Wednesday, June 1, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
Derrick Jasper is well aware of the reaction many familiar with the story of his college hoops career have upon hearing about his new job.
"It's kind of shocking to some people," the 6-foot-6 former UNLV guard said. "This is a business, too, though. And this is a great opportunity for me to start my career and finish off my master's (degree)."
The gig? Jasper will be working as a graduate assistant under newly hired Texas Tech men's basketball coach Billy Gillispie.
Jasper goes back a few years with Gillispie, who didn't recruit the Paso Robles, Calif., native to Kentucky but coached him there during the 2007-08 season. Gillispie also tried his best to get Jasper not to transfer out of the program during the ensuing summer.
The reason the move comes as a surprise to some centers on the aftermath of a risky microfracture procedure Jasper underwent on his left knee prior to Gillispie's first season at UK.
The surgery can produce mixed results, and rehabilitation can take up to 18 months, but Jasper was back roughly six months later, playing 20 games as a sophomore on a leg that, he admitted, was not back at full strength.
When he decided to transfer, Jasper cited a want to play closer to home, though many speculated that the relationship between him and Gillispie had deteriorated after the guard came back from the injury too soon. Jasper chose UNLV and spent his redshirt season in 2008-09 rehabbing all over again, but he said that he doesn't hold any grudge against his former coach, whose lackluster two-year run at UK came to a close a year after his departure from Lexington.
"I think that was blown out of proportion a bit," Jasper said. "We had a good relationship. It wasn't bad. It was me wanting to get closer to him. I wouldn't be going back to work for him if I didn't believe he was a good guy.
"A lot of (the return from the knee injury) was just me trying to get back early enough to help my team. That's all in the past now. I'm just looking to the future."
Up until his senior season at UNLV, Jasper figured that at least a small part of his future beyond college would include a professional basketball career.
After a promising junior season was cut short by an injury to the medial collateral ligament in that left knee mid-way through Mountain West Conference play, he got off to a hot start as a senior, averaging 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds through 11 games. But the knee became a nagging problem after awhile, Jasper's playing time and overall impact dwindled as the year progressed and what for a long time was looked at as Plan B for a kid who was an elite point guard prospect coming out of high school immediately moved to the forefront.
"I always wanted to get into coaching eventually," said Jasper, who averaged 4.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 107 collegiate games. "I figured out that my knee wasn't going to hold up for that long, and I knew I wanted to still be involved with basketball and that I have a lot to give to the sport."
With no similar opportunities available at UNLV, Jasper reached out to Gillispie, who after a two-year sabbatical will return to the sidelines this season in Lubbock and had space available on his staff. Jasper will be heading down there this Saturday to begin the next chapter of his life.
He spent the last year working toward a master's degree in public administration but said he might choose a new path in his grad school studies at Texas Tech. As a grad assistant with the men's basketball program, he'll earn a salary, but his tuition will also be covered while he learns the ropes of the coaching business.
"I'm going to build relationships with the players. I played college basketball for five years, and I know how coach Gillispie runs a program," Jasper said. "As a grad assistant, I'm not a coach yet, but coach Gillispie told me I'll have a lot of responsibilities. I can relate to the players, having just finished up my college career. I have a lot of knowledge pretty fresh in my mind."
Jasper also has a unique opportunity to be a part of yet another Lone Star State turnaround conducted by Gillispie in his home state.
Gillispie's first head coaching gig came at UTEP, where after going 6-24 in his first season in 2002-03, the Miners went 24-8 a year later and appeared in the NCAA tournament. He then took over a dormant program at Texas A&M, and in three seasons went 70-26, took the Aggies to the NCAA tourney twice and capped his run in College Station with a Sweet Sixteen berth in 2007.
In two years at Kentucky, Gillispie simply appeared to be in over his head at times in one of college basketball's toughest fishbowls to navigate. He went 40-27, never lived up to inflated expectations or seemed like a comfortable fit. After the Wildcats landed in the NIT in 2009, Gillispie was fired and replaced by John Calipari.
Six months later, Gillispie entered an alcohol rehab program and has bided his time since, before resuming in a profession that once saw him as its brightest rising star. The Red Raiders went 13-19 overall and 5-11 in the Big 12 this season under Pat Knight, who went an underwhelming 50-61 in his three seasons in charge. Though it might take some time, Gillispie appears to be the ideal guy to get the program back into the upper half of the Big 12 and into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
Jasper admits that he doesn't know where he wants his coaching career to take him just yet, but despite how many may read into his past with Gillispie, he said he'll begin his journey in the profession in a comfortable spot.
"He told me it'll be kind of rough at first," Jasper said. "But he's done it at A&M and UTEP. I expect him to do it at Tech."