PORTLAND – Dave Leitao is at peace with his life. Finally.
It took a couple years away from the sport that is his passion and his vocation — basketball — but he got his life in balance.
And now he is ready to resume a coaching career that has spanned 25 years at the NCAA Division I level, nine as a head coach, 16 as an assistant under legendary Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun.
Leitao, 51, was introduced on Thursday as the new coach of the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League. It will be his first professional position, but he’s not concerned. Neither is Jon Jennings, the president and general manager of the Red Claws, who hired Leitao.
“This, to me, is the shining example of what every player can become,” said Jennings, nodding to Leitao across the table at the Red Claws office. “He’s a hell of a coach, a dedicated family man and a guy who has all of his priorities in the right place.”
And it took a two-year layoff to do that.
Basketball has been in Leitao’s blood since he began dribbling on the playgrounds of New Bedford, Mass. But he never set out to be a coach.
After graduating from Northeastern, where he was a 6-foot-7 forward for Calhoun, he travelled to California to live with his mother. One day he got a call from Calhoun asking if he wanted to join his staff at Northeastern.
“It took me all of 30 seconds to decide,” said Leitao, who averaged 6 points and 5.4 rebounds for Calhoun. “I called him back, said I’d love to.
“May 15, 1984. That was the day I went to Northeastern. I started on June 15, 1984.”
What followed was a remarkable — and unconventional — coaching journey. He followed Calhoun to Connecticut, but returned to Northeastern in 1994 as head coach. He stayed only two seasons, then returned to Connecticut to be an assistant.
He considers that his best career move. He was given more responsibilities and grew, not only as a coach but as a person. And he continued to learn from Calhoun.
“He was my foundation about how coaching and this business is supposed to be,” said Leitao. “You do things in a certain way and it leads you in a certain direction, mostly positive.”
Eventually he moved on to DePaul as a head coach, then to Virginia, where he became the school’s first black head coach in any sport.
His Cavaliers won the ACC regular-season title in 2006-07, and he was named ACC Coach of the Year.
Two years later, he was asked to leave following a 10-18 season — only his second losing season.
“Not my choice,” said Leitao, matter-of-factly. “But if that had not happened, I would not be sitting here now, and not with the inner peace that I have.”
He received a $2.1 million buyout, then proceeded to get his family life back in order.
“He really missed a lot of things over the years,” said his wife, Joyce, who met Leitao in college.
While Leitao stayed connected to the game, he reconnected with everything else in his life.
“It was the best two years of my life, and I can say that unequivocally,” said Leitao. “When I left (Virginia) I did not realize where I was at in other important areas of my life. This time off game me time, while I was still staying busy, to address some of the things that are clearly important to one’s life and provide balance so that, if you go get the chance to get back in (to coaching), you do it with a much better perspective.
“So whether it’s been my relationship as a father, as a husband, my spiritual relationship, my mental health, my physical health, all of those things, I made sure to address them and spend a lot of time taking care of them.”
“Those years off were great,” said Joyce Leitao. “It gave him time to decide what was important and what he wanted to do.”
His son David, a 6-foot-6 16-year-old junior, is an exceptional basketball player at Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, Va. Leitao got to see all his games and practices the last two years. “And that’s something he never had a chance to do (when he was) at the college level,” said Joyce Leitao, who will remain in Virginia with their three sons (including Reese, 12, and Tyson, 8).
While Leitao worked as a consultant for the Next Level Talent Management Agency, a sports and entertainment management firm in Virginia Beach, he never lost his desire to coach again.
He was offered a position with Rio Grande in the D-League, but turned it down because he didn’t want to uproot his family again. “For the first time in my life, I made a decision based on my family,” said Leitao.
“And he had opportunities to get back in college,” said Joyce Leitao.
“Because of his connections, everyone wanted a piece of him,” said Carter Bernhardt, the director of marketing and business development for Next Level and a close friend of Leitao’s. “He put a lot of thought into what he wanted to do.”
When Leitao told him he was taking the job in Portland, Bernhardt wasn’t completely surprised.
“(Coaching) is in his blood and he wasn’t done with it,” he said. “He has aspirations to go to the NBA.”
And the Red Claws will give him that chance. This, said Leitao, is the perfect situation. His family isn’t so far away that they can’t travel to see him. He is also close to his siblings in the Boston area.
And he joined an organization that he felt was moving in the right direction. The Red Claws sold out every home game in their first two seasons and have a strong business base. Leitao was also very comfortable with Jennings, whom he knew while he was at Northeastern.
“When you put all those things together, and I looked at this specific organization, the way they run their business that made it a pretty good matchup,” said Leitao.
Jennings loved Leitao’s body of work, particularly his ability to coach defense — something the Red Claws failed to play a lot of the time last year — and teach.
“We’re a development league,” said Bill Ryan Jr., the team’s chairman. “We’re developing players. We’re developing young men. No one’s coming into this league perfect. If they were perfect, they wouldn’t be in this league.
“Dave’s the kind of guy that can certainly motivate guys and develop them as players and as people.”
Leitao’s coaching style, said others, will be perfect.
“He is exactly what they need,” said Karl Hobbs, recently named Connecticut’s director of men’s basketball administration after a 10-year stint as head coach at George Washington. “He is perfect for the team with what I will call his Zen personality.”
Hobbs and Leitao have known each other for years, dating back to playing summer ball while they were in college. They also worked as assistants at UConn together.
“I have no idea how good the team will be, but can feel confident saying that they’re going to play defense and they’re going to rebound,” said Hobbs. “I think this is a great move for him. It will be a great fit for his personality.”
Leitao has at times been called too hard on his players. He is demanding and demonstrative on the sidelines, not afraid to let his feelings be known.
“It’s my competitive nature, for basketball, for coaching, for checkers, for everything,” said Leitao. “I don’t let my son beat me in anything.”
Now he’s ready for the next chapter in his career.
“The next couple of months I have a lot of work to do to go from where I have been coaching to where I will be coaching,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I think basketball is basketball, motivation is motivation, development is development.
“I’m excited and cannot wait to get started and absolutely immerse myself into this community.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: