Assistant Coaches Know the NBA's Secrets

Theirs is a thankless job — say little, work much — but NBA assistant coaches see it all. Now, in a series with ESPN's TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott, they'll tell all.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, ask the BRYANT PARK staff. It's a thankless job being the person behind the scenes sometimes, a lot of work, not a lot of glory. You know who else knows about that? Assistant coaches in the NBA. They watch the game tape. They run the drills. They hold the clipboard all week long. Come game time, though, when the chicken dance blares and the head coach suits up, you take a seat at the bench, down with the Gatorade and towel boy. After the game, do reporters want to ask you why you switched defense?

ALISON STEWART, host:

No, excuse me. Can you get out of the way? I need to talk to Phil Jackson.

BURBANK: Exactly. They want to talk to the head coach. Does anyone care that you're the man with the answers? Well, Henry Abbot does. He runs ESPN's NBA blog called TrueHoop. He's on a mission this season to interview assistant coaches from NBA teams across the country to find out what really makes them tick. He's kicking off a series on interviews on his block, and he joined us in the studio to talk about what makes an assistant coach interesting in interviews, and why he, Henry Abbott, jumped on a chance to sit down with them when the offer came up.

Mr. HENRY ABBOTT (Blogger, TrueHoop): You know, I don't know if it's like a headline story everyday, but for me, I'm like, look, ESPN - nobody gets to talk to assistant coaches in most cases. There's a gag order on most teams, where they aren't allowed to talk to the media. But they're the guys who actually do the job of, you know, the nitty gritty of running an NBA team. Like, they're the ones who are working the long hours looking at the film and, you know, and making - I mean, head coaches do, too, but they're on the frontlines of the decisions that we all question everyday, you know, and then watch every night.

So I thought, yeah, I want to talk to those guys, because there what's really going on in NBA. And, you don't usually get to talk to them. I always wanted to talk to assistant coaches. So…

BURBANK: The guy who usually gets to talk is the head coach.

Mr. ABBOTT: Right.

BURBANK: For people who don't know really follow NBA basketball, there's the, you know, guy in the suit who's yelling and holding a clipboard. And then down from him a couple of spots, there's a less famous guy in a suit with a clipboard who's yelling a little less loudly, and a couple of more guys like that. Those are the assistant coaches. These are the guys that, really, make a lot of the stuff happen in practice, and before the games, and after the games. But you don't ever get to really hear from them.

Mr. ABBOTT: On some teams, you're going get to talk to them a little bit, but on most teams, you don't hear from them at all. And they're where the passionate is. Right? I'm all interested in that, because they don't make a lot of money. They're never home. They work incredibly long hours, and they get fired. If their boss gets fired, pretty much every time, they'll lose their jobs. They all have like a, you know, one-year, two-year commitments, that's it. And so you don't do that unless A, you know, you really have a strong passion for the game, and B, you think you're good. Like, and they wouldn't do it if - just to have a job.

And a lot of players finish their career and think that they'll go into coaching because that's what ex-players can do. That doesn't cut it. Like they're going to have to actually perform, or in most cases, you know, or else lose their jobs. So…

BURBANK: The other thing I've noticed with NBA coaches, certainly this happens in other sports, too, but what I've noticed with NBA assistant coaches, rather - what I've noticed with NBA assistant coaches is that some of them will do it for like 20 years. You know, it's not necessarily something you do for five years and then you're a head coach. I mean, there are guys that do this for their whole career, essentially. It seems like a pretty thankless job.

Mr. ABBOTT: Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of guys who just don't have it in their makeup to be a head coach. A head coach is a media job in a lot of ways. You know, you've got a - you know, we're in New York, and Isiah Thomas has taken a lot of heat here. And you'll see him on the cover - on the back cover for the Daily News or the New York Post everyday with, you know, some terrible headline about what a nightmare he is.

And, you know, that's just not for a lot of people. You know, I wouldn't want that job, to be honest. You get a lot more money and you get to make the big decisions, but at the same time, like, you're on the frontline of every catastrophe your team encounters. And I think a lot of them just want to be basketball coaches. They want to talk about basketball and do basketball things, and, you know, that's not what head coaches do most - with most of their time.

BURBANK: You said they don't make a lot of money, I mean, not compared to the coaches. But what's a range for these guys?

