“The Monitor” newspaper’s website:

September 08, 2012 10:24 PM

Twitter: @hinojosa_david

A yearning to return coaching in the college basketball ranks — plus the fact he was returning to his native Nebraska — was too much of an opportunity to turn down for now former Rio Grande Valley Vipers assistant coach Jai Steadman.

Steadman recently left the Vipers organization where he served for three years under head coaches Chris Finch and Nick Nurse to become the assistant at NAIA Division II Bellevue University in Nebraska, the state he calls home.

Although his departure from the Vipers family may seem fairly inconspicuous to outsiders, make no mistake, he will be missed.

Steadman is one of the good guys.

He coached. He ran youth clinics. He stayed in the Valley during the offseason. He was the coaching face of the Vipers after everyone split town. He served as a father figure to the dozens players who came-and-went with the Vipers in his three season. The Vipers were lucky to have someone who is held in such high regard by many by represent the organization.

Current coach Nurse might be able to find someone who can match Steadman’s basketball coaching acumen, but the intangibles made Steadman a popular figure with those who followed the Vipers closely.

That won’t be easy to replace.

While Steadman loves the Valley, he said it was time to go home.

“My heart is really with college basketball at any level,” Steadman said. “There weren’t very many positions open. I wanted to come back home, and I haven’t been there in a long time. I thought it would be a good opportunity to return home and return to college basketball.”

After graduating from Nebraska in 1997, Steadman began a whirlwind coaching career that took him to several stops in Texas and Louisiana. They included Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, McNeese State, TCU and Tyler Junior College.

Then he arrived to the Valley three years ago after his friend Paul Mokeski, who had just been hired to be an assistant to newly-named Viper coach Finch, recommended he give it a look. Mokeski explained to Steadman that the Vipers had just entered into a hybrid agreement with the Houston Rockets and it would be a good opportunity for him.

Although coaching in the NBA Development League is more business-like, Steadman kept the same approach he used in college. He was approachable and served as an important buffer between the business end of professional basketball where it is often cutthroat and the personal stuff.

Relationships with several former Vipers remain as strong as ever. He stays in touch with ex-Vipers like Mike Harris, the NBA D-League’s MVP in 2010, Terrel Harris, who won an NBA championship this past season with the Miami Heat, Matt Janning and Mickell Gladness — “my boys” he calls them.

Aside from getting a chance to coaching professional athletes, one thing he learned working with the Vipers is how to conduct a grassroots approach to building a fan base, which involves making numerous public appearances and conducting youth camps all over the place. That experience has been a plus at Bellevue, where the approach to raise fan awareness is similar.

Although Steadman no longer lives in the Valley, it will always be home in a way. During his tenure down here, Steadman met his future wife Sally at Summit Sports Club in Pharr, where the Vipers practice and where she used to work. They were married last year in a ceremony on the beach at South Padre Island.

“She caught my eye, and I began courting her after that,” Steadman said. “That was the best thing for me.”

Steadman also received an eye-opening experience during his stay with the Vipers. Steadman didn’t finish the final portion of this past season with the team because of health reasons. Steadman noticed he had gained some weight and during a road trip in Reno he sensed something was wrong.

“For the first time in my life, I felt unhealthy,” Steadman said. “We had been losing a lot so I guess I took that to heart, literally. I hadn’t been working out like I should have. Everything added up.”

When he saw a doctor, he said his heart rate was up and he had high blood pressure. The doctor ordered him to shape up and avoid stressful situations, which included coaching.

“Nick was great about it,” Steadman said. “He said, ‘Get healthy and get with your family.’ “

Steadman says he works out everyday with Bellevue head coach Shane Paben, and that’s his health has improved immensely.

That’s great news for Steadman. As I said before, he’s good people. And he feels the same about the Valley.

“Before I got there, I had never heard of the Valley,” Steadman said. “The Valley is a special place. I mean that, sincerely. It’s just awesome. I love the people, and I love that basketball is growing in the Valley. I hope to get some kids from the Valley. I’m going to come down and recruit some kids. I’ve never had open arms and support like I had, than in the Valley.”

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