Derrick Lewis 'turning the corner' with Archbishop Spalding boys basketball team

Former Maryland star Derrick Lewis is the varsity coach at Archbishop Spalding.
Former Maryland star Derrick Lewis is the varsity coach at Archbishop Spalding. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

His players sat silently in the corner of the locker room.

Much like he did when he was a player at Maryland more than a quarter century ago, Archbishop Spalding boys basketball coach Derrick Lewis measured his words carefully before speaking.

"I lost a bunch of games over a long career, but I never gave up," Lewis said in a low, but forceful voice. "A lot of you guys gave up tonight."

A few minutes before, Loyola embarrassed the Cavaliers, 69-49, on Senior Night. Lewis used the loss as an opportunity to give his players a bit of a history lesson, recalling his junior year in College Park, which was Bob Wade's first season as coach.

"We were 0-15 in the [Atlantic Coast] Conference. We were a terrible team, but I played hard all the time," said Lewis, who despite the team's struggles was named to the All-ACC first team. "I can't teach you to have heart."

Now in his fifth season at the Severn school, and fourth as the No. 7 Cavaliers' varsity coach, the 46-year-old Lewis is trying to instill some of the same traits — and tricks — that helped him become Maryland's all-time leading shot-blocker and third-leading rebounder despite being just 6 feet 7 1/2 and 185 pounds.

After the school had four coaches in five years before he arrived, Lewis has helped to return Archbishop Spalding to some level of respectability — and stability.

A 20-11 record this season — the team's first 20-win season since 2005, the year after future NBA star Rudy Gay was a senior at the school — is a start.

"We're turning the corner," said Lewis, whose team will host St. Maria Goretti on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Baltimore Catholic League playoffs after losing to No. 2 Mount St. Joseph in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinals last week. "We won't turn the corner completely until we finish first."

Figuring out the future

After the Chicago Bulls drafted Lewis in the third round in 1988, he played briefly in the Continental Basketball Association and then took a guaranteed offer from a French team rather than going back to training camp with the Bulls. It was the first of many instances where he picked stability in France over uncertainty in the NBA.

"I kept saying I would do one more, one more year, and it turned into 16 years," said Lewis, who helped two of his French teams win league championships and still holds the distinction of being the only player in the history of the French League to record a quadruple-double for points, rebounds, blocks and steals.

Lewis said he wasn't sure what he was going to do when his career in France ended. Late in the summer in 2003, Lewis returned to Maryland and settled in Baltimore County with his wife, Kelli, and two children.

"The plan was taking some time off, rest a little bit, and start some different companies," he said. "Not jump back into something after being home just three weeks."

When 10-year-old Kyree returned from the first day of classes at his new school, Lewis asked his son what his teacher had discussed. The younger Lewis said he was asked what his father did for a living.

"He told his class I didn't do anything, I stay home and watch television," Lewis recalled recently. "It wasn't the best thing to hear. And then he kept repeating it to other people."

A criminal justice major at Maryland, Lewis said he got a job as a private detective. He later worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, owned a Moon Bounce company, and started an online recruiting service with Pat Durham, a former teammate in France who played briefly in the NBA.

"It was fun. It kept me around basketball," Lewis said of his work with Archiva Sports.

Taping a high school game one night for a prospective client, Lewis met former Archbishop Spalding coach Andy Bauer, who said he was looking for a junior varsity coach. Initially, they talked about Lewis teaching French, but Lewis still didn't know if he wanted to teach.

"My mom was pushing for me to teach when I was in France around 1997," said Lewis, whose parents were both school teachers in Prince George's County. "I said, 'Why do I want to do that?' She said, 'It's a great profession. You get your summers off like you do in basketball. You're helping people.' I never thought I'd ever be a teacher."

As Kyree was about to enter high school — Lewis and his wife also have a daughter, Jacey, who is now 10 — Lewis sold his share in the recruiting service and took a job teaching physical education and coaching the junior varsity at Archbishop Spalding. He became the varsity coach in his second year and is now the chairman of the physical education department.

"People asked me how long I was going to stay," Lewis said. "I told them that I would stay until they told me I couldn't be here anymore. I think I understood from their perspective what they were looking for in a coach. I thought it was a matter of sticking with a philosophy and a right way to coach and turn a program around."

Coaching influences

While Lewis said he has taken many of his coaching principles from those he played for — from Lefty Driesell to a number of coaches in the French League — one of his biggest influences remains Wade, the former Dunbar coaching legend who Lewis played for during his junior and senior years at Maryland. Wade was fired after three tumultuous seasons.

"He came in and turned the program around," said Lewis, alluding to the Terps going to the NCAA tournament during Wade's second year. "I learned from him the importance of a family. He brought us together after what we had been through with Lenny [Bias]. He was a guy who gave you the shirt off his back — even if it didn't fit."

Wade, who has been the Baltimore City director of athletics since shortly after leaving Maryland, said in a recent interview that he is not surprised his former captain has turned into a pretty good coach.

"It was really evident when he was at Maryland because you could see he had a tremendous feel and understanding for the game," Wade said. "During our scouting sessions, he would always offer suggestions as to how we should play against players and teams. I have a lot of respect for him. It's good to see him doing well at Spalding. He's a kind-hearted person, a caring individual who would do anything he could for you."

Said Archbishop Spalding athletic director Jeff Parsons: "His playing experience is immeasurable for what he brings to the table. Just where he's played, what he's done, the level of competition he's gotten to. But at the same time, Derrick has an old-school way about him and he holds the kids to certain standards. The rules are the same for Kid 1 as they are for Kid 13."

Junior guard Kai Dalce said Lewis often will scrimmage with his team, trying to show his players how to block shots, rebound and take charges like he once did.

One of Lewis' memorable moments came when legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith admonished him coming off the court at halftime against the Tar Heels for the way he was using his elbows to free himself for rebounds.

"Every time we go up for a shot block, he says, 'None of you can block shots, so just take charges. I'm the only shot blocker in the gym,'" Dalce said. "Every time somebody's pressuring you, he'll say, 'Get him off you.' He'll stop practice and swing his elbows and say, 'This is how you do it.'"

But there is a softer side to Lewis that is evident when he is coaching his players.

"He's really nurturing," Dalce said. "Say, if I'm like the last one at practice, he'll say, 'Do you need me to give you a ride home?' Even though I know he lives far away from me. He's still a caring person. He's like a father figure to everyone on the team."

One of his former French League teammates is not surprised to hear that Lewis has transitioned into coaching.

Mickael Pietrus was 20 in 2001 when Lewis joined EB Pau-Orhtez.

"That's one of those guys who taught me what it was to be a professional," Pietrus, now in his 10th year in the NBA and playing for the Toronto Raptors, said before Tuesday's game in Washington. "He was one of the best players I've played with human-wise in terms of what it takes to be a professional."

Told by a reporter that Lewis was coaching high school basketball in the area, Pietrus said: "I wish I had known that."

Pietrus gave the reporter his cell number to pass on to Lewis.

A teaching moment

Lewis found himself in an uncomfortable spotlight last month when he took his team off the court at halftime of a game at No. 1 St. Frances after learning that some of the players' cell phones — and his own Bluetooth device — had been taken from the locker room during the first half.

"Coaches are teachers. You always look for life lessons from your own life," Lewis said. "The stuff that happened to us recently, you never want something like that to happen. The next day, I wrote a number of things on the blackboard that had happened to me — the Bias thing, not being able to get back from France for my aunt's funeral and how what happened to us was pretty small."

It's not clear how long Lewis plans to stay at Archbishop Spalding. He doesn't express aspirations to coach on the college level like so many high school coaches do, but his old-school style and low-post skills would certainly be an asset to any team's big men with the talent, if not the fundamentals.

"He can definitely handle the job," said Kelli Lewis, who met her husband while they were students at Maryland. "I think he's happy here, but if he wanted to do that, I know he could."

As he finishes his most successful season to date, Lewis seems comfortable in his environment.

Showing a short highlight tape of his career at Maryland to his players on Senior Night, he stands in the background, much as he did when he played with Bias and others at Maryland.

"When it's not fun and not easy, it becomes a job," he said in his office earlier that day. "It's a lot of fun. It's not always easy. The kids don't always do what you want them to do, but it's a lot of fun trying to outsmart the other coach and the other team."


Baltimore Sun reporter Glenn Graham contributed to this article.