Dwayne's World

The first-time head coach opens up on life, leadership, and getting your mind right.
Paul A. Miller, MA '21

Dwayne's World

Paul A. Miller, MA '21

Dwayne's World

Paul A. Miller, MA '21
Photos by

Dwayne's World

Paul A. Miller, MA '21
Photos by

Dwayne Killings has an attitude.

That word — “ATTITUDE” — is imprinted on a black rubber band he wears on his right wrist. It’s a memento from his first collegiate coaching job at Boston University where the men’s basketball head coach, Pat Chambers, gave them to players and staff. Ten years later, Killings still dons it — replacing it as it wears out or breaks.

<photo-cred>Photo: Kris Qua<photo-cred>

The rubber bracelet isn’t simply a piece of nostalgia, nor is it a motivational cliché adopted to burnish his image as a fount of inspiration. Attitude, it turns out, is a cornerstone in the foundation of Dwayne Killings, the new head coach of UAlbany’s men’s basketball team.

In his 1999 high school yearbook, an 18-year-old Killings recapped the tone of his basketball team’s regular season: “But when we came to play we proved we were one of the best. And that is the attitude we will take to the playoffs.”

It was that same brand of positive thinking that set him apart as a walk-on player at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A 2001 article in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, quoted then basketball Head Coach Steve Lappas when he praised Killings as a player who ‘”works hard in practice, and is such a positive for [the team] because of his attitude.”’

So, it was no surprise to those who know him, that upon arrival at UAlbany, Dwayne Killings introduced himself by handing out hundreds of purple T-shirts emblazoned with the University’s mascot and one word: “MENTALITY.”

“I think that your attitude is everything,” Killings, 40, said during an interview alongside his wife, Ana. “I truly believe the more positive we put into the world, the more you’re going to get back.” When asked about the old sports adage that “attitude can’t be coached,” Killings immediately disagreed. “No, you can definitely coach it. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it work,” he said referring, in part, to the America East conference tournament championship that he helped win as an assistant coach at BU in 2011.  

<photo-cred>Photo: Paul A. Miller ’21<photo-cred>

Killings takes over the head coaching reins at UAlbany from Will Brown who, over a 20-year run, led the Great Danes into five America East championships and NCAA tournament appearances.

Signed to a five-year contract with a salary reported to be more than $300,000 per year, the new head coach recognized that the expectations of him and the program are high.

“This is probably the most pressure-intense moment in my life,” he said.

It’s not just the normal pressure of being a first-time head coach that Killings feels; it’s also the weighty responsibility of being an African American head coach in NCAA Division I basketball, where people of color have been historically underrepresented at the top coaching position. According to a recent Sports Illustrated article, the 2021 recruiting cycle has seen a sharp rise in the hiring of Black head coaches in D1 basketball and, in particular, first-time Black head coaches — like Killings. It’s an uptick being felt even at powerhouse basketball programs like North Carolina, which in April hired Hubert Davis as the first African American head coach in its program’s history.

Demonstrating leadership in issues of representation and equity, however, is a through line in Killings’s life. It’s something he’s worked on since his high school days as a member of the student group People of Color United and continued as a founding member of Coaches for Action, a working group of 21 minority assistant basketball coaches in the Big East Conference who work collectively to address social injustice.

“He stepped out with the other assistant coaches in the Big East with Coaches for Action,” said UAlbany Athletic Director Mark Benson, speaking on the “Hoop Heads” podcast series that is following Dwayne’s journey as a first-year head coach at the University. “I was really, really impressed.”

Benson added that on the strength of his experience, leadership, attitude and vision, Killings beat out more than a dozen other candidates for the job. Killings shared that he’s aware of the opportunity he and others like him have earned, and that’s he motivated by all those who have helped him and put their reputations on the line for him.

“Now we have to win to make sure that, one: we validate the hire; and two: we create more opportunities,” Killings said. “If the guys at our level are successful, well, then it creates an abundance of opportunities for other people. We have to get it right.”

<photo-cred>Photo: Patrick Dodson ’12<photo-cred>

Intention & Intensity

On a hot July afternoon, 30 minutes before the start of practice, more than a half dozen players in skintight purple jerseys warmed up as hip-hop filled SEFCU Arena. A coterie of new assistant coaches doled out fist-bumps and greeted each player personally.

A palpable energy rippled from the group. Rather than lazily going through their pre-practice routine, the players were attacking it: muscular dunks, quick layups, sharp dribble drives. On just this second day of full practice, it seemed each player was trying to make his presence felt, as though each had something to prove. At precisely 2 p.m., the head coach stepped onto the court.

Standing 6’3” tall, Dwayne Killings — “DK” as he is often called — retains the lean physique of a college athlete. With his youthful looks, he could easily be mistaken for one of his players. His manner was warm and casual, and he locked eyes as he greeted me. It wasn’t an intimidation tactic; he wanted to show that he was present, in the moment.

Killings blew his whistle to start practice and the gym exploded with energy.

“Everything we do is intentional and has intensity,” he bellowed. A torrent of affirmations echoed throughout the gym: “Let’s go.....I got you...Yes, sir!” And these positive reinforcements weren’t coming only from the coaches: they were coming from the players themselves. The Killings mentality was at work.

For more than two hours, the coaches ran the team through a series of physically demanding drills designed to amp up their aggressiveness, including one fiercely competitive exercise called the “alley drill.” Two players battled, one-on-one, down a narrow corridor of their peers who roared encouragement. Bodies collided and players dived for loose balls. There was no hiding any mistakes. After one offensive player faked out his opponent for an easy layup, a watchful Killings intervened: “Can you dunk? If you drop somebody, finish it! We’re going to punch people in the mouth. We have to be elite finishers!”

Killings’s coaching style runs the gamut from boisterous swagger to self-effacing. While instructing players on the specifics of a defensive crouch, he joked about his age and the tightness of his hips, but added that he could still “get long” as he spread out his arms and impressive wingspan. It’s an approach that many of the players seemed to appreciate.

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A Player's Coach

“The first time I talked with DK, he was straightforward with me,” said Paul Newman, a 6’9” transfer from Bucknell, who plays the center position. “He said, ‘Listen, I’m going to push you. I’m going to test you. I’m going to make you a better player as long as you want to work hard.’ And I was all for it.”

Returning player Chuck Champion, a 6’4” guard, noted the level of autonomy and trust that Killings expects of his players. “DK lays it out clear and straight up. If you can shoot, shoot the ball. If you can create plays, create plays,” said Champion, who added that Killings is instilling the notion that players control their own destinies. “He’s giving you the opportunity to make what you want to make for yourself … whatever you want to do, off the court, on the court.”

Off-the-court success is key to Killings’s brand of “mentality,” which is focused on community service and setting up players for life, long after the fleeting spotlight of collegiate basketball. To facilitate this, he started a leadership academy for the players.

“I feel like there’s a major need for leadership in the world. And I want to make sure that the 15 kids that we influence, we can grow their leadership abilities,” said Killings.

At the Alumni Association’s annual Day at the Races event on July 16 in Saratoga Springs, Killings shares a laugh with Arleny Alvarez-Peña ’04 MS ’06 and Phil Burse ’04. <photo-cred>Photo: Paul A. Miller ’21<photo-cred>

He’s enlisted the help of his extensive professional contacts — from his previous college teams, the NBA and, also, UAlbany administrators — to provide guidance and act as mentors. At an academy event over the summer, Killings surprised the team with leather-bound notebooks and recommended they get into the habit of writing.

“Success leaves clues,” he said. “Take [the notebook] on the journey we’re on. These people are here for you. This moment you have right now, you’ll never get it again.”

To inspire his players, Killings brought in renowned speaker and performance coach Kevin Carroll and the former Charlotte Bobcats assistant general manager Karl Hicks, who now serves as a managing director of the NCAA.

Hicks, who has been a longtime personal mentor to Killings, had nothing but high praise for his protégé: “Albany did a really fine job in identifying him because there will never be anyone here who’ll say he was a bad hire, based on who Dwayne Killings is. He’s going to make the place proud.”

Renowned author/motivational speaker Kevin Carroll addresses the team on July 27 in the PE building as part of the Leadership Academy established by Coach Killings. <photo-cred>Photo: Paul A. Miller ’21<photo-cred>

Family Ties

Born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, a young Dwayne Killings reveled in the lively atmosphere and diverse population provided by UMass Amherst, where his father, Sam, spent more than four decades working as a system controller. The father and son would often shoot baskets on campus late into the warm summer nights, and the younger Killings participated in the team’s summer basketball camps. At 8-years- old, he became the ballboy for the men’s basketball team led by then Head Coach John Calipari, now the legendary coach at Kentucky. Killings, and his father, would sometimes imagine him out there on the court as a player wearing a Minutemen’s jersey. Ten years later, it came true.

Naturally, the university and the team became even more integral in the family’s life. Killings often brought his teammates home for dinner, where they became part of the warm and welcoming family environment. Now, as parents of two (Alecia, 7 and Tristan, 4), Killings and wife, Ana, want to recreate that same sense of family at UAlbany.

“This is a family. We want it to be connected. We want to be part of each other’s lives. It makes it more fun and authentic,” Ana, 41, said during an interview in the Campus Center.

“And it’s not just the players and coaches,” added her husband. “It has to be people in the community and the administration. I want everybody to feel like they have a piece of this program.”

The importance of family is not just a public relations talking point for the Killings. For Ana Killings, it is deeply personal, poignant and the polar opposite of her husband’s experience. She was raised by her maternal grandparents, after her mother gave birth to her. “She wasn’t in the space to be a mother,” Ms. Killings shared while adding that she never harbored any ill feelings to her mother. “I was never upset, it was just …‘It is what it is.’”

Her family experience, however, fostered tremendous gratitude and love for her “old-school” Dominican grandparents who worked hard and sacrificed to ensure she would be the first in their family to graduate from high school and college. She graduated from UMass Amherst with an undergraduate degree in accounting and earned a master’s degree in education from UMass Boston.

“I’m super thankful,” she says with quiet pride. “My life could have turned out differently. I don’t know where I would have been had they not raised me.”

On the second episode of the podcast series, the couple talks about the way the University embraced the entire family. “When we arrived, it was about our kids and it was about Ana,” remarked Coach Killings. “It reassured us that this is perfect.” For Ms. Killings, coming to UAlbany simply reinforced a strong sense of family. “It just felt like it was home.”

“I want everybody to feel like they have a piece of this program.”

Connecting Success

Under a giant white tent at the Saratoga Race Course, Dwayne Killings climbed atop a red picnic table and spoke to a crowd of around 400 at the Alumni Association’s annual Day at the Races event. As the guest of honor, it was his first large UAlbany community event.

“One of our goals, since we arrived at UAlbany, has been to forge a connection with the people [in the community]. “It’s been a joy and an honor to represent our program. It’s our players’ program. It’s your program,” said Killings before, jokingly, pleading for help in picking a winning horse for the day.

At ease with diverse audiences, (something he credited to his upbringing and hometown), Killings spent the next hour or so shaking hands and speaking with alumni and their spouses. He displayed the proverbial “people’s touch.” He bent down so he could lean in close, locked eyes, laughed easily and occasionally placed his hand on an elbow or shoulder to signal that he was present. For many, Killings made a strong impression.

“He’s very relatable, welcoming and engaging,” said Arleny Alvarez-Peña ’04, MA ’06 after Killings spoke with her and fellow alumnus Phil Burse ’04. “He seems very humble, but also like he knows what he wants and expects,” added Burse.

As Killings floated through the crowd, one alumnus told Killings that he’s looking forward to finally being able to sit in the arena and see the team in person. Bill Robelee ’64, shared somewhat higher hopes with the new coach: “I told him I’m ready to buy my tickets to the NCAAs,” said Robelee, who pointed out that he’s attended all of the men’s basketball March Madness tournament appearances.

For a coach who told his players that “success leaves clues,” it was fitting that in conversation with successful businessman Premal Shah ’71, MBA ’72, Killings would seek advice.

“Why are you successful?” he asked the Dubai-based executive. Shah smiled: “That’s the million- dollar question. It’s a whole package. If you check enough of the boxes in the package, your chances for success go up.” Shah shared with Killings a slate of ambitious new projects and visions for successful ventures he has planned.

At the end of the conversation, Dwayne Killings stood up, extended a handshake and thanked Shah for his time. As he walked away, the new head coach turned back to the businessman and said, “Good luck! I’ll be rooting for you.”

Judging by the warm embrace of alumni and the campus community so far, the feeling is very much mutual.

Love & Basketball

When Dwayne Killings proposed to Ana Polanco on a winter’s day in Toronto, she couldn’t stop laughing.

It wasn’t because she couldn’t believe the moment was happening; it was because he had verbally bumbled the once-in-a-lifetime romantic moment.

“He got down on his knee and the first thing he says is, ‘Will me marry me?’ And I just started laughing,” she recalled. By her estimate, it took a full minute to recover while he waited, on bended knee, for her answer. Dwayne jokes that freezing cold and nerves are a bad combination. Ana gives him credit though. “He’s very romantic, which I am the total opposite. He did an excellent job. It was great, but it was freezing!”

UAlbany Magazine visited with the couple to consider some entertaining questions.  

UAlbany: In a movie about your life, which celebrity would you pick to play your spouse?

  • Dwayne: J-Lo. (Ana shoots him bewildered look.)
  • Ana: I’m surprised he didn’t pick Alicia Keyes. (There is a resemblance.)  I’d say Denzel Washington. I’ve always been a Denzel fan.  

UAlbany: Who would win at Trivial Pursuit?

  • Ana: Oh, definitely not me. He would.
  • Dwayne: She would pick a game that she’d be good at!  

UAlbany: What’s your irrational fear?

  • Ana: I hate insects. I mean, they’re everywhere.
  • Dwayne: I’m not scared of heights, but I’m scared of heights. It’s weird.  

UAlbany: Best book you’ve ever read?

  • Ana: Oh, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coehlo.
  • Dwayne: “The Legacy Builder” by Rod Olson.  

UAlbany: If money is no object, what’s your ultimate family vacation?

  • Dwayne: The Maldives, but I don’t know if I have it in me to [endure the flights].
  • Ana: We’ve been to Paris but our daughter asks for us to go as a family. So, to appease her, I’ll say Paris.  

UAlbany: If you can only listen to one musician the rest of your lives, who is it?

  • Both: Jay-Z!  (They’ve been to more than 10 concerts collectively)
  • Ana: I am a Jay-Z head!
  • Dwayne: His daughter has some of our money!  

UAlbany: One word to describe your spouse?

  • Ana: Innovator.  He’s very innovative with everything.
  • Dwayne: “Point guard” is two words, right? She’s the point guard of our family. That gets lost in the shuffle of all this.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity]