Ja Havens is back where it all started for him nearly two decades ago.
Havens, named Northeastern State men's basketball head coach on May 19, is now filling his mentor's shoes.
He still leans on coaching principles from Larry Gipson, who led NSU to a 2003 NCAA Division II national championship and went on to win 280 games in 17 seasons.
Havens played under Gipson in 1997-98 and came back as a graduate assistant for two years in the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons.
Gipson, in the NSU Hall of Fame, took the program to four other NCAA Tournaments and posted five 20-plus win seasons. The 2002-03 team went 32-3.
"He set the bar pretty high and I got to have a lot of success starting out in my coaching career working for him and I learned a lot," Havens said on Wednesday afternoon. "He's been someone that's been really influential in my life. We've obviously stayed connected after playing for him and working for him."
There's more influences as well.
Havens is the son of Jerry Havens, who is in the Oklahoma Coaches Association, Oklahoma Basketball Coaches Association and National High School Coaches Association Hall of Fames. He also learned from another NSU Hall of Fame inductee -- Ken Hayes -- in his first year as a player at NSU, served as an assistant under John Phillips at Tulsa from 2001-2005, and before taking his first head coaching job at East Central University where he spent the last seven seasons, he was an assistant under Steve Hesser at Drury and a part of Drury's 2012-13 NCAA Division II national championship. Hesser is in the Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Fame and had successful runs at Pauls Valley, Bartlesville and Stillwater.
"I'm about as fortunate as you can get," Havens said. "I wanted to coach from a young age. I watched my dad work and grew up around a gym, and then I had an opportunity to play for four different coaches in college, which is kind of a unique thing. I've been around some really good coaches. In two years at NSU, I'm playing for Ken Hayes and Larry Gipson -- two very highly successful guys. I got some Division I experience at Tulsa, which was awesome. Working for coach Gipson, who won two national championships as a head coach, and then work for Steve Hesser, who's an Oklahoma guy, at Drury...I was with him for eight years and we were able to win a national championship my last year. There's not a lot of guys who've won national championships at the Division II level and I've worked for two of them. I see it as how fortunate I am to be around good coaches, and consider myself to hopefully be a good student.
"I've learned from some really good people, and that's what we're going to try to do. We're going to try to apply what I've learned from some really good coaches, how to develop a philosophy on the floor, and not only that, but how to run a program, how to do things the right way."
Havens, who won 131 games and three Great American Conference regular season or tournament championships, also wants to contribute off the floor and propel interest in the program.
"That's important," he said. "I think the first thing you have to do is put your head down and work and put a winner on the floor. I think people are going to want to naturally support a program that's winning. But it can't just be wins. You've got to recruit great young men who are going to carry themselves the right way, they're going to the right things, go to class, they're going to act right, they're going to be involved in the community. We're going to seek out ways where we can get involved and give back. There's a variety of things we can do, and I'm open to a lot of those. We're going to be involved in the local schools as much as we can, we're going to give back in the campus community. We're going to be involved in everything we can. Hopefully that brings a sense of community where they want to support us as well."
The RiverHawks went 18-11 overall and 11-8 in the MIAA in Mark Downey's final season as head coach.
NSU will be without its top two scorers from last year in guards Caleb Smith and Kendrick Thompson. Smith and Thompson both averaged 16.1 points and knocked down 141 combined 3-pointers, which was more than half of the team's total. As a tandem, they shot 44.7 percent overall from the floor and accounted for 42 percent of the team's made baskets.
The RiverHawks return Brad Davis, Troy Locke, Payton Guiot, Devonta Prince, Daniel Dotson and a pair of redshirt freshmen in Blake Hall and BJ Johnson.
Tahlequah High School product Jaxon Jones is a part of a recruiting class that Havens is still putting together.
It's been an uncommon situation for Havens, who has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic to go along with being a first-year head coach who just arrived in May.
"It's been a unique year as far as recruiting," he said. "When you can't have visits, you can't go out and talk and see recruits and you can't bring them in for visits...I had never heard of Zoom in March, and now it's a daily part of our lives.
"Coming into a new situation, we were fortunate that we had some relationships built from the spring. I think recruiting is going well. Obviously getting the job with a roster where it was, we need some production. We need guys that are going to come in and be ready to produce right away. Hopefully we've addressed that. We're still looking for a couple more pieces."