Mr. ABBOTT: You know, you don't get them to talk about it very often, but I think - I'll tell you this. Mark Cuban, the other day, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, you know, a billionaire, was - he was criticized early in his career for hiring a ton of assistant coaches. And they still have a ton of assistant coaches in Dallas. But he was like, look, I pay these guys less than we pay Microsoft engineers for my other business. Like he made it, you know, his billions and dot com kind of money.

But like, you know, guys who are teaching people how to use Microsoft programs make more than the assistant coaches. So, I don't know, maybe that's three figures, maybe it's not. You know, but it's not going to blow you away.

BURBANK: Wow. So are these guys doing, you think - I mean, you've talked to a few of them already.

Mr. ABBOTT: Yeah.

BURBANK: You've talked to a couple of them already, and you're sort of building up your list of these guys. What's the impression so far? Is it that they're doing it because they love the game, or because they're chasing a dream of being a head coach?

Mr. ABBOTT: Well, you know, today I talked to Tony Brown from Milwaukee, and, you know, I think he's kind of guy who wants to be a head coach. I don't see why he wouldn't. He doesn't strike me as someone who's shy of the spotlight. But I'm sure he'll be a great head coach.

But I think there are, you know, a lot of people - like Tom Thibodeau of Boston was the first one. He's a guy who, like, he worked for - under Jeff Van Gundy for years, and Van Gundy was always me this guy is head coach material. Like, he was promoting him as a candidate everywhere there was an opening. So these are two guys who I think are definitely on that path. Like, they're putting their time and they're going to, you know, they expect to be leading a team one day. And I think people think they should.

But there are a lot of guys who, you know, there - the ultimate example I guess is Tim Grgurich who…

BURBANK: Uh huh, one-time Sonic assistant coach.

Mr. ABBOTT: Yeah, yeah. He's a bit of around the league. I mean, that guy - he won't, you know, they aren't allowed to talk to the media on a record, but in a locker room, a lot of times, they you can be like, hey, you know, what happened tonight? And they might just share a little something with you off the record. Not this guy. Tim Grgurich is like, you know, he'll, like, turn and walk away.

He is the most secretive of secretive guys, and he makes the most incredibly tight bonds with players. And not only does he not want to be head coach - I don't even think he - he doesn't want to be on TV. He doesn't want to be in the newspaper. He doesn't want to be anywhere other than, you know, with players, like, doing the things that players do, like bonding with them and building trust with them. And he's very effective. He gets paid a lot. I think he's the highest paid assistant coach. But, you know, he's a - you know, he's a story - he won't be in this series. I can guarantee that, you know.

BURBANK: So you're going to do this big series at ESPN.com and your blog TrueHoop, and also do some guest blogging for us on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT about the life of - the lives, the loves, the motivations of the NBA assistant coach in the coming months. What are you hoping to find out from these guys?

Mr. ABBOTT: I'm going into it with an open. You know, you get what you get, right? Like I - my - in everything I do, I'm trying to get to the notion that these people are humans. And the NBA's covered like Disney. It's covered like they're characters. It's Michael Jordan on "Space Jam," you know. And I'm kind of against that.

BURBANK: I believe I can fly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABBOTT: I know I can fly. But I'm trying to get to the idea that look, like these are guys who go to work and do a job, and they're trying to do a good job. And I just love to get the, you know, being human is a compliment in many ways. It means you're not a robot. But it also means you have failings, right? And so I feel like I'm interested in learning about in what way these people are just - they're just like you and me in many ways, you know. And let's just kind of a - let's - talking's a really great way to asses that.

BURBANK: Henry Abbott from ESPN.com, writes the blog, TrueHoop, a friend of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. We'll look very forward to seeing what you find out.

Mr. ABBOTT: Thanks for having me.

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Nerd Squad: The Tale of 'Quantum Hoops'

Caltech

The mighty hoopsters of Caltech lost games for a long, long time. Bob Paz/Courtesy of ESPN.com hide caption

itoggle caption Bob Paz/Courtesy of ESPN.com

Henry Abbott runs ESPN.com's basketball blog TrueHoop (where this blog postwas originally published).

There has been this documentary out there that I have been hearing about called Quantum Hoops. Sounded really cool ... but there's almost nowhere you can see it at the moment.

Then — praise be to the PR industry, or something — people doing PR for the movie sent me a copy on DVD. I recently watched the entire thing and enjoyed it all.

