The mea culpa lives on YouTube. It is short, raw, revealing: When new Spurs assistant coach Jim Boylen makes a mistake, he can tell the world. It happened on Feb. 16, 2008, after the University of Utah celebrated its 100th anniversary of basketball with a 72-66 victory over San Diego State.
Boylen thanked the home crowd for attending, saluted former players, promised to build a great program and made a confession. “I want to thank my wife for her support,” he said, “because I’ve been a jerk all week.”
The Jon M. Huntsman Center erupted in laughter and buzzed in wonderment. What had Boylen done? In the rush of preparing for the 100th anniversary celebration -- running practice, doing interviews, meeting with former stars in town, attending to so many details -- Boylen forgot Valentine’s Day. Feb. 14 came and went. Just totally slipped his mind.
Later that evening, when Jim and Christine Boylen pulled up to their house, they found a poster hung by a concerned neighbor. “Please forgive coach,” it said. “We won the game!”
Jim laughs at the memory. “I haven’t forgotten a Valentine’s Day since,” he says.
The man is a great storyteller, and he’s got a lot to tell, mostly about family and their values and lessons that shaped his character and coaching. There’s the one about his mother, Helen, and how she scolded him for his temper and tongue that earned him technicals at Utah: “She would say, ‘Watch your language! You are an example. Stay off the officials. It’s not doing any good.’”
The following season, Helen’s son drew only one technical. It wasn’t for losing his cool. It was for stepping outside the coaching box.
He heard from Christine as well. Jim says she knew little about basketball when they married almost 20 years ago. But she quickly became a student of the game. “I would go home after a big win and she’d have a list of things I needed to do better,” he says. “She would critique every interview I did on TV. It was in a loving way and I respected that. But when my wife and mom were both in town, I knew I was going to take a beating when I got home.”
Jim embraces the criticism as well as the encouragement. His wife and mother, he says, offer vigorous support. Christine -- “a terrific mom,” Jim says -- packs and moves their two children from job to job and city to city as well as any coach’s wife. Helen drives hundreds of miles to watch her son.
And why not? Jim is an original, a coach whose blue collar work ethic was forged in a single-parent home where he and two older brothers were expected to help pay the rent. Jim grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., the son of an insurance secretary and restaurant owner who divorced when he was 8. Helen put dinner on the table every evening at 5:30. If you were late, you didn’t eat.
At 15, Jim waited tables, washed dishes and worked as a short-order cook at his father’s restaurant, “Time Out,” a family dining establishment. When a busboy failed to show, Fred Boylen would call the school and send for Jim. “I would work from 11 to 2 for the big lunch crowd,” Jim recalls. “My dad would feed me and then I would go back to school for basketball practice. That happened at least twice a month.”
At 18, one hour after his high school graduation, Jim took a job at an auto parts factory, making tires and rubber motor mounts for General Motors. “I would work from 11 at night ‘til 8 in the morning,” he says. “I would go home and have breakfast and sleep until 3. Then I’d get up and go hoop from 4 ‘til 6 or 7, go home, shower and go back to work.”
He remembers making $600 to $700 a week. He also remembers giving his mother $200 a month for rent. His brothers worked and paid rent as well. “It was a way to gain maturity and responsibility toward the next step in life,” Jim says. “You needed to pay bills before you moved up. I thought it was a great lesson.”
Helen provided lessons on faith and frugality as well. Jim remembers years when the family didn’t have enough money to buy a Christmas tree. He remembers how he and his brothers shared a single belt. “There were some lean times but we had a roof over our head,” he says. “I had a praying mom and I’ve reaped a lot of blessings and benefits from her.”
Jim learned a thing or two about sports from his father. Fred Boylen was a state Golden Gloves champion, an all-state diver and an all-state baseball player. Notre Dame recruited Fred for football. But Fred wound up as a linebacker and captain at Michigan State and played semi-pro ball with the Grand Rapids Blazers. “My dad was a heck of an athlete,” Jim says.
On the gridiron, Jim stood out as a quarterback and safety. He returned kickoffs and punts. He made all-state. Jim bloomed late in basketball, but earned a scholarship to Maine. In the summers, he returned home to work at the auto parts factory and paid his mother rent.
“I grew up with a midwestern work ethic,” Jim says.
After Maine, he became an assistant under Jud Heathcote at Michigan State. Five years later, Jim became an NBA assistant with the Houston Rockets. In Houston, Boylen won two NBA championships, helped coach Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming and met Christine. One day, coach Rudy Tomjanovich spotted them holding hands in a park. “I saw you guys out pinky swinging,” Rudy said.
Jim and Christine never forgot that. Fourteen days after the Rockets won the 1995 NBA championship, they got married and later began a Rudy-inspired ritual. Before every game, Jim looks for Christine. And once they make eye contact, she holds up her smallest finger.
“We are still pinkie swinging,” he says, “after 19 years.”