While warming up for a game this season, the young Suns gathered around assistant coach Tim Grgurich as he worked up a sweat demonstrating the proper way to dive for a loose ball. "It's rare for an older guy like him to have such a good relationship with the young players," says center Jake Voskuhl.
At 59, Grgurich (GER-ger-ich) is the NBA's most influential—and p.r.-phobic—assistant, and he continues to work as hard as any newcomer. In previous stops with the Sonics, Blazers and Bucks he has built a loyal following. "When he was in Milwaukee with me, he had a bad back," says Timberwolves guard Sam Cassell, recalling that Grgurich would wear a brace to practice. "But no matter how much pain he was in, he got out there every day and challenged my shots. He did a lot for my game."
In 1992, Grgurich left UNLV after 12 years as an assistant to join George Karl's staff in Seattle. (Two years later he returned as the Runnin' Rebels' head coach, only to step down after seven games, citing the hectic pace and his unresolved ill feelings about the university's treatment of former coach Jerry Tarkanian and his staff.) As a Sonics assistant he was the first to run intensive, college-style workouts with young Sonics Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton—sessions that Payton says turned him into an All-Star.
"Before Gerg, NBA assistants didn't normally work with players individually, because the mentality was, either the players are good enough or they're not," says Blazers player personnel director Mark Warkentien. "At that time the players coming into the league were getting younger and in greater need of coaching, and Gerg was a college guy who helped bridge the gap."
As a result of Grgurich's influence, NBA teams arguably do a better job of developing young talent than colleges. "The colleges have to revamp their system," says Grgurich in a rare interview. "The European kids are making so much headway because they get to practice 12 months with their coaches. Our college kids come out of classes in May and aren't allowed to see their coaches again until September. Let the coaches do their work."
Grgurich has no ambition to be a head coach again, and his refusal to sign anything longer than a one-year contract allows him to quit any job on principle. It also liberates him to be brutally honest and constructively critical with players, fellow coaches and management, which—combined with his floor burns-earns him their respect.
His influence is extensive. During a weeklong camp that he finances each summer in Las Vegas at no cost to the participants, Grgurich oversees full-court workshops for about 60 NBA and college players as well as 25 fellow coaches. "It's as pure a basketball environment as there is" says Pacers coach Rick Carlisle. "If you're a coach who wants to learn the game and learn how to build relationships with players, Tim Grgurich is the guy to hang with."