Student of the game: ASU junior Cris Valle working overtime as Hamilton boys basketball coach

Hamilton boys freshman assistant coach Cris Valle has successfully transitioned from player to coach, while balancing the demands of his school work at Arizona State University. (Photo by Hayden Cilley/Cronkite News)

CHANDLER – A full-time Arizona State University student and now the top assistant for the Hamilton Huskies freshman boys basketball team, the pressure seems insurmountable for Cris Valle at 20 years old.

Although Valle played for the same school three years earlier, there was a different feeling when he stepped on the court. It isn’t solely about basketball anymore or the jersey, shorts and his white Nike Kyrie’s he once wore. It’s now about managing his school and personal life, on top of the game he cherishes. Taking classes Monday through Friday at ASU, as well as traveling down State Route 87 for practice six days a week remains a daily challenge for Valle.

“Yeah, it can be a little difficult at times. Balancing a full-time college schedule and doing this is a bit challenging at times,” Valle said. “I try my best to keep academics first and always prioritize that. I’m here to give everything I got.”

The former two-year varsity guard played with the Huskies from 2018-20. When varsity coach Doug Harris heard the news that his former player would coach during the 2022-23 season, Harris was shocked.

“I didn’t necessarily see this as something he could do,” Harris said. “But that’s the great thing about coaching. You never know what kind of players you’re inspiring and who you want to be a coach.”

Valle didn’t expect to become the freshman assistant coach for the Huskies either. After playing for the varsity team, Valle thought his career would continue at the next level. Specifically on senior night against Brophy College Prep, he thought the dream would come to fruition.

“It’s always been my goal to play college basketball and then especially on senior night, walking in there. It was like, dang, I really hope this isn’t over,” Valle said. “I’m going to do my best to continue to move forward in my career with basketball. I tried really hard and thankfully, God gave me the opportunity to play hardball.”

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Valle transferred to Hamilton as a sophomore from Chandler High School, where he received limited playing time on the varsity team. Nearly a 10-minute drive down Arizona Avenue, he sought the opportunity to display his true talent.

“When I first met him, I could just look at him and tell he’s really passionate about the game,” Harris said of his first impressions of Valle. “He didn’t say very much. He talks more (now) that he’s coaching now and after the fact that he’s played for me. Back then, he didn’t talk that much, but he always had a fire and desire for basketball.”

Like Harris, varsity assistant coach Keith Walker saw the untapped basketball potential from the moment Valle stepped in the door.

“He was one of the unique ones that I had, because I noticed that he could shoot the ball really well and he could dribble well too,” Walker said. “Our coaching staff was saying, ‘Well, we don’t know if he’s gonna make it.’ But I was like, ‘This guy can shoot, you just need to watch him shoot.’ Once he got into our program, he would start getting better and better.”

His achievements over the next two years made his case for collegiate ball. Valle led the team in scoring during his senior season in 2019-20, averaging 14.5 points per game while leading the 6A region in threes made with 91. He also won team co-MVP and made the 6A all-region team.

Despite boasting a 14-4 record as the No. 2 team, the Huskies suffered a second-round upset against Chandler, the same school that Valle left to get a better opportunity.

Later that year, Valle signed a letter of intent to play for Mesa Community College. The shift from high school to the collegiate level surprised the Hamilton graduate as he quickly learned what it would take to succeed at the next level.

“Mesa, it was very different than just college ball,” Valle said. “It is a grind, it is not for the lighthearted. It’s something you got to put a lot of work, time, effort and energy, but if you love the game, you’ll love it.”

Throughout his lone season with the Thunderbirds, the San Antonio native visited his alma mater as much as his schedule allowed. Harris frequently reminisced on the memories during Valle’s time with the Huskies.

“He would come back when we had little alumni games,” Harris said. “I always saw his face and he came around. I thought we built a cultural family here.”

That family dynamic went missing during his time with Mesa. Although the grind, the drive and the motivation to be the best player were present, his body wasn’t up to speed with his mind.

