Drawing up a second career
Coaching a new ballgame for ex-players like Anderson
Posted: Thursday March 27, 2008 2:47PM; Updated: Thursday March 27, 2008 2:47PM
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The retired players gave a false impression of leisure in their oversized chairs in the plush film room of the New Jersey Nets' practice facility. They were starting over. They were rookies without guarantees. "Kenny, you have head-coaching experience,'' they heard Rick Carlisle say. "So I'm going to have you come up first.''
The experience was minimal: Kenny Anderson had coached the Atlanta Krunk to a record of 10-41, the worst in the CBA this season. But Anderson did have a genius for basketball. He had been the No. 2 pick in the 1991 NBA draft, a freshman point guard who led Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four, the best high school player from New York City since Lew Alcindor. From the age of 14, when he was named to the all-city team as a freshman at Archbishop Molloy High School, Anderson had a prodigious feel for the game that he was never able to explain, an ability to see and seize opportunities based on a matrix of intuition, body language and court geometry.
Now he was going to have to find the words. The NBA had invited him to a clinic for retired players hoping to begin new careers as assistant coaches in the league. Kenny Anderson, 37 years old and no longer the nascent point guard of his generation, was going to have a harder time describing the game than he had playing it.
"What they're looking for is the ability to draw up a drill,'' explained Carlisle, the 2002 NBA Coach of the Year who joined fellow former head coaches Dwane Casey, Bob Hill and Terry Stotts as instructors for the camp. "Show us what you've got for a shooting drill for bigs.''
It was a simple request. How many times had he seen coaches diagram plays on chalkboards, on paper napkins, in the margins of newspaper sports sections? Anderson picked up a red marker and drew in faint pink curves the skeleton of a basketball court.
"Basically, shots for big men,'' he said nervously in his bassoon Noo Yawk accent while scattering the numbers 1 through 5 across the court, circling some and extending others with the squiggled or dotted lines that are the universal cipher of basketball. "Basically, the big man's going to get, basically, on the low block. The 1 brings the ball down and the 5 is coming in in transition ...'' In 90 seconds, he was finished.
"Just a couple things,'' Carlisle said as he approached the board. "First of all ... when you're going to draw a court, a good way to do it is to start by drawing a baseline, OK? It's simple, it gets you into a flow. I've seen guys draw it like this ...''
The criticism was delivered gently but plainly. First of all, Anderson didn't know how to draw a proper rectangle. As a left-hander, he had been blocking the view of his audience by standing on the wrong side of the board. The pen he was using was too faint. Shouldn't his drill account for the other players? Shouldn't the coaches be feeding passes to the shooters? His delivery had been complicated and unfocused. He needed to be simple and concise.
For 10 humbling minutes, Anderson would listen and nod and listen, erase everything and try again. And then again. At last he was excused and replaced at the board by his former NBA teammate Doug Overton, whose fingers were trembling as he diagrammed a series of his own. Anderson returned to his theater chair as if benched after a sequence of three turnovers. But he wasn't playing in a noisy gym anymore, and everyone could hear the exhale of regret as he plopped himself down.
What makes a successful NBA coach? Of the league's 30 head coaches, more than half received training as point guards professionally or in college. Several more were power forwards.
"Most power forwards are defensive stoppers and rebounders, so a lot of the focus isn't about them,'' explained former Knicks guard Rory Sparrow, now a VP of NBA player development, who was running the clinic with basketball operations director Brandon Williams. "They've got to worry about being in the right place, about doing the right things, because they're not going to get so many touches. Their opportunities have to come within the context of the team.''
Another trend has to do with the quality of their play: The less talented the player, the better the coach. There are only five former NBA All-Stars who are head coaches today, and they are outnumbered by the eight head coaches who never played in the league. Rudy Tomjanovich is the only former All-Star to coach a championship team in the last 22 years.
"They've had to work hard their whole life,'' Sparrow said of winners like Phil Jackson, who averaged 6.7 points over his 12-year career as an NBA power forward, or Gregg Popovich, who produced 96 points as a point guard at Air Force. "You did a lot of listening to the different coaching staffs, and you probably had limited talent, so you had to overachieve -- you had to really study plays to make sure that you took advantage of every situation when you got a chance to play. So those are good breeding grounds for coaches.''
Anderson was not that type of point guard. He was the only high draft pick of the 16 retired players invited to participate in the NBA Assistant Coaches Clinic from March 10-11.
"You make mistakes, and that I did,'' Anderson would say during an emotional interview in his hotel room at the end of the camp. "And eventually your lifestyle gets to you, and you just start lingering as far as your work ethic. Mine leaned a little bit. And I'm going to tell you something: It gets [to be] too much. It gets too much trying to live up to Superman ... you got all these high expectations. When I retired, I felt so good because I didn't have to live up to Kenny the basketball player no more.''