The Book of MoJo

Joseph enters Year 2 eager to build on a strong start last season

Oct. 16, 2017

By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications

Maurice Joseph picked up the Ironman Drill back when he was a Canadian teenager still wondering how he might stack up in American college basketball.

It's an exercise in hustle and grit, masked as a defensive drill. In quick succession, you have to take a charge, deflect a pass out of bounds, contain a baseline drive and then sprint to the opposite end to save a loose ball.

Naturally, Joseph pulled out the Ironman last year during his first official practice as George Washington head coach. The twist came when he hopped in and took a turn completing his go-to toughness test.

Joseph ended the season-opening session with fresh floor burns and ripped shorts but feeling confident he'd delivered his message.

"I think that got them to see `Alright, Mojo's in the trenches with us,'" Joseph said. "I wanted our guys to know that I had their back, and we were going to move forward together."

Joseph, 32, has met every challenge in his basketball career with that kind of passion and enthusiasm. He's needed plenty of both on the path that's led him to become the youngest head coach in a Top 10 RPI conference.

From an unlikely start in Montreal, Joseph found a way to make his mark in the game, first playing and now coaching. After taking over interim duties last September, he earned the permanent post by guiding the Colonials to a 20-15 mark that included five straight wins to close the regular season.

Joseph enters Year 2 eager to build on that start. Understandably, his vision for the future of the program hinges on the principles that have led him to this point.

"It's always amazing," sophomore point guard Jair Bolden said. "If he can bring the same energy every single day, then I don't see why we can't."

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Remarkably, Joseph had hoop dreams before he ever had an actual hoop.

The Joseph brothers bonded over basketball growing up in Montreal
The Joseph brothers bonded over basketball growing up in Montreal

In the uptown section of Montreal, street hockey was largely the sport of choice. His parents Michael and Eartha were more familiar with soccer and cricket, which were popular in their native Trinidad and Tobago. The local elementary school didn't even have a basket, at first.

Yet Joseph fell head over heels for basketball with help from Michael Jordan and the early 1990s Chicago Bulls.

As a youngster, he'd watch NBA games on a weekend afternoon with his brother Kris and then head to the nearest patch of blacktop to imitate what they'd just seen.

With no rim in sight, they'd empty out a heavy steel trashcan and play on the makeshift court until dark.

Eventually, the school affixed a rim -- still no backboard -- to a wall outside and marked out a key. That brought more realistic games and a new set of challenges. Joseph has a fake front tooth thanks to a face-on-brick collision.

Still, Joseph's excitement for the game kept growing. Soon, he was watching the Jordan documentary Come Fly with Me on a loop, getting the initials they shared cut into his hair at the barber shop and begging for a Nike swoosh earring. His mom's job at the Starter clothing factory kept him outfitted in Bulls gear.

"It was, honestly, love at first sight," Joseph said.

More than once, the Joseph brothers trudged to the court with shovels to clear away a fall snow. They staged some epic battles that ultimately helped set the stage for the players they'd be.

Just as important, basketball proved the perfect outlet to keep the Joseph brothers focused and free of the drugs and violence that can derail an inner-city upbringing.

In many ways, Maurice got his coaching start mentoring Kris, who was picked by the Boston Celtics out of Syracuse in the 2012 NBA Draft and now plays in France.

"It was great because I was able to follow in his footsteps -- literally," Kris Joseph said. "He was kind of like my idol, and he never let me down."

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After winning so many pick-up games, Joseph celebrated his first real championship at 11 years old.

In his first taste of organized ball, he wore No. 23 for the Beasts in the house league at the local Greek community center and promptly led them to a title.

"I remember I was on top of the world," Joseph said. "I thought I was Michael Jordan."

With that triumph, Joseph's focus went from emulating the highlights of his NBA heroes and talking trash on the playground to learning the ins and outs of the game.

As a teen, an annual trip to a summer tournament in Albany, N.Y., became his measuring stick. Those games showed how far he had to go to keep up with American competition.

"Early on, I was not up to par," Joseph said. "Kids seemed bigger, faster, more organized, more competitive, just more aggressive."

Suddenly, Joseph had a dream to chase. He'd set a goal for how many shots he wanted to get up and then log the results in a notebook. On many summer afternoons at nearby Bedford Park, his daily count would stretch well past 1,000.

Along the way, Joseph kept his eye on all the major recruiting rankings and used them for motivation.

"I think if you talk to anyone from Canada serious about basketball around when I grew up, we all had a chip on our shoulder," Joseph said. "It was about trying to prove yourself."

Rarely the most athletic player on the court, Joseph had good size for a guard at 6-foot-4 and stood out with his shooting ability and feel for the game.

John Dangelas recognized that potential upon Joseph's arrival at Montreal's Champlain-St. Lambert. Three years later, he was Canada's 2005 National Player of the Year with a scholarship to play at Michigan State.

Joseph credits Dangelas for teaching him the fine points of the game beyond scoring, the importance of the small details that add up for winning programs. He's the coach who introduced Joseph to a version of the Ironman Drill.

Dangelas remembers Joseph provided a glimpse of what was to come in a matchup with Connecticut prep power St. Thomas More.

