Flashback to the track

Bucks’ Hackett was trail blazer for Wisconsin sprinters

Photo courtesy of the University Wisconsin Athletics
Photo courtesy of the University Wisconsin Athletics

Most National Basketball Association players tend to respect coaches who made names for themselves during their playing days.

Larry Drew, the first-year head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, no doubt had this in mind when he assembled his staff of assistant coaches.

Jim Cleamons, Nick Van Exel and Scott Williams played a combined 37 seasons in the NBA and scored 21,895 points between them.

Josh Oppenheimer played nine seasons of professional basketball in the United States and Europe.

Bob Bender is the only individual to play for two different schools in two different NCAA championship games (for Indiana in 1976 and for Duke in 1978).

Another Bucks coach, however, accomplished things during his athletic career that leave his staff members, the players with whom he works – and most others who have walked the face of the earth – far beyond the reach of his rear-view mirror.

And Robert Hackett set himself apart right here in Wisconsin over 30 years ago.

Hackett, in his first season as strength and conditioning coach of the Bucks, graduated from Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School in 1983 as the fastest sprinter the Wisconsin prep ranks had ever seen.

His times of 10.44 seconds in the 100 meters and 21.03 in the 200 meters ranked first in state history when he completed his high school career and currently put him eighth and fourth, respectively, on the all-time charts.

Hackett continued his sprinting exploits at the University of Wisconsin, where he became an NCAA champion in the 100 and 200 meters and a three-time USA Olympic Trials qualifier.

A convincing argument could be made that, when putting Wisconsin high school sports into historical perspective, Hackett is the fastest trail blazer for his sport the state has ever had.

Hackett, 30 years later, still takes great pride in that. And he remembers his humble beginnings well.

“The summer of my sophomore year of high school, I thought I was going to be a basketball player,” he said. “I was a real good football player in addition to being a high-caliber of sprinter, but as I continued to compete in track, it was a great experience to be able to compete at a high level.”

Hackett accomplished things on the track that no one in Wisconsin ever had before.

“When I was winning prep meets, I was one of the first kids to come out of Wisconsin as a sprinter and do things on a high level nationally,” he said. “People in other parts of the country never really believed I was actually running the times I was running.

“Going to the Keebler International  Prep Meet in Chicago and the Golden West Meet in California were some of the highlights of my career, outside of winning state titles and holding state records.

“Those big prep meets were the highlights because they showed the nation that I was for real and a high-caliber sprinter. I helped put Wisconsin on the map and then other guys behind me – Floyd Heard, David Brown and others – continued to compete nationally at a high level. That was really exciting and a blessing.”

Hackett earned a scholarship to UW and made a swift impact with the Badgers, qualifying for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 200 meters.

During Hackett’s collegiate years, he captured five Big Ten Conference championships in the sprints and relays and was one of the linchpins of three conference championship teams. He became a national champion when he ran the 400-meter leg of the 1985 NCAA Indoor Championship distance medley relay.

Hackett set Badgers team records in the indoor 60 meters, 200 meters, outdoor 100 meters, 200 meters and ran on a school-record 400-meter relay. His fastest time in the 200 meters was 20.52 seconds, which remains a school record.

Hackett graduated from UW in 1988 with a degree in consumer science and proceeded to serve as an assistant track and field coach before becoming a strength and conditioning coach for football, basketball and track for the Badgers. During that span, the Badgers won the 1994 Rose Bowl and earned their first invitation to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 45 years.

“Those years were big,” Hackett said. “We won a lot of Big Ten titles. I recently saw that my coach, Ed Nuttycombe, had retired. To look at his history and what he has done and how many lives he touched in the process was amazing.

“When I look back on it, it’s humbling to remember where I came from and what I was able to do – travel around the world through track and field itself and go to the University of Wisconsin.”

Hackett designed strength and conditioning programs for then-football coach Barry Alvarez and then-men’s basketball coach Stu Jackson at Wisconsin.

When Jackson left Madison to become president of the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies, Hackett followed him, beginning what has blossomed into an 18-year NBA career.

Hackett worked as strength and conditioning coach for the Grizzlies from 1995-2002 before holding the same position with the Dallas Mavericks for the next 11 seasons. Hackett and current Bucks forward and fellow Wisconsin native Caron Butler earned NBA championship rings with the Mavericks in 2011.

“All of that was such a great experience and also a learning tool,” Hackett said. “We can come in here and tell these young guys, ‘These are the things we’ve done before. They work.’ We want to get these guys to a high level.”

Hackett marvels at where his NBA career began and where it has taken him.

“When I first got into the league, I was with the Vancouver Grizzlies (who went 15-67 during their expansion season), so I went from the bottom to the very top,” he said. “I’ve seen both ends. I’ve seen how hard it is to get it done. Over the years, I’ve worked with so many great players. It’s truly been a blessing.”

Hackett and his wife, Renee – also a former UW sprinter -- have one son, Amari; and two daughters, Kiara and Laila.

He looks forward to reeling in the years with them now that he is back home.

“My kids can experience what my years in Wisconsin were like much more now,” Hackett said.

“They’ve never really been here, but they’re going to hear a lot of stories again and again. It’s so exciting to come home and be among friends and family.”

Hackett also likes the idea of working for the franchise that was “Green and Growing” when he was building his resume as a sprinter.

“It’s great to be back in town and be able to do the things I do,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to change the culture and make the Bucks a winning program again.”