Minium: ODU Has a Ton of Connections to U.Va., Including Bryant Stith, The Cavs' All-Time Leading scorer

April 03, 2019
By ODU Athletics
ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Nearly three decades ago I covered the University of Virginia basketball team for The Virginian-Pilot. Although there were some big characters in the ACC at the time, none stood taller to me than Bryant Stith.

He scored 2,516 points at U.Va., more than Ralph Sampson or any other player to wear Cavalier blue and orange. But it was his character more than his talent that was most impressive.

Maryland fans would spew obscenities at him, Duke fans would taunt him and opposing players would take cheap shots. Yet I never saw him lose his temper.

He was by far U.Va.’s best scorer, so defenses focused on him, sometimes brutally. Every time he got knocked down, he got back up, slapped the hands of his teammates and continued to play.

And talk about work ethic. He never stopped moving. He was poised. He spoke with such maturity, even for a 22-year-old.

He was, as I wrote in a feature story as he neared his final home game in 1992, “just too good to be true.”

Bryant has been an assistant coach at Old Dominion for the last six seasons and has become a beloved part of ODU's program. But before I delve more into Bryant, let's talk about ODU's other connections to the Cavaliers, who take on Auburn Saturday night in their first Final Four appearance since 1984.

Head coach Jeff Jones, a former U.Va. star, was an assistant on that 1984 team and would later become U.Va.'s head coach.

ODU athletic director Wood Selig spent 10 years at U.Va. where he received his doctorate. Dennis Wolff, ODU's director of basketball operations, was an assistant under Jones at U.Va. 

And even B.J. Stith, Bryant's son, who led ODU in scoring and was Conference USA Player of the Year, attended U.Va. for a season before transferring to ODU.

Selig has been frustrated with U.Va.'s refusal to schedule the Monarchs in basketball, but when I asked if he's rooting for the Cavs, he replied: "Hell yes I am.

"I have a degree from U.Va. It would be awesome to see them win."

B.J. also says he’s rooting for the Cavs. He still has friends there, including center Jack Salt, whom Stith calls, “a really good guy and a good friend,” and has the utmost respect for U.Va. coach Tony Bennett.

“I love Old Dominion,” B.J. said. “I had such a great career here. But I’ll always care for U.Va., too.”

B.J. scored 14 points and had 10 rebounds in ODU's 61-48 NCAA tournament loss to Purdue, in which he didn't shoot well, but played with the passion and will to win of his father. It was Purdue, in case you weren't paying attention, that U.Va. defeated in overtime to win the regional final.

His mother, Barbara Stith, watched her son play in the NCAA tournament on TV – she was in Belgium with son Brandan, who is in his first year of playing professional basketball.

But both she and Bryant are going to Minneapolis, where B.J. will play in a 3-on-3 tournament and the NABC All-Star game.

"We'll be there together to watch B.J. play," Bryant said.

And as I was to learn the more I worked on that senior day profile in 1992, family is the most important part of his life. 

Barbara Dilworth's dormitory room at ODU looked like a Bryant Stith Hall of Fame in 1992

Bryant Stith was no stranger to ODU's campus as a high school and college player. He went ODU's basketball camp in high school and although he didn't seriously consider playing in Norfolk, developed a good relationship with then coach Paul Webb.

But also had a much deeper, more emotional connection to ODU. When I interviewed him for that senior day feature, I asked him if he had a girlfriend. Yes, he said. But Barbara Dilworth was more than a girlfriend -- she's the woman I plan to marry, he said.

They met each other in the ninth grade and began dating in the 11th grade at Brunswick County High, about 90 minutes west of Norfolk.

"Our parents didn’t want us to go to school together,” he said. “They said if our relationship was strong enough, it would survive us being apart.”

So Barbara went to ODU, where Stith spent nearly every spare weekend he had while at U.Va.

I went to Barbara’s dormitory room in 1992 and interviewed her and it looked like a Bryant Stith Hall of Fame. It was covered with pictures and newspaper articles about Stith. I took the picture above, and after all these years, gave Bryant a copy of it a few weeks ago.

It was clear from the way they talked about each other that their relationship would survive four years of being apart.

