Sam Presti and the Holy Cross star who schooled him long ago

Sam Presti and the Holy Cross star who schooled him long ago

Thirty years after Jim McCaffrey schooled Sam Presti on a basketball court, he's an all-in OKC fan. Here’s how it happened.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 1, 2023, 9:35pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 1, 2023, 9:35pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — Back in August, Jim McCaffrey had quite a story for his family and friends. 

One that seemed almost too good to be true. 

He’d gotten a call from the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the guy had told him that some 30 years ago, McCaffrey had worked him over in a one-on-one game; taught him a lesson about not underestimating an opponent. 

And then McCaffrey had sat with him. Given him some pointers. Helped a high school kid named sharpen his game. 

The memory, the guy told McCaffrey in that August phone call, had stuck with him all this time. 

“So I told some people, and I think there was almost some part of them that was like, ‘Are you sure you heard this right?’” McCaffrey told Sellout Crowd. “It’s like they were looking at me like, ‘You’re getting a little old. Are you sure this happened?’”

McCaffrey got his vindication last week. 

That’s when Sam Presti sat in front of reporters at a preseason news conference and relayed the same story: That when Presti was a 17-year-old high school star in Massachusetts, training on a court at the Lexington Club, McCaffrey approached him and asked for a game of one-on-one. 

Presti, seeing “an older guy, 30-something” who looked like he had “a real job,” figured “All right, I’ll give it to this guy.” 

And then the future GM of the Thunder proceeded to be dismantled by a man who’d scored more than 1,000 career points at Holy Cross and had been drafted by the Phoenix Suns. 

“We checked the ball, OK, and he put his shoulder into my chest so hard, to this day I can feel it,” Presti said last week. “He took me apart in a way that I had never experienced. He humiliated me with no audience — and that’s hard to do.”

But what Presti remembered most is that after he got schooled, he learned some lessons. And not just in humility. McCaffrey taught him about his footwork, about ways he was making himself easier to guard. 

“He was coaching me,” Presti told a room full of reporters. 

That story made it to social media. 

And that’s how McCaffrey came to have a phone flooded with “maybe 200” text messages last week, he said, as he traveled from London — where he works in finance — to Rome, where he was entertaining clients at the Ryder Cup.

“At first it’s like, ‘What the f*** is going on here?’” McCaffrey said. “Suddenly every person I’ve ever met is forwarding me this same thing.” 

It was a nice reminder, McCaffrey said, of Presti seeking him out this summer, which had caught him similarly off guard. 

Someone close to Presti had reached out to McCaffrey’s daughter, Stephanie — a former Boston College soccer star who played professionally and made six appearances for the U.S. Women’s National Team — asking if she could pass along her father’s phone number. 

“Pops,” McCaffrey said she wrote in a text message, “Sam Presti from the Oklahoma City Thunder is asking for your number. Why the hell is he calling you?”

He replied, “He probably wants me to try out. This is the call I’ve been waiting for for 40 years.” 

McCaffrey had tried his hardest to extend his basketball career. The Suns selected him in the sixth round of the 1986 NBA Draft. He was cut in Phoenix, then was in camp with Boston but didn’t latch on. 

He played in the CBA and USBL before getting that “real job” Presti figured he’d had. 

For the past 12 years, he’s been in finance in London. He works for Eastdil Secured and is part owner of Leyton Orient FC, a soccer team in the EFL League One — a league above actor Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham club. 

But basketball remains his first love. 

His father was an all-city player in New York who went to Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. McCaffrey was raised in Vermont, and when he was 15 or 16 years old, he’d hitchhike the 10 miles out to Castleton State College, where he’d play pickup games with the basketball team and sometimes one-on-one against the coach. 

That guy would give him the business, just like McCaffrey did Presti. And just like McCaffrey did Presti, the young coach would offer wisdom after a whooping. 

That guy was Stan Van Gundy, who went on to coach the Heat, Magic, Pistons and Pelicans. 

The odds of that full-circle tutorial — of getting schooled by a future NBA coach and passing on the education to a general manager-to-be — have to be “millions and millions to one,” McCaffrey said. 

But he’s a believer in the basketball gods, like Presti a subscriber to the theory that if you give to the game it finds a way to pay you back. 

And McCaffrey’s payback came in that call from Presti. 

McCaffrey remembered teaching a kid after a one-on-one game at the Lexington Club, and he was aware of Presti’s career, a Massachusetts kid who made it big in the NBA. 

But he’d never connected the dots before that call in August, never knew he’d made a lasting impression on the Thunder’s GM. 

“For me, it’s massively gratifying,” McCaffrey said. “He was really thanking me for helping him. That was the best part of the whole story. Not the basketball (game) part. That’s about the best thing you can say about somebody is that ‘They helped me.’ So many people helped me in a similar manner. That’s good for the game.” 

Presti’s call has made a Thunder fan out of McCaffrey, a longtime Celtics backer who said he’s “1,000%” behind OKC. He’s even recruited friends in London who — while they might not fully understand the NBA — are putting their support behind the Thunder. 

And while he’d already gotten so much from Presti, McCaffrey was made grateful again when the story hit social media. The phone that blew up with texts was a conduit for calls, too, from a range of old friends who’d seen his name scroll across their own phone screens. 

This time everybody believed it. 

“I had a bunch of my old teammates, my old college coach, loads of people saw it,” McCaffrey said. “What it did is, because he told that story I spent the entire weekend talking to old friends about basketball, and that’s fantastic.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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