With the score tied late, Joseph arrived in the huddle with a suggestion to run a play called `Jazz' that he explained would give him an open look in the corner. Dangelas agreed and the ensuing sequence followed Joseph's script right down to his game-winning jumper.

"The guy took care of his business, academically and athletically," Dangelas said. "He never missed practice, never was late, competed all the time. I can't tell you how proud I am of him."

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It was only a little more than a decade ago that Joseph went through his own college recruitment. Thanks to recent advances in technology, it feels like a lifetime.

Joseph found a mentor in Izzo who helped shape his coaching vision
Joseph found a mentor in Izzo who helped shape his coaching vision

Joseph didn't have a cell phone until the last few months before his decision. Coaches had to call his house if they wanted to talk to him. Social media hadn't seized his teenage attention.

Yet, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's approach still resonates. Joseph picked the Spartans because of his connection with the staff and moments that had nothing to do with basketball. He thinks about that lesson just about every day.

"That's something that I wanted to emulate," Joseph said. "You're not just joining a team. You're joining a program. You're joining a family. You're joining something that's going to be with you for the rest of your life."

Izzo has continued to deliver on that promise.

After playing 52 games over two seasons at Michigan State, Joseph transferred to Vermont in 2007 in search of a bigger role closer to home.

Izzo worked his contacts to help Joseph find the right landing spot and then allowed him to continue practicing with the team through the end of spring workouts.

"In this day and age of everybody's transferring and all the negative things that go with it, this happened to be a very positive one," Izzo said. "That's why we remain such good friends."

Joseph left with lessons from a National Championship coach that helped shape his time at Vermont and eventually his coaching style. When he was hired as assistant director of basketball operations at GW in 2011, he sent Izzo a hand-written letter of thanks.

"He pushes you to places that you don't think you can go," Joseph said. "At the time as a player, you kind of want to lash out at that. It's almost human nature, but looking back as a coach now, he was trying to get the absolute most out of me as a player and as a person. I'm incredibly thankful for that."

The move to Vermont brought perspective with smaller crowds, fewer televised games and marathon bus rides on snow-covered New England highways. It was also there, during his sit-out season, that he realized his future should be in coaching.

While recovering from shoulder surgery, Joseph was forced to sit and watch for the first time in his career. He dove into scouting reports and film study and loved it.

"I just became so fascinated with the chess match that every game becomes," said Joseph, who spent a season playing pro ball in Israel before joining the GW staff. "There are so many different ways to do everything and so many little details vital to winning a game, and then you go to the next one and they're all different."

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There's an unassuming folder on Joseph's personal computer called Program Sets. Inside, there's hundreds of pages of notes compiled over the years that outline his views on basketball from the on-court X's and O's to off-court program pillars and everything in between.

While in Israel, Joseph started keeping detailed notes on plays that caught his eye or quotes that inspired him. Over the years, he's kept building his collection of articles, links, YouTube clips and more.

That folder, with tidbits from Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and many others, has come in handy now that Joseph has taken over his own program. He was prepared with more than enough info to help shape his vision because he started compiling it back when he was on the first rung of the coaching ladder.

Joseph has balanced connecting with players off the court while pushing them on the court
Joseph has balanced connecting with players off the court while pushing them on the court

"It's really just a smorgasbord of stuff," Joseph said.

Upon being announced as GW's interim head coach on Sept. 27, 2016, Joseph bought a plane ticket.

He knew there was much to do with the season quickly approaching. Before he dove into any of it, he'd spend a day at Michigan State with his mentor Izzo.

Izzo had his own squad to worry about, but he made sure Joseph got plenty of one-on-one time out of the trip. They discussed some strategy but focused more on the big picture. Like how to turn a program into a family.

"Those are the kind of things he wanted to talk about," Izzo said. "I always say that if you can build a team, that's great, but if you build a program, that's special. I think right away he wants to try and build a program."

Days later, Joseph was sliding across the floor at practice, frantically completing the Ironman Drill.

Senior Yuta Watanabe had wondered if the coach's personality would change now that he was in charge. This was an unmistakable sign that it was the same Mojo.

"I wonder how many head coaches would do that," Watanabe said. "I think not many."

It made for a mostly smooth transition last year. Bolden said Joseph has been able to connect with players over music and movies, while still finding ways to push them on the court.

"He's just a cool guy," Bolden said.

Joseph had to learn on the fly with certain situations, but he'd been thinking about many of the decisions he had to make for years. The Colonials responded by playing their best basketball late in the season.

"It would've been easy when things my first time through weren't going well to scrap everything and switch it up, but that's not my m.o. as a person," said Joseph, who was officially named head coach March 27. "I opened up my binder on my computer and did the things that I always thought would be successful."

Joseph continues to find ways to put his stamp on the program. The rap music that now welcomes players into workouts is a prime example.

Sometimes, that means finding new and different ways to hammer home a point. In recent weeks, he's brought a Spartan head into the locker room for an impromptu lesson on Ancient Greece and also taped photos of wolves in every locker as a reminder to stick together with a pack mentality.

Ultimately, those are just more ways for Joseph to inject enthusiasm and passion into the program daily.

"We can choose to be those things," Joseph said. "If we're able to keep that as our foundation, I don't think you can go wrong."