Turning missteps into teaching opportunities

D.J. SHELTON doesn't want to get into the details, but says in August of 2011, before he had even taken a class at WSU or pulled on a Cougar basketball jersey, he did something stupid at the National Lentil Festival in Pullman. When Ken Bone texted him shortly thereafter, the 6-10 forward's nerves went into overdrive.

"I was scared. I didn't know what to expect," he said of his weekend miscue.

Bone and Shelton met bright and early at Martin Stadium the following Monday. Bone remembers it being at 6, Shelton says it was closer to 5. Regardless, the two convened and Shelton subsequently spent 90 minutes running under Bone's watchful eye.

"It just showed me how serious it was and how much he cares," said Shelton, now a senior. "He wants to make sure we learn our lessons."

Shelton hides nothing about where he was in life at the time.

"When I got here, I was still in party mode. I was focused on basketball, but not too focused," he says. "I was one of the guys being called out to meet with coach."

Shelton and Bone met again at the crack of dawn this past summer, nearly two years after the incident that got him off to a rocky start. But this time it wasn't a consequence. Shelton was getting ready for a grueling workout ritual -- of his own volition -- and bumped into Bone in the Bohler Complex.

"We talked for an hour, just standing in the hallway," Shelton recalls. "He told me how much he appreciated my extra work, and how being better, in basketball and in life, is about working hard when nobody is looking."

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Exhibition game: WSU vs. Central Washington, Nov. 1, Pullman

Season opener: WSU vs. CSU Bakersfield, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., Pullman; Pac-12 Networks

Early game to circle: WSU vs. Gonzaga, Nov. 21 at 6 p.m., Spokane; TV to be determined.


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The Lentil Festival will be forever burned into Shelton's memory because he's come so far since then.

"Coach Bone shows his players he supports them but as soon as you mess up he wants to turn it into a teaching moment, a life lesson … I maybe wouldn't be here without it."

Bone says Shelton's misstep wasn't egregious, but it sent up warning lights – lights that are far in the distance today.

"D.J. is a different person than he was two years ago," Bone told Cougfan.com in a recent interview. "He has really matured. He's done a great job of growing up. Whether he scores five points or 25 points a game this season, the way he has progressed as a person has made our entire staff so proud. Ten or 20 years down the road, we're going to look back and feel good about the affect we had on his life."

Shelton says last season was a true turning point for him.

"I grew, my mind was right -- taking care of my responsibilities, being more focused," he says. "I want to be a player younger dudes can look up to."

That maturity also extends to the classroom. Shelton is on track to earn his degree in December.

Bone said his approach with Shelton illustrates one of the underpinnings of the way he leads and manages.

"Over the years, my strength has been as a teacher," Bone said. "I majored in education and have embraced the role of trying to educate."

Some of the lessons he has taught have been painful to the bottom line.

IN MARCH OF 2011, the Cougars lost an overtime heartbreaker to UCLA as star Klay Thompson sat on the bench in sweats following his broken-tailight-marijuana-run-in-with-the-law. In another game, at ASU, Thompson was late for the team bus and Bone held him out of the starting lineup.

Last fall, Bone booted Reggie Moore, the Pac-12's reigning assists leader, off the team following an undisclosed violation of team rules.

And this season is off to an unusual start. Danny Lawhorn, a brand new JC transfer who was expected to back up Royce Woolridge at point guard, is already gone following an undisclosed violation of team rules, while Jordan Railey was suspended from the program two weeks ago for an undisclosed violation. Railey, though, is expected to play this season.

To message board critics who point to Lawhorn and Railey, whose troubles followed Moore's, whose troubles followed DeAngelo Casto and Thompson, as evidence of a program in despair, Bone says nonsense.

Young people on college campuses sometimes make missteps, he says, and while "That's not what you want, when they do, you take action, firmly but fairly, and that's what I've always done."

His philosophy on discipline has two cornerstones:

1) Immediate response.
"The consequences for actions need to be settled as soon as possible. I'm not going to sit on it, you can't wait to get through this practice or this game and then decide. Sometimes you need to wait for facts to come in, but timing is important so you don't lose the impact."

