Style and Superstar Egos: The Pros and Cons of N.B.A. Coaching


ORLANDO, Fla. — Justin Anderson was about to start his presentation at a white board in a mostly empty basketball gym when John Lucas III interrupted him.

“Can I make a suggestion?” said Lucas, who spent the past year as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. “You going to respect a coach with a backwards hat on?”

“I mean, yeah. That’s me, right?” Anderson said, drawing a murmur of chuckles from the eight people gathered in folding chairs. Anderson, wearing a dark blue baseball cap, said he wasn’t trying to be funny.

“Have you ever seen your coach wear a hat in practice?” Lucas said.

“Nah, you right,” said Anderson, 28, a six-season N.B.A. veteran. He took off the hat.

He turned back to the white board and started his presentation: a mock breakdown of the Phoenix Suns.

At first, he seemed nervous.

“We’ve got Phoenix tonight, fellas,” Anderson began, alternating between shuffling his hands and pointing at the white board, which had notes organized into sections like “Keys To Win.” “We don’t know what the status is of Chris Paul. He’s been out. If he’s out tonight, they’re going to probably insert Cam Payne. He’s been averaging, I believe, 16 over the last five.”

Within the next couple of hours, Anderson and a group of current and former N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. players would be coaching the country’s best boys’ high school players at the annual Top-100 camp run by the N.B.A. players’ union. For decades, this weeklong camp has served a dual purpose: to put a spotlight on top teenage prospects for scouts and to provide a training program for players eyeing coaching as a future career.

Boston Celtics Coach Ime Udoka, New Orleans Pelicans Coach Willie Green and Jerry Stackhouse, who coaches the Vanderbilt University men’s basketball team, have attended the camp.

This year’s coaching group included one player from the W.N.B.A.:Marie Ferdinand-Harris, a retired three-time All-Star. The N.B.A. players ranged from those who had brief careers, like Peyton Siva, who appeared in 24 games for the Orlando Magic in 2013-14, to the more established, such as Rodney Hood, who has been in the N.B.A. since 2014.

I just know that I can’t play forever. I dealt with a serious injury when I tore my Achilles’,” Hood, 29, said, referring to a 2019 tendon injury. “Just understanding that, I did a lot of thinking about what I’m going to do after basketball, and I want to stay involved with the game.”

For Ferdinand-Harris, 43, the camp was a test drive to see if she enjoyed coaching.

“Right now, the move is more women involvement, and not just in the women’s side of basketball but also in the men’s side,” she said. “They’re looking for qualified women to step into roles.”

The camp began the night before Anderson’s whiteboard presentation. Lucas, who played for six N.B.A. teams, has run the coaching program for the last three years after participating as a player for eight. His father, John Lucas Jr., has held coaching roles in the N.B.A. since the early 1990s and helps scout players for this camp. The younger Lucas, 39, assigned each coaching attendee a team to scout and discuss. There also was a video conference call with David Fizdale, who has experience as an assistant and head coach in the N.B.A.

A core tenet of professional coaching, Lucas said, is “being able to deal with egos.” How to handle a superstar player who demands that you use a challenge. The importance of making eye contact when addressing your team. When to use profanity. When not to.

“You have to be able to deal with everybody on that team that has been the man on their team before — their whole lives,” he said. “How can you get these 15 guys to buy into a system and to work as a unit?”

Anderson took note of the lessons about superstars.

“I’ve been around the humblest of superstars like Dirk Nowitzki,” he said. “I’ve been around a lot of guys who are maybe a little bit more needy. But I think the biggest thing that stuck out to me was once you’re done being a player, it starts all over again. It goes back to level one and you have to almost build your résumé up again.”

The N.B.A. has long been criticized for how few Black coaches it often has, despite having mostly Black players. The tally fluctuates, but currently 15 of the 30 head coaches are Black — the most ever — and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra is of Filipino descent. Two years ago, the number of nonwhite coaches was only seven. The coaching camp can help Black players in particular get noticed for jobs, but it’s no guarantee.

Often, former players are hired as player development coaches — if they’re hired at all — and don’t get to have significant input on tactics.

“I started as a player development coach,” Lucas said. “And I was put in those positions: ‘Go talk to this person. Go talk to that person. What’s going on? Why is he acting like this? Oh, can you still play? Jump on the court. Now we need you five on five. Three on three. Four on four.’ So they still see you as a player, but it’s on you to take yourself out of that.”

Lucas talked to the camp group about ascending the coaching ranks.

“Would you take a $25,000 job?” Lucas said. “Because that’s what video guys get.”

“So, why do they come at us with that?” said Jawad Williams, who played abroad and in 90 N.B.A. games with Cleveland from 2008 to 2011.

“Because it’s their way of being like, ‘Do you really want it?’” Lucas said. “You see what I’m saying? Like, you just got done probably making $500,000.”

“I’ve gotten multiple calls like that,” Williams, 39, said. “I’m not doing that. I can do it.”

Williams said he had been a scout for several N.B.A. teams. “But they still come at you: ‘We’ve got this entry level video coordinator or internship,’” he said.

“That’s their way of hazing you,” Lucas said, as several players nodded. “You start all over.”

Lucas said players should consider money and team culture when deciding whether to take a job. Then some of the players offered their insight. Siva, who played under Rick Pitino at the University of Louisville, said that Pitino would be the last coach he would call for a job.

“I know his system. I can tell anybody who plays for him. I can tell you everything he’s going to say,” Siva said. “But as a culture, I know me as a person. I wouldn’t handle it now as an employee of his. I know what hours he wants his coaches in. I know the work he expects.”

Lucas also talked about the importance of being honest with players. He asked Hood if a point guard he had played with had an ego. Hood said the guard was a good teammate.

“I know that’s your boy,” Lucas said. “You’re a coach now. I caught you. You don’t want to throw anybody under the bus. You’re still a player. See how I got you?”

Hood acknowledged that this teammate occasionally did “dumb stuff,” using a different word than “stuff.”

At the end of the camp, Lucas leads mock interviews, acting as a head coach hiring assistants. The transition to coach from player can be challenging in many ways, but Lucas offered a simple piece of advice.

“Just be you,” Lucas said. “The worst thing I see in coaches is they try to mimic somebody else.” He added, “Where’s your voice at?”

Just don’t wear a baseball cap.



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