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Ready for his close-up

Iavaroni works into position to become a head coach

Posted: Thursday March 29, 2007 11:01AM; Updated: Thursday March 29, 2007 5:34PM
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Marc Iavaroni has been an assistant under three former Coaches of the Year: Pat Riley, Mike Fratello and Mike D'Antoni.
Marc Iavaroni has been an assistant under three former Coaches of the Year: Pat Riley, Mike Fratello and Mike D'Antoni.
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
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It is just past 6 a.m. in Phoenix and Marc Iavaroni is already in his office.

"That goes back to my Stan Van Gundy days,'' says Iavaroni, referring to his three seasons as an assistant with the Miami Heat. "I'd get to the office at 7:30 in the morning, and I'd be the last coach there.''

He kept arriving earlier and earlier until he realized that Van Gundy, as Pat Riley's lead assistant, was coming in shortly after 6 a.m. "And that,'' Iavaroni says, "was in the summertime.''

Everything Iavaroni can write on his résumé has been earned the hard way. The 6-foot-8 forward spent three years in Europe before playing his way into the NBA as a 26-year-old rookie starter for the 1982-83 champion Philadelphia 76ers, launching his seven-year career.

Today Iavaroni is the top assistant to Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, and arguably the No. 1 candidate heading into the summer free-for-all for NBA head-coaching positions, with as many as six jobs potentially available. (For other top candidates, click here.)

This opportunity arrives after a long decade of working his way up the staffs of three Coaches of the Year -- Mike Fratello in Cleveland (1997-99), Riley ('99-02) and D'Antoni.

The overriding question is whether Iavaroni's renowned intensity will be his strength or his weakness as a head coach. Is he too demanding to develop a long-term partnership with NBA players? He is aware of that issue, which is why he is proud of his four seasons with D'Antoni, who has helped broaden Iavaroni's relationships with players as well as his vision for how the game should be played.

"I'm a perfectionist,'' admits Iavaroni, 50. "I always have to remind myself that you can't be a perfectionist with everyone else all the time, that it's too much. I've learned that you have to pick your spots.

"I really like being a cheerleader for players. I love when they do things right, and applauding it, and I've learned that's a lot more motivational than stopping practice and teaching and telling them all of the things they didn't do. You don't want to stop practice -- I learned that from Mike. You want these guys to play it out.

"I've learned that you've got to be positive,'' adds Iavaroni, who then tells a story from his first coaching season in 1992-93 as an assistant at Bowling Green to Jim Larranaga (who last year took George Mason to the Final Four). While meeting with his players during a rough stretch, Larranaga opened the floor for comments.

"One of the players said, 'Everybody's cool but coach Iavaroni -- you're negative,' '' Iavaroni recalls. "Here I was a neophyte coach, but I'd been a pro player, and now a guy at a mid-major said I was negative. I had a hard time believing him.

"But it was an epiphany. I realized you've got to treat them like you like them and believe in them, and if you show confidence in them, they'll respond. At the end of the year, one of the players told me, 'You've turned it around.' ''

No coach is without a blind spot. They all need help shoring up their areas of weakness. When Iavaroni is running his own team, he would do well to hire a staff led by someone like current Suns assistant Alvin Gentry, a former head coach who relates to people and who would help Iavaroni realize when to take his foot off the gas.

"Pat Riley had the players playing good defense, and Mike Fratello was also a great defensive coach,'' Iavaroni says. "But being with Mike [D'Antoni] has been like a finishing school for me, not just in his offensive ideas and how to get players to play confidently and freely and creatively, but Mike is also really good at having a strong bond with players without crossing a line. He's a great listener.

"I used to be a really conservative coach, just a defensive guy because that's what got me playing time. Now with Mike I realize the best part is when you turn a player onto himself. I would rather have a few less plays and defensive schemes, but really believe in the players and believe they will figure it out. If you're focusing on the X's and O's, that means you're figuring it out all the time. The players have got to be the ones to figure it out.''

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