"Sometimes I don't like basketball because it takes so much out of him," she said. "He puts so much into it. When he hurts, I hurt.

"But when I see him play, I'm in awe."

They got married two years after they both graduated from college. 

Bryant had 10 successful seasons in the NBA, where he made $32 million and became a fan favorite in Denver. He could have made millions more. Teams beckoned with one-year contracts, and the Nuggets wanted him to become part of their broadcast team.

He declined all offers, retired early and moved back to Freeman, Va., a tiny, unincorporated town in Brunswick County where he and Barbara grew up. They did so their kids could have the same kind of life they had.

Bryant Stith cuts the net after ODU won the Conference USA championship last month in Frisco, Texas. 

“We wanted them to grow up knowing their grandparents,” Bryant said.

Although he loved his time in Denver, he had seen the underbelly of the NBA after he was traded to other teams.

“I saw things that weren’t consistent with my character,” he said. “I was with Cleveland the year they tanked in order to draft LeBron James. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

“I felt the best thing my family needed was to get away from the NBA life. It was a tough decision, but we decided to put family first, and I’m glad I did. I’ve seen so many NBA players lose their children chasing that dollar.”

The Stiths felt at home in Freeman. Their kids were up at 6 a.m. every Saturday in the spring and summer, helping dad mow the more than 100 acres they owned around their home on Route 58.

Bryant was the son of a brick mason and long-haul trucker. So even though he was a millionaire, he wanted his kids to learn the same work ethic that he did.

“People think we were spoiled, but we weren’t,” B.J. said. “Our parents didn’t cut us any slack.”

The Stiths taught their kids to be respectful and not to expect anything special because their dad was a superstar. If you’ve met any of the four Stith kids – they also have two daughters, Bria and Brook, then you know how awesome their parents were.

Bryant thought he was done with basketball until locals approached him about coaching his alma mater, Brunswick County High. He was at first hesitant.

“When we moved back to Virginia, I was running away from basketball,” he said. “I wanted nothing to do with it.”

But he relented. Stith had never coached before, and he turned out to be a pretty good one. Brunswick went to the state championship game seven years in a row and won state titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Bryant and B.J. Stith a day before ODU's NCAA tournament game against Purdue last month. 

“Those kids at Brunswick, I thank God for them,” Bryant said said. “They gave me back the love of basketball.”

Both Brandan and B.J. played for their father. At first that was difficult, B.J. said. A good coach demands hard work and discipline from players, and even more so when the players are his sons.

“But me and my dad agreed that no matter what happened in basketball, we weren’t going to allow it to affect our relationship as father and son,” he said.

“Once we made that clear, I was able to not take things as personally as I had been. He was harder on me and my brother than anyone else. I didn’t see why at the time. Now I do.”

He won his last state championship shortly before Jones was named the head coach at ODU. When President John R. Broderick and Selig made the formal announcement about Jones’ hiring on six years ago, Bryant was in Norfolk to show his support.

Brandan had signed with East Carolina. B.J. was on his way to play his senior year at Oak Hill Academy. So when Jones asked Bryant to come to ODU, he and Barbara pulled up stakes and bought a house in the Larchmont section of Norfolk.

After a solid first half of his freshman year at ECU, Brandan languished on the bench. Convinced he wasn’t going to play, Brandan transferred to ODU.

B.J., a top-50 recruit, followed in his dad’s footsteps to U.Va. against his father’s wishes.

“I didn’t want B.J. to go to U.Va. because he would always be compared to me, and I didn’t think that would be fair to him,” Bryant said.

“But when I told B.J. that, he told me that I’d always taught him that nothing in life is going to come easy. I could see that if I kept him from going to the University of Virginia that he would never forgive me. He would always think, ‘what could have been.’

“Sometimes parents can see things down the road that one of your children can’t see. But he had to go through it to get to where he is today.”

B.J. essentially blew a year of eligibility at U.Va., where he played in 13 games and took 13 shots. Disheartened, and with his self-confidence shattered, B.J. transferred to ODU in 2015.

Both B.J. and Brandan flourished at ODU.

Brandan was ODU’s tough guy inside who led the team in rebounding and shot blocking and was named to the All-Conference USA defensive team. B.J. was more outgoing than his brother or father -- "I take after my Mom." he said -- with the silky smooth jump shot and with the speed and agility to play guard or forward. 

“When he left U.Va., his confidence was in ruins,” Bryant said. “It took him a year or two to get his edge back. I’m so proud of him that he was able to do that.”

Technically, NCAA rules state that assistant coaches are required to be in the locker room and available to the media for 45 minutes the day before first-round NCAA tournament games.

Bryant broke that rule on March 20 in Hartford, Conn., when he quietly slipped out to watch Jones, point guard Ahmad Caver and his son questioned by reporters in the press room.

“Bryant went to see his son,” assistant coach Kieran Donohue said when a reporter asked for Bryant. “I hope you understand. He just wants to see his son.”

Everyone understood. Their time together as player and coach was coming to an end. What father wouldn’t want to watch his son at the press room podium at the NCAA tournament?

“I saw him,” B.J. said. “That’s why I love my dad.”

 As the Monarchs ate dinner that night in the Sheraton Airport Hotel, I watched Jones and Bryant Stith interact out of the corner of my eye. It was clear they are immensely close.

They would communicate with half sentences, as if they knew what the other was thinking. Sometimes, they would communicate with hand gestures.

“Yeah, we’ve known each other so long that we think alike,” Stith said with a laugh.

Bryant Stith being interviewed by Ted Alexander at halftime of ODU's NCAA tournament game against Purdue. 

Jones was a U.Va. assistant coach when he began recruiting Stith at age 13. Jones was named U.Va.’s head coach after Terry Holland retired, and Stith said no one realizes the lengths Jones went to help every player he coached succeed in life.

Long before the NBA draft, Jones ensured Stith would be financially secure.

“He had the dean of the business school and the dean of the law school at the University of Virginia sit down and help me interview my agent, interview my financial advisers, to come up with a team that could set me up for life,” Bryant said.

"I would not be where I am in life without Jeff Jones. When I left the University of Virginia, I had no idea just how much of an impact he would continue to have on my life. He gave me a chance to coach. He gave my sons a chance to play and helped them grow up and get their degrees.

"I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am to coach Jones."

When Bryant talked to B.J. about where he would go after leaving U.Va., he simply explained what Jones had done for him.

“Bryant did not tell him there is where you should go,” Jones said. “He told him about his experience with me. He told B.J. he needed a coach who believed in him, and that I believed in him.”

He also believes that Bryant, and assistant coach John Richardson, have futures as head coaches.

“Bryant is ready to be a head coach,” Jones said. “If an opportunity comes up, I want to do all I can to help him.

“It’s the same thing with John. I think he’s ready. If a situation is a good fit for either one of them, part of my job is to help them move along.”

Bryant Stith with sons Brandan and B.J. 

Don't be surprised if this is the spring that Bryant gets that head coaching gig. Although it wasn't reported at the time, Stith was a finalist last year at UNC Asheville, and his resume is only stronger now after a 26-win season, a Conference USA championship and an NCAA tournament bid.

Athletic directors looking for a head coach will conduct interviews at the Final Four. I didn't ask Stith if he’s applied or interviewed with another school because I didn’t want to put him in a tough spot. But I would be surprised if he’s not interviewed by several schools this weekend.

Bryant said if he’s going to become a head coach, the time is now. He’s 48, and while that sounds young to me, he says that doesn’t sound young to many athletic directors.

“I’m not in a position where I can pick and choose,” he said.

He could also end up coaching at ODU for years.

“I’m so grateful to coach Jones, to President John Broderick, to Wood Selig, for giving me this opportunity. Old Dominion is where my wife went to school, where my boys graduated, where I got a chance to coach. I’ll always love ODU.”

Regardless of where he ends up, he’s thankful that he and Barbara decided to go home to rural Virginia so many years ago.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “When we moved back to Virginia, we did it for family. I love what I’m doing now. I love where we are as a family. 

"I have a strong relationship with my kids and that means far more to me than any amount of money.”

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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