young talent, we had guys who liked playing together, liked being together,” Bryant, now an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, said by phone Thursday. “When I signed a lot more New York (recruits) came to Seton Hall and we kept building. All these guys stayed together and made something great over there.”
The Pirates finally broke through his senior year, 1987-88, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time. That team, long in the shadow of the celebrated 1989 squad that reached the national title game, will be honored Sunday at Prudential Center shortly before the Hall’s matchup against DePaul (noon tip, Fox Sports 1). Bryant will be there, and so will Carlesimo, James Major, Martin Salley, Daryll Walker, Gerald Greene, Michael Cooper and Jose Rebimbas.
“To me, the team from 1984-88, they brought on the 1989 team,” Bryant said. “Without us, there was no ‘89. I felt like I raised them, and it was time for them to move on without me. I was so happy when they got to the final. I was there, so proud of the guys. They got cheated by Michigan. But from 1988 to 1989, it was just one big family, man. That’s how I see it: One big, extended family.”
‘You weren’t intimidated’
As a freshman in 1984-85, Bryant entered the Big East at its zenith – a league that produced three Final Four teams that March and was populated with players whose legends still resonate. They would come into 3,000-seat Walsh Gym and the place would shake.
“Pearl shut that gym down,” Bryant said of Pearl Washington, the Syracuse guard who was a walking highlight reel. “He came with a chain so big with Pac Man on it and diamonds all over it. I said, ‘Damn, this guy’s in college?’ It was standing room only.”
Every night, Bryant butted heads with a different stud.
“I always kill people when they talk up the ACC,” he said. “The Big East was the best conference. After playing against Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, you weren’t intimidated by the next people coming up.”
In 1987-88, it was finally the Pirates’ turn to dish it out. The nucleus of underclassmen who had signed on after Bryant – Greene, Walker, Cooper, John Morton and Ramon Ramos – were coming of age. And Bryant was dominant. The 6-foot-9 forward/center averaged 20.5 points and 9.1 rebounds, earning the Haggerty Award as the metropolitan area’s top player. The Hall finished 22-13 overall and 8-8 in the Big East -- this after winning eight conference games total during Bryant’s first three seasons. The program outgrew Walsh and started playing at the Meadowlands.
“There were times in the Meadowlands where nobody was there and it was freezing,” Bryant said. “Until we started winning.”
A rare return home
After graduating, Bryant was chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Portland Trailblazers. He played 15 seasons in the league, mostly as a steady reserve, at one point averaging 9 points and 5 rebounds. In 2004 he entered the coaching ranks as an assistant with Dallas; he joined Phoenix in 2019 and helped the Suns reach the NBA Finals in 2021.
Does he channel the hard-driving Carlesimo in his coaching?
“I don’t think that’s possible in today’s world,” Bryant, now 57, said with a laugh. “I have my own style of coaching. I think I’m kind of mellow; if I raise my voice, you really did something crazy.”
Although he can’t remember the last time he saw Seton Hall play in person – he’s never been to the Rock – Bryant keeps tabs on his alma mater. He’s proud that so many fellow alums like Adrian Griffin (Toronto Raptors assistant) and Dan Hurley (UConn head coach) are in coaching. Of course, that includes the current Pirates’ skipper, Shaheen Holloway.
“It feels good to see guys from your alma mater having success,” he said. “I’m happy for Shaheen. I sent him a text as soon as he got the job. I was proud of what he did at Saint Peter’s.”
Midway through his first campaign Holloway has the Hall rolling, winning seven of the past nine games to improve to 14-9 overall and 7-5 in the Big East.
“I’m looking forward to him having much success at Seton Hall,” Bryant said. “He’s a good guy, an intense coach, and the guys rally around him and play hard for him. It seems like they’ll run through a wall for him.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Seton Hall basketball: Mark Bryant is proud of what he started