The gist is this: Caltech is a place for smart people. Like really really really smart people. Nobel prize winners, the people who made the atomic bomb (a certain kind of smart, anyway), and the leading lights of science and technology.

Caltech, as a school, simply does not have the wherewithal to take sports seriously. For these students, basketball will never be anything more than a diversion. The basketball coach can try to recruit players, but he can't expect any breaks from the scary high standards of the admissions office.

As a result, a fair chunk of the basketball team (last season, all five seniors, for instance) did not even play high school basketball. The Caltech basketball team has more valedictorians than high school basketball players.

But they play real deal NCAA Division III basketball.

And, predictably, they get killed.

Night after night. Week after week. Year after year.

At the time this documentary was made, the team had not won a game in 21 years.

Let me say that again. The team had not won a game in the lifetime of most undergraduates.

One of my favorite passages of the movie, a conversation between Caltech players, goes like this:

Jordan Carlson: The fans of the other teams will heckle us just like you know against any other team.

Scott Davies: They just laugh and think it's absolutely ridiculous, you don't really see teams getting blown out the way we have.

Jordan Carlson: This year they've picked up on our losing streak, they jeer us about that quite a bit. You know there's always the smart kid jokes, "if you're so smart, why can't you make a free throw?" Things like that.

Ben Turk: A guy who played with Josh Motes, he tells a story about, you know, someone in the stands was yelling at him: "Hey, shouldn't you be doing homework right now?" And he was like, "Well, yeah, I actually do need to."

But as "Quantum Hoops" tells in dramatic fashion, towards the end of last season, things were staring to look up. While this documentary is rich with the history and personalities of the program, it is hung on a narrative of the last few days of last season, when the team felt things begin to change.

Would they break the streak?

I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Along the way, though, we get a real sense of what it's like to play basketball at Caltech. Frankly, it's a team any of us would love to play for, right? Nice, smart guys who play hard but know that their real life is elsewhere. A lot of them say getting exercise and a break from the academic rigors is the real reason they signed up. Impressing people — that's not part of it at all.

There are a ton of people you might know in this tale.

- Huckleberry Seed was one of Caltech's best players ever. He is 6-7 and dunked on people. Those involved in the program were very excited about the team when he was around, but he dropped out in his sophomore year to become a professional gambler. (And in true Caltech fashion, went on to win the World Series of Poker.)

- San Antonio Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich is there, talking about the night his miserable Pomona-Pitzer team once lost to Caltech, and then later rebounded to win the SCIAC conference. "That struggle from that two and twenty-two," Popovich remembers, "to getting a conference championship really, really means a lot. So in my office that SCIAC ball is on my book shelf. No other ball."

- I'm not sure if you remember when I blogged about the work of a Stanford undergraduateshowing that scores in some NBA games were consistent with point shaving. The adviser of that work was the very respected economist Roger Noll (who later weighed in on the research). Noll is a former Caltech basketball player, who had a great quote in the documentary: "I would say that we had a team that was capable of competing with almost anybody," he points out, "but we wouldn't win."

- The king of basketball statistics, Dean Oliver, also played for Caltech, and speaks in reverential terms about former coach Gene Victor, who had enjoyed great success in junior college, but still managed to fit in with Caltech's ethos: "He was very competitive. Not that he thought he was going to win a lot of games, but he learned to temper it down. He couldn't get mad at the kids, there's only so much you can do. Looking at it from a different perspective: it's hard to get mad at certain people who can't get 1600 on the SAT's. How do you get mad at people like that?"

As I watched, I started to feel a little bit like I'm sure John Feinstein felt as he was writing The Last Amateurs, his book about college basketball in the Patriot League. I mean, why the hell shouldn't college basketball be like this? Why don't more colleges field teams rich with walk-ons?

What we are used to as college basketball is really basketball as a college major, or in many cases instead of college. Not basketball as an activity.

The version at Caltech puts stuff like health, education, and love of the game first. I can't speak for basketball, but I think a lot of colleges would be better off with *that* kind of athletic presence on campus. Maybe all the professional development of basketball players should take place somewhere else — somewhere that is not supposed to be about academics.

I don't know. Maybe that's crazy talk. But it makes for a good movie, anyway. I hope this film gets into wide distribution so you can see it soon.

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