LITTLE ROCK – Thirty years ago, Ron Kestenbaum left Arkansas on his way to New York. He had just finished his five years as head coach of the UALR men’s basketball team, ushering the university into its Division I era.
From 1979-84, the Trojans played 137 games, winning 85 under the direction of Kestenbaum. When asked if he would go back and change anything from his time as coach, he laughed before his response.
“Only the number of wins,” he said.
Kestenbaum said that support from Chancellor G. Robert Ross and Vice Chancellor Neyland Hester, who was also in charge of the athletic department, really helped him get the coaching position, and he is very thankful for their support. The emotional backing those two men gave him and his family is something he appreciates to this day.
Joining UALR in 1978 after a stint as assistant coach at Centenary, Kestenbaum’s impact on the program was immediate. His first year as head coach saw the team finish with a winning record for the first time in five years. The team won 19 games in his third season, the most by a Trojan squad since the school was called Little Rock Junior College in 1944.
The Trojans won two Trans America Athletic Conference (TAAC) regular-season championships in 1982 and 1983. During the 1981-1982 season, UALR went 12-4 in conference play. The Trojans were even better the following year, going 12-2 to claim their second straight league regular-season title.
Born and raised in The Bronx borough of New York City, Kestenbaum might not have seemed like the most natural fit to lead the basketball program of a growing Arkansas school that was in just its second year as a Division I program. He says his motivations for accepting the position were universal – the opportunity to be a head coach – and job-specific – a roster with few holdovers that he felt would allow his style to have an immediate impact.
“At the time I was an assistant coach at Centenary, and every assistant coach wants a chance to be a head coach and see how he can do,” said Kestenbaum. “Something else that was attractive about it – going over the returning players, there were only five guys that were coming back. That gave me an opportunity to bring in my own players and I think that helps a lot.”
Previously the head coach at Adlai Stevenson High School in New York City, where he won two Section II NYC titles and was named Coach of the Year in 1974, Kestenbaum used connections to his home city to bring a number of players from the area to Little Rock. Seven players on the 1979-80 UALR roster hailed from New York or New Jersey. Ten players from those areas were on the 1980-81 squad.
“I knew their coaches for the most part, and they knew me and knew my reputation as a high school coach in New York City,” Kestenbaum explained. “Not to sound egotistical or anything, but the first couple of years I was selling myself and my track record in New York City. I think that helped us get a couple of kids.”
Future stars Vaughn Williams, Gilbert Maxwell and Jesse Massey all came to Little Rock from New York. Jimmy Lampley, an eventual All-TAAC performer who Kestenbaum recruited at Centenary and transferred to UALR only after he was named head coach, played his high school basketball in Wayne, New Jersey – just a 40-minute drive from New York City.
After the program combined for 48 wins in his first three seasons as head coach, Kestenbaum was able to generate some local recruiting success. Arkansas products Myron Jackson (Hamburg HS) and Duane Washington (Parkview HS) were part of the 1982 recruiting class, while Roy Ralston (Quitman HS) joined a year later.
All things considered, the number of quality players Kestenbaum was able to funnel to Little Rock in his tenure is staggering. With the program still in the infant stages of Division I, several names from those rosters still fill the UALR basketball record book, including three future Hall of Famers in Jackson, Lampley and Williams.
As for how he managed to land all that talent, Kestenbaum has a story for nearly every player he signed. Mostly, he says, it was a combination of connections and good fortune.
Donald Newman, a 6-6 wing player from Indiana who became a double-digit scorer for the Trojans, was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. Several bigger programs backed off because of potential academic issues, but Kestenbaum and his staff stayed on him. For them, Kestenbaum said, it was worth the gamble that he would make the grades. Newman did, and he became a key contributor on the 1982-83 team that won 23 games.
UALR assistant Ralph Radford had strong ties to Alabama, which allowed the Trojans to land twin brothers Mike and Ezelle Rivers. Both players became big-time players on Kestenbaum’s UALR teams, especially Mike, who averaged nearly 17 points and seven rebounds as a senior.
Williams, a 6-2 point guard who still ranks as UALR’s all-time assists and steals leader, was in part a product of a previous recruit Kestenbaum missed on. Williams played at Grady HS in Brooklyn – the same high school as Rolando Blackman, who attended Kansas State and went on to enjoy an All-Star career with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. Kestenbuam recruited Blackman heavily at Centenary. He didn’t land him, but the relationship he developed with the Grady head coach gave him the inside track on Williams.
Holdovers from previous head coach Happy Malfouz’s squads also played a part in Kestenbaum’s early success. Kestenbaum says those players deserve recognition for the way they sacrificed and adjusted to his style of play, which was much more defensive-oriented than Malfouz’s.
“We established our culture and these guys who were there, if they wanted to contribute, realized that they were going to have to buy in,” said Kestenbaum. “And they were all seniors. It’s not an easy thing for them. It takes time to learn, and lots of them just could have said, ‘To heck with this. We’ve got our scholarships and will be out in a year.’ But they didn’t. I give them a lot of credit for that.”
Kestenbaum’s most successful season at UALR came in his fourth year. The 1982-83 Trojans won 23 regular-season games – tying a program record at the time – and went 12-2 in league play. Led by Lampley and Williams, the team had won 15 of its previous 17 games and was the top seed in the TAAC Tournament as it entered the title game against Georgia Southern.
“I still have nightmares about that game,” Kestenbaum joked, right before going over the final minute of the game in detail.
Following a Georgia Southern turnover, UALR had possession with the game tied at 66 and under 30 seconds to play. Playing for the final shot, Myron Jackson, a freshman at the time, was fouled. He went to the line and made one of two, giving UALR a one-point lead as Georgia Southern called a timeout with 16 seconds to play.
“We had played it perfectly,” said Kestenbaum of the game’s final play. “We pushed a kid – his name was Hightower, their best player – to the corner. I’m talking literally where the two lines meet. I think it was Vaughn Williams and Dexter Young who were double-teaming him. He was backward to the basket, pushed off with his forearm and for whatever reason the referees didn’t call it, probably because they never thought he’d make the shot. But he just threw it up and it went in the basket.”
Georgia Southern won the game by a 68-67 final, earning its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament in the process. The loss also snapped UALR’s 32-game home winning streak, at the time the second-longest in the nation.
“Anyone from back then that’s still a part of the university will tell you it was just a gut-wrenching way to lose a game,” Kestenbaum continued.
Kestenbaum left UALR after the 1983-84 season, returning home as an assistant at Brooklyn College for five years before taking over as head coach from 1990-92. Brooklyn decided to reclassify to Division III following the 1991-92 season, and Kestenbaum elected to move on to the next stage of his career. He became the athletic director at Sheepshead Bay HS for 12 years – a job he says he “loved every minute of” – until retiring in 2004.
“I enjoyed helping the basketball programs without the stress of coaching,” said Kestenbaum. “But I also enjoyed the administrative parts of it – the budgeting, the scheduling. I just enjoyed all of it. I think if I had stayed at UALR long enough I might have wanted to move in the administrative direction at some point.”
Looking back on his time in Little Rock, Kestenbaum says he made a lot of great friends. Even though he doesn’t keep in touch with all of them, he says the time he spent here and the friends he made were very special to him.
Kestenbaum and his wife now split their time between homes in Florida and Maryland. His children and grandchildren reside in the Maryland and Virginia areas.