Valle played a combined 41 minutes in six games and dealt with ankle injuries. The lack of playing time, mixed with his frequent injuries, stirred emotions of doubt and uncertainty about his basketball future.

“At the time, I questioned if my body would hold up and if this would be it for my playing career,” said Valle, who suffered three high ankle sprains within the span of three weeks that season.

Valle reached one of the lowest points of his life, as the dream of playing basketball slowly vanished. After the 2021-22 season wrapped up, he enrolled at Arizona State University in the spring of 2022. His first semester as a student at Arizona State came and went. Majoring in sports business with classes five days a week seemed to have Valle going through the motions. Playing basketball again, this time for the Sun Devils, continually popped into his mind.

“I still think about that to this day,” Valle said. “I try to stay in shape. I try to keep playing for that opportunity so I can be ready for it.”

Nothing surprises Hamilton freshman coach Ben Dawson, left, varsity head coach Doug Harris (middle) and varsity assistant coach Keith Walker about Cris Valle's success after his first season as the freshman boys assistant coach. (Photo by Hayden Cilley/Cronkite News)

Nothing surprises Hamilton freshman coach Ben Dawson, left, varsity head coach Doug Harris (middle) and varsity assistant coach Keith Walker about Cris Valle’s success after his first season as the freshman boys assistant coach. (Photo by Hayden Cilley/Cronkite News)

Valle struggled to wrap his mind around not being able to play the game he loved. Luckily, his next semester offered a much sweeter surprise. On a warm October day, Valle received a phone call that brought true joy. The call was from Walker, who knew his former player would be the perfect candidate for a coaching position.

“I reached out to him because I knew he had the certain qualities to be a coach,” Walker said. “We had a vacancy, and I asked him if he wanted to be an assistant for the freshmen team. He said yes.”

Word came around to freshman head coach Ben Dawson, who was elated when he found out that he would have an assistant of Valle’s caliber. Still, despite having coached Valle’s brother, Dawson was surprised more than anybody at his new assistant’s basketball knowledge.

“He definitely understands the skills of the game. He understands the minute details of how to score,” Dawson said. “It’s the little things – how to rip through, how to shot fake, just little tricks of the trade that help you become a better scorer.”

Working with a player of his caliber has led the freshman players to take inspiration from the former 6A region three-point leader, and Dawson doesn’t take his influence for granted.

“It shows them what hard work can bring because when he arrived at Hamilton, he wasn’t that superstar. He was just like them, a skinny, gangly little kid,” Dawson said. “He didn’t know what was ahead of him, but he put in hard work, he trusted his coaches and he became one of the top scorers here.”

With his foot back in the door, Valle is ready to give everything back to the program that gave him a chance. While he continues to be the assistant coach, Dawson expects Valle to be the guy at a top-level program in the future due to his basketball IQ and, more importantly, his understanding of players.

“He would be a great asset to any program that would be lucky to have him. He understands the game from an Xs and Os perspective, and he connects well with the kids,” Dawson said. “He has that sixth sense when it comes to how players are feeling emotionally and maybe what they’re seeing and things we can do to help these guys on the court make the game a lot easier.”

Although Dawson sees his assistant being the guy at a top program, Valle sees this as simply an opportunity to remain close to the game of basketball, anyway he can.

“I want to do something with basketball at whatever level that is and just have basically an input with the team, wherever that is, whether it’s coaching, managing, punching numbers for stats whatever it is. I just love to stick around the game, and it would be perfect,” Valle said. “I miss it.”

With the freshman team finishing the season with a 10-8 record and the varsity team finishing 2-16, as well as missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years, Valle might have the chance to make that jump to coaching the varsity team sooner than later. But he knows that decision is out of his hands.

“Do everything for the glory of God. Playing, coaching, anything I try to do with love and everything for him,” Valle said. “That is the reason for everything that’s happened in my life.”

Hayden Cilley HAY-din SIL-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hayden Cilley expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Cilley covered the Phoenix Mercury in 2022 for The Next Hoops and is writing and podcasting about the Mercury for PHNX Sports.