NBA Head Coaches: Where do they come from?
This article is not an attempt to push Bobcats Coach Larry Brown out the door. It is not a confirmation of any rumors coming out of Philadelphia, New York, or Los Angeles. What I’d like to do over the course of this article, and subsequently two more that will follow, is attempt to describe how NBA Head Coaches “get there”. I will say this about our Coach, Larry Brown, he is 70 years old and his family lives away from him in Philadelphia for most of the year while he works. I can only imagine the strain this is on his family life and recognize that if he does decide to remain the Head Coach of the Bobcats it will not be for “the long haul”. With this recognition, part of the article will look at possible “fits” for our team after Coach Brown decides to leave.
I’ll start with the NBA’s “old” coaches – Rick Adelman, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, George Karl, Don Nelson, and Jerry Sloan – and look at how they started their careers.
Rick Adelman was a former NBA player that started his coaching career at Chemeketa Community College after his NBA career ended. His first NBA job was with the Portland Trail Blazers as an assistant coach. He was eventually promoted to Head Coach of the Trail Blazers.
Larry Brown was not drafted by the NBA after his playing time ended at UNC, since at 5’9″ he was considered too small to play in the NBA. He played in the NABL, