SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - A Central Coast summer sports tradition has returned this month. Once again, Bob Cantu is holding his popular basketball camps at locations in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo.
"I started when I was just 22-years-old and I was just getting into coaching," said the current University of Portland assistant coach. "We started with maybe 17 kids in 97 up in Paso Robles and every year it just grew and grew and I look up and it's not be 21 years and we've had over 8,500 kids have attended."
The four-day camps started last week in Paso Robles High School and conclude next month at Mission Prep. Held for boys and girls ages four to 12-years-old, the camps strongly emphasize teaching players basketball fundamentals.
"We make it fun," said Cantu. "We learn how to play the game, we learn to pass it to an open teammate. We learn when we're open, we take a high-percentage shot, we learn how to defend without fouling, just all the things I think as a coach are important. No matter what age the kids are, they take from it and then they go outside the camp in their school teams and club teams."
No matter where his career has taken him professionally, Cantu has made it a point to hold the camps for 21 straight years.
"It's just been a way for me to stay connected in the community I've grew up in," Cantu said. "It's been very rewarding. Helping a lot of kids through the years earn scholarships to play at the next level. Helping kids get exposure on top of teaching the actual camp."
The Paso Robles alum has had quite the journey since embarking on this career path more than two decades ago.
"I never thought I would have a college coaching career," Cantu said. "It's very challenging and difficult to get in, but persevered and found ways and one door opened and the next door opened, and here I'm am."
Soon after graduating high school, Cantu landed a job coaching at Mission Prep. Soon after, he moved up as an administrative assistant at Cal Poly from 1996-97.
He then served as an assistant just down Highway 1 at Cuesta College from 1997-2000. After one season at Sacramento State 2000-01), Cantu then moved on to USC, where he remained for 12 seasons, culminating in being named interim head coach in 2013.
"I felt like I got a lot of experience at USC in 2013 as the interim coach," said Cantu. "We got some great wins, beat UCLA on the road, beating Arizona at home, at Stanford and Washington. We were right there in the middle of the pack and it was an opportunity for me to get some confidence that I can be a head coach, especially at that level."
During his 15-game stint as interim head coach, Cantu was twice named the Pac-12 Coach of the Week. He believes his time on the bench serving as head coach will help him land a head coaching job of his own at some point in the future.
"I think that experience maybe separates me from different candidates down the road," said Cantu. "When the right job and at the right time presents itself, I'll be prepared if that happens. If it doesn't, I'll continue to be an assistant and do the best job that I can."
After leaving USC, Cantu moved on to UTEP, where he assisted under Tim Floyd for three seasons. Following the 2015-16 season, Cantu received a phone call from Terry Porter, who had just been named new head coach at Portland.
"He played 17 years in the NBA, he was an All-Star," said Cantu. "Terry was new to college and he got the job and he said I want someone who knows the west that can help me recruit and help me coach the team," said Cantu "We met and it was a great decision on my part. I love Portland."
Now the number one assistant to the former Trail Blazers star, Cantu has helped rejuvenate the program. The Pilots just landed the 10th best recruiting class according to Hoop Scoop.
"It's a very high recruiting class for Portland," said Cantu. "To have that level of class in our first year is tremendous and we've signed some, we think, really, really good players who can impact as freshman."
Among the players signed by Portland is St. Joseph alum Jojo Walker, who helped lead the Knights to the 2016 CIF-SS 5A championship during his junior season.
"Had a great career," Cantu said. "Tom (Mott) told me about him and his development and we got involved with him during his junior year. He ended up being an outstanding student and he met all requirements and we felt like we kind of snuck one out. We feel like we got an impact player that was under the radar and we think will have a great career and the fact that he played on the Central Coast and for a friend of mine is even better."
As Cantu looks ahead to the coming year, he also looks back at his remarkable climb up the coaching ranks that started from humble beginnings.
"I just tell everybody, if you want something bad enough, commit to it and it's possible," said Cantu. "I didn't have any experience being a high level player, I didn't have a parent that was in coaching, I didn't know any professional player, the drive I had was for the love of the game and doors opened. It's been a great run, it's a lot of fun to coach at that level against great players, with great players, with great coaches and so to be able make a living in basketball year-round is a special opportunity."