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(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction))

PASSING ON HIS KNOWLEDGE: Ahmed El-Nokali looks to make a pass in a game during his senior year on the Princeton University men's basketball team. El-Nokali, a 2002 Princeton graduate who was a team co-captain and a two-time second team All-Ivy selection, recently took the head coaching job with Princeton Day School boys' basketball team..
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Former Tiger Hoops Star El-Nokali Bringing Intense Focus to PDS Post

By Bill Alden

When recent Princeton University basketball star Ahmed El-Nokali showed up at Jadwin Gym one day earlier this fall, he had no inkling that anything special was about to happen. The confirmed gym rat and two-time second team All-Ivy performer was at his old stomping grounds simply looking to shoot some hoops and blow off a little steam from his day job with Merrill Lynch.

Then El-Nokali's mentor and former college coach, John Thompson III, strolled into the gym with a proposition that has changed the direction of the point guard's life.

"Coach walked in and said a coaching job had opened up at Princeton Day School," recalled El-Nokali, who was a co-captain for the Tigers his senior year in 2001-02 and scored 656 points and had 202 assists in his college career. "He said he thought it would be a good fit for me."

El-Nokali, who had dreamed of getting into coaching sometime down the road, was intrigued. He investigated the situation and quickly realized that Thompson was right on target. El-Nokali ended up getting the job in late October.

Succumbing to the coaching bug, El-Nokali believes the PDS post is a good fit for him on several levels. "There are so many similarities between PDS and Princeton," explained El-Nokali, a Verizon District 2 Academic All-American and an Academic All-Ivy selection during his Princeton career.

"The schools are both great academically but at the same time they desire to succeed athletically."

One week into preseason practice, El-Nokali has no regrets about his new path. "Coaching is something I've always wanted to do but I never expected it to be this soon," said El-Nokali, who is still working full-time at Merrill Lynch, starting practice at 5:30 p.m.

"I love the game of basketball and spending time around the game. The planning and strategy is fun and exciting. It's great to work on short-term and long-term aims simultaneously."

Understandably, El-Nokali is looking to impart some of the basketball lessons he learned at the feet of Thompson, who played for Pete Carril at Princeton in the late 1980s and whose father is the legendary former Georgetown coach John Thompson.

"Coach Thompson emphasized the mental approach to the game, preparing for every practice and every game," said El-Nokali. "He taught us to leave everything on the floor and not take it home with you. That keeps you fresh."

El-Nokali, though, doesn't plan to install Princeton's deliberate offensive style at first. "I may try to do that in the long run but it's too complex at this point," said El-Nokali, an acknowledged master of the system as a point guard who almost never left the floor his last two seasons with the Tigers.

"I think the first thing I want to get through to the kids is that defense wins championships. Princeton is famous for its offensive system and the back doors but it is the defense that built the school into a winning program. I've been thrilled with the kids' response so far."

El-Nokali, however, plans to impart some of the major life lessons he learned during his Princeton days. "I understand that the kids have a lot of other commitments, it was like that for me at Princeton," recalled El-Nokali, a native of Pittsburgh who majored in economics in college.

"They have to realize that they need to put all that aside when they're at practice. They need to totally focus on basketball for those two hours. One of the main things I learned at Princeton is that whatever you're doing, do it as hard as you can when you're doing it."

The PDS players can be sure that their new coach will be showing up everyday with that kind of focus.

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