Montgomery’s Averbuck is next in line of hoops-crazed men

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Averbuck boys, from left, Chico, Sam and Ned. Chico is an NBA scout, Ned was on the 1959 Cal team that won a national championship and Sam is a standout basketball player at Montgomery High School.  (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

The Averbuck boys, from left, Chico, Sam and Ned. Chico is an NBA scout, Ned was on the 1959 Cal team that won a national championship and Sam is a standout basketball player at Montgomery High School. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

In the Averbuck family, basketball does not skip a generation.

Ned Averbuck, 74, won a national championship at Cal in 1959 under legendary coach Pete Newell, and spent much of his life running basketball camps in Sonoma County.

Philip “Chico” Averbuck, 47, is the director of international scouting for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

And when the North Coast Section playoffs tip off this week, 18-year-old senior Sam Averbuck will be starting for the Montgomery boys, strong contenders to be the No. 1 seed in Division 2.

“Look, basketball is not a game to any of the three of us,” Ned said recently, all three Averbucks arranged around a table in Chico’s backyard near downtown Santa Rosa. “It’s a way of breathing. It’s oxygen. It’s who you are.”

Ned, unlike his descendants, didn’t grow up consuming basketball. The son of a local Communist Party leader in East Los Angeles, he had a hard time convincing his father of the value of collegiate sports. Only UC Berkeley’s academic reputation and Newell’s charisma sealed the deal.

Chico and Sam fought no such battles. Neither was pushed into basketball, yet neither can remember an age when they didn’t play.

“Chico was gonna be in basketball from the time he was 5 years old,” Ned said. “I mean, I can remember him coming out of the room, because at Hanukkah he had gotten this uniform and a basketball. And all we heard for about three weeks on this little patio — it wasn’t really a patio, it was just poured cement: dribble-dribble-dribble. It was like a drummer every night. I mean, people were moving out of the neighborhood.”

Chico has similar memories of Sam. In fact, the family has a photograph of Sam as a toddler, wearing a pair of shorts and a jersey, palming a NERF basketball and preparing to attack a Little Tikes basket suction-cupped to the door. By the time he was in kindergarten, he was drilling alongside high schoolers at Ned’s camps.

A passion for basketball

Chico Averbuck, a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers, watches his daughter, Hannah, shoot a basket while running a North Coast Basketball Association practice in 2011. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Chico Averbuck, a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers, watches his daughter, Hannah, shoot a basket while running a North Coast Basketball Association practice in 2011. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Actually, Sam inherited his passion for basketball from both sides of the family. Jennifer Averbuck’s brothers were good players, too. One of Sam’s uncles, Mike Hostetter, played for a state championship at Cardinal Newman High.

Sam received one other genetic advantage: size. Ned was 6 feet, 5 inches when he played for Newell at Cal. Chico is right about that height, maybe a tick shorter. Sam is 6-foot-3. He was mostly a shooting guard for the Vikings until teammate Dakota Row was injured. That setback tipped over some dominoes that led to Sam moving to small forward.

But it isn’t Sam’s size that makes him one of Montgomery’s best players. It’s his deadly 3-point shot. That and his unflappable demeanor on the court. When Sam played in the Gym Rats program under local coach Steve Azevedo, his nickname was “Old Soul.” Chico calls him a “next-play guy.”

“It doesn’t bother him,” Chico said. “And you don’t know it does, because he shows absolutely zero emotion. It could be him hitting a crucial 3, or it could be him dribbling the ball off his foot. It’s the same expression. Whereas with me, I lived and died on every single possession.”

Avoiding comparisons

The challenge for Sam has been not to compare himself to his father, or his grandfather, or his uncles. He admits that his last name can be both a blessing and a curse around here.

“I did feel instances where I thought it was tough, considering that in my family I’ve had two really respected basketball coaches,” Sam said. “So it’s almost as if my dad is my coach and my grandpa was my coach. But on the flipside, I have been able to encounter opportunities that other kids my age could only imagine.”

Like diagramming out-of-bounds plays with Newell, using spoons and coffee cups, when he was in elementary school. Like traveling to South Africa with his father and several NBA players. Like living in Spain for a year via his father’s basketball contacts.

“I see myself like as a global citizen,” Sam said.

Brief playing careers

Though Ned and Chico have devoted much of their lives to basketball, neither had a long playing career. Ned played some AAU hoops and tried out for an old American Basketball League team, the San Francisco Saints, after college but said, “my game after high school got exposed.” Chico, after averaging 24 points a game as a senior at El Molino High, played at Rider University in New Jersey and then Cal State Bakersfield.

“After I transferred from Rider to Bakersfield, there was a moment in my life that changed everything,” Chico said. “We start practice at Bakersfield. It’s late October, and I’m standing on the side, and we’re going up and down. And I’m like, ‘What am I doing? Do I really want to keep playing?’ This was sort of like the epiphany.”

Chico walked out of practice, changed clothes and drove home to Sebastopol. His coach, Pat Douglass, didn’t know he was leaving campus. His parents didn’t know he was headed their way.

“In that time to think, I knew my playing days were over,” Chico said. “I wasn’t good enough.”

But Douglass made him a deal. Chico would become a de facto player-coach. He sat in on coaches’ meetings, helped break down film and basically ran the scout team in practice.

Chico’s CBA coaching days

Montgomery's Sam Averbuck goes for a jump during a game against Casa Grande on Feb. 14. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Montgomery’s Sam Averbuck goes for a jump during a game against Casa Grande on Feb. 14. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Chico wound up coaching in the Continental Basketball Association, and for a short stint in Greece (the team stopped paying him after eight months), but after a few years realized that he much preferred evaluating talent to drawing up Xs and Os. He became a scouting consultant, went to work for the Portland Trailblazers (moving back to Santa Rosa) in 1990 and has been with the Cavaliers for 20 years. He scouts the West Coast and digs up prospects in Europe, Asia and all over the world.

Sam knows all about his dad’s work. Once, Chico took him to a Cal-Arizona State game, and Sam wrote up a detailed scouting report on Sun Devils power forward Ike Diogu — footwork, shooting form, emotional makeup, everything. Sam was 11.

Living life on the road

Chico spends a lot of time on the road, but when he’s in Santa Rosa there’s no question what he and Sam and younger brother Will, 12, are likely to be doing, or what sister Hannah, 9, will be subjected to.

“Hannah bears the brunt of basketball,” Chico said. “Because if we’re watching a game, she cannot watch Nickelodeon or Disney. She’s relegated to NBA Ticket, and then all five ESPN stations, and then Fox Sports. … And the conversation is: ‘Where’s that guy gonna go in the draft, Dad?’ Or, ‘What do you think of him? What are his strengths and weaknesses?’ It’s a total evaluation of, not a game, but a player.”

That’s different than how Ned approached the game. He saw himself as more of a teacher, which was his vocation outside of basketball. He taught speech communications for 40 years in Oakland and Berkeley, even after he and wife Maxine moved to Sebastopol, and part-time for 10 years at Sonoma State. Ned coached a bit and founded the El Molino Sports Academy — equal parts fitness and fundamentals — which along the way became the Newell Basketball Academy. He finally retired about a year and a half ago.

Sam remains realistic

Sam could see himself going in either direction. (“Oh, boy,” was Jennifer’s reaction to that.) In fact, paging through the Cavaliers media guide a couple weeks ago, he fixed on a job called “player development” that seemed to combine elements of coaching and scouting. The player development staff works with young athletes already in the organization to improve their skills.

A straight-A student, Sam isn’t sure where he’ll be next fall, but he’s set on playing college basketball. At the same time, he’s savvy enough not to be banking on an NBA career.

“Whatever I’m doing after high school, college, whatever, it’s gonna be basketball-related,” Sam said. “Be it a player, a coach, a scout, a GM, or even a towel boy or a video coordinator. Basketball has been rooted in me since Day One, and I know it’s gonna be rooted in me till the day I die.”

And nothing would feed those roots more than a good playoff run.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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