From Sparta to the NBA

SPARTA. All-American high school player Chris Jent now is head assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Sparta /
| 09 Jan 2024 | 04:13

In 1988, the Sparta High School boys basketball team was in the midst of one of its best seasons to date.

People from all over the state poured into the gym to watch the team headlined by All-American senior Chris Jent.

In his final year at Sparta, Jent, who received a multitude of accolades and more than 2,000 points in his career, was trying to lead the team to a state championship alongside his childhood friends-turned-teammates.

After winning the section championship, the team stalled out in the semifinals of the Group 3 tournament against Shabazz.

Nevertheless, Jent’s journey in the world of basketball was just getting started. He went on to win an NBA championship and to coach for decades in the professional league.

It was clear at a young age that Jent had many tools to become a star. While playing AAU and attending many “5-Star” camps in the summers, he started to gain notoriety in the New Jersey basketball community.

He spent a lot of time in Jersey City with legendary basketball coach Bob Hurley Sr. and playing beside Hurley’s sons, Bob Jr. and Danny.

Chose hometown

When it was time to decide where to play in high school, Jent chose to stay home rather than play for Hurley at prestigious St. Anthony’s, one of the best high school teams in the country at the time.

“Playing with guys you grew up with and that pride of playing for your school was a big deal back then,” he said in a recent interview.

Jent had offers from many major Division I schools and plenty of top coaches came to see him play in Sparta, including Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Rollie Massamino of Villanova.

The team was nothing to scoff at. Coached by Dennis Tobin, the 1988 team put Sparta basketball on the map.

“We became an elite team in northwest New Jersey,” said Tobin.

Alongside Jent was Jon Deeb, who went on to play Division II basketball at Pace University.

Sparta won the section championship the next year, even without Jent.

On to college

Jent chose to attend Ohio State University but the adjustment to college ball took longer than expected.

“There was definitely a learning curve,” he said about playing in the Big 10. One difference was his college coach, Gary Williams, was much more negative than what he was accustomed to. “Coach Williams wanted to tear you down to build you back up, so it was tough to deal with.”

He helped lead the Buckeyes to a Big 10 championship in 1991.

By his senior year, Jent averaged 12.6 points per game on a team contending for the championship. His Buckeye career, with more than 1,000 points scored, came to an end in 1992, when the team lost to the “Fab 5” Michigan Wolverines in the Elite 8.

Turning pro

After going undrafted in 1992, Jent found himself back in Ohio playing for the Columbus Horizon of the Continental Basketball Association, a professional minor league.

About a year later, he got his big break. The Houston Rockets reached out to him near the end of the 1994 season to sign with the team before the playoffs.

Deeb recalled a moment from their teenage years, when he knew Jent would make it. The two of them were at a camp, and legendary coach Bob Knight was talking to the campers.

“Knight said, ‘Raise your hand if you think you will make it to the NBA,’ “ he recalled. He looked next to him at Jent, who had his hand raised high.

With Rockets small forward Robert Horry dealing with an injury, Jent received significant playing time in the last two games of the regular season. He put up 10 and 15 points against the Mavericks and Nuggets, respectively. That performance led the Rockets to sign Jent for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.

The Rockets, led by NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, went on a run through the Western Conference playoffs ultimately winning the NBA Championship in 1994.

After moving among different professional leagues, including three games with the New York Knicks, Jent decided to call it quits. But that did not mean his basketball journey was over.

After considering leaving the world of basketball, he realized that his heart would always be with the game.

He began coaching basketball at Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn.

Jent made his way back to the NBA in 2003, this time as a coach with the Philadelphia 76ers. Since then, he has had many coaching jobs from interim head coach of the Orlando Magic in 2005 to Lebron James’s shooting coach in Cleveland to the NBA G-League.

He now is head assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. After a trip to the Western Conference Finals last season, he and the Lakers were seen as championship contenders heading into this year.

While he now coaches and competes against some of the biggest stars in the world, Jent’s roots will always be in Sparta and with the 1988 team.

“There is always a special place for me with Coach Tobin. He was such a huge influence on me and my path,” he said.