2) Equal justice.
"Being fair, doing what is right, whether it's a superstar or the last guy on the bench, whether there are media repercussions or not. Along with that, we try not to embarrass the individual, we want to focus on the behavior."

BONE AND THOMPSON, 2011

Bone helps impart the boundaries in basic ways each day. If anyone swears during practice, the entire team runs 20 sprints after practice, down and back in 11 seconds per set. If anyone skips ankle taping or bracing, there will be more sprints. If someone misses a tutoring session, there are sprints. And don't even think about skipping a class.

Junior guard DaVonte Lacy, who will accompany Bone to Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco this week, told CF.C he let out a four-letter word in practice his freshman year.

"I slipped and we did pay for it," Lacy says.

Asked if he's been a repeat offender, the Curtis High product doesn't hesitate: "I don't like to run, so I tend not to do things a second time that result in running … it's really more about life, creating good habits for us as young men."

Role modeling is also key to the process of helping young people mature, Bone says.

"We have mentors for our guys, people in the community who are role models and can offer guidance … We bring in numerous speakers, people like Robbie Cowgill, James Donaldson and Eric Thomas … We also talk about discipline off the court."

TWO SITUATIONS EARLY IN HIS coaching career shaped Bone's outlook on discipline and his emphasis on turning missteps into teaching moments.

In his first season as a head coach, at Division II Cal State Stanislaus in the early 1980s, it came to light that one of his players was an alcoholic.

"I never, ever dreamed of an alcoholic playing ball. The age, playing college sports, the two just didn't go together with anything in my background," Bone recalls. "That was a good learning experience for me, to mentor the young man and help him along. He was our 9th, 10th, 11th guy -- this had nothing to do with getting him on the court. This was about getting a life on track."

Another key event in his evolution as a coach occurred early on in his tenure at Seattle Pacific.

"We were on the road playing Alaska-Anchorage. We had a great kid from Brazil who I really enjoyed having on the team," Bone says. "I get a call from the police asking me to come down to the Nordstrom's there in Anchorage. He had been caught stealing something. I was just shocked. He was one of the last guys you thought would ever do that."

Bone didn't kick the kid off the team. There was "an interesting conversation" and a consequence, yes, but something more severe in that instance would have taken away what the kid needed most at that stage: structure, discipline and mentoring.

The young man graduated from SPU and returned to Brazil. "We still stay in touch," Bone says. "He's a great guy and doing extremely well – married for 20-plus years, kids, and part-owner of several gas stations."

Bone said a team trip to Brazil several years after the Anchorage incident really drove home the importance of mentoring.

"It put into perspective the environment he had come from. The poverty there – people do what they have to do to get by. It's dog eat dog. Now that doesn't excuse what he did up in Anchorage, but it reinforced to me how important it is to understand the cultures that shape people and how you can help guide them."

And by cultures, Bone isn't just talking about nationality or ethnicity.

"In recruiting, you're looking at kids from all different backgrounds. Some come from split families, some from homes with alcoholism, some from abusive homes … When I was younger and naïve, those were life experiences that were hard to relate to," he says.

The incidents at Cal State Stanislaus and Seattle Pacific turned out to be significant building blocks in his development as a coach.

THE RECRUITING TRAIL IS AN interesting place when it comes to forecasting behavior on and off the court. Some kids are straight arrows. Some are good kids who might make a mistake or two along the way. Some you wonder about. And some spell nothing but trouble.

"In the time I've been here, we've taken two guys who had something in their background check. With both, we knew it was a case of a good kid who made a mistake," Bone says.

But that, he notes, is the exception.

"The kids we bring to WSU reflect on us as coaches -- that's something we take seriously," he says.

So Bone said they pass on a lot of talent -- for character or academic reasons.

Consider, says Bone, that of the players assistant coach Ray Lopes identified at a recent JC tournament as bona fide major-conference talents, only one-third likely would be in line for a scholarship offer from the Cougs once more is known about them.

That's not to say he and the staff won't consider taking a measured chance – but even that decision is dictated by previous recruiting choices.

"When you do take a risk, you do so knowing they are going to be surrounded by kids like Junior Longrus and Brett Boese – great kids that you'd be just shocked if they got into trouble," Bone says.

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