It was a year ago this week that the basketball community in Wellesley was dealt the shocking news that Luke Day, head coach of the boys varsity basketball team, would not be back for a ninth season. The Raiders were coming off of an 11-7 '09-10 campaign in which they made the tournament for the first time since 2007, and would be returning a very talented senior class the following season.
As tough as that was to leave behind, Day and his wife Kristan were expecting twins by season’s end, and a full-time teaching job, along with his basketball duties and now three young children at home would be too much to juggle. Basketball was going to have to take a back seat.
This week, Day sat down for his first interview since the start of the ‘10-11 basketball season. Over the weekend, Wellesley Patch will look into the role basketball has played in Day's life, what went into making his decision to leave the Raiders’ bench, and how he has dealt with being away from the game.
Day “grew up in a basketball house,” as he puts it. His father Joe was a head basketball coach for over 30 years at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester and Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, and is still coaching today as an assistant at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham.
Luke Day and his brothers all played as kids, though Day admits he was someone people looked at as a good coach some day because of his knowledge of the game and his lack of skill on the floor.
“I was always around basketball, I was going to camps at an early age,” he said. “All of my dad’s friends were basketball coaches. Even before I started teaching and coaching, I spent a lot of time working summer camps and things like that.”
While enlisted in the Army, and throughout college and graduate school, Day spent time coaching in camps and was eventually hired as a junior varsity coach at the Webb School of Knoxville, Tenn. After one year with Webb, the school’s varsity coach Wade Mitchell left the program and Day went on to spend the next three years as the school’s varsity coach before coming back to Massachusetts.
In the fall of 2002, he interviewed for a coaching vacancy at Wellesley High School, as the Raiders’ coach at that time Mike Reidy would be stepping down.
“Mike had had a significant amount of success, he’s probably the most successful coach in Wellesley history," Day said. "He had a couple of deep runs in the state tournament in ’99 and 2000, and he [coached] John Costello and Ben Cluff, the only two 1,000-point scorers in the history of the program.
“He left in the fall [of 2002], which is unique because most coaches leave in the spring. So when I came back from Tennesse in the fall, I kind of assumed I was going to have to wait a year to get a job, maybe doing a JV stint or something like that.
Day said he sat in front of nearly a dozen interviewers at Wellesley High School, meeting with many two times. Eventually, he was given the job, but had a tough time out of the gate.
Despite the amount of success Reidy had in Wellesley, the program struggled his toward the end of his stint. The team lost players to prep schools and had won just five games in the two seasons prior to Day’s arrival. The rough patch continued in his first two years on the Wellesley bench as the Raiders went a combined 4-34.
While his first two seasons hadn’t gone the way he may have hoped, he was committed not only to the program, but to grow as a coach.
“I had learned a ton, and made a lot of mistakes at Webb, being a young coach," he said. "I had a pretty steady progression my first two years and about halfway through my third year we really had it rolling. But the season kind of fell apart, and I didn’t react real well. I was probably too hard on the kids...
“But I just wanted to build a program that I could be proud of, that the school and the town could be proud of.”
After his first season in Wellesley, in which the Raiders went 1-17, a parent of one of his players asked at the team’s banquet if he would return for a second year. But despite the record, he felt the year had been such a positive experience that the thought of leaving had never crossed his mind.
Though things may have looked bleak at the time, he felt with the league they were in, and the opponents they faced night after night, that if Wellesley could qualify for the tournament the team would be in a great position for a deep run.
The turning point finally came in Day’s third year, as they had reached the .500 mark for the first time in his tenure before a big matchup at Walpole.
In Wellesley’s last visit, the year prior, it was Walpole Rebels senior night. The regular season high point of an eventual undefeated state championship season. In the game, Walpole’s two star players Tim Clifford and Matt Wolfe each scored the 1,000th points of their careers, and Day recalls a “circus-like” atmosphere in the gym.
“I was really mad that night," he said. "I understand it was a big night for them, but the way we were treated down there really didn’t make me feel very good. I came out with a bad taste in my mouth”
Wellesley returned the next year, and got out to a 27-4 lead in the first quarter en route to a win. It was at that point that Day realized his team was headed in the right direction.
Starting with that team in 2005, the Raiders went on to qualify for the state tournament for three straight years.
After struggling with a 7-13 record in the ’07-08 campaign, things looked hopeful the following season, but the Raiders were never able to quite get over the hump and missed out on the tournament for the second straight year.
With a number of players coming back in the fall of 2009, Wellesley looked primed for a return to postseason play, but Day fought with a big decision that loomed that entire season…
Check back on Sunday for the conclusion of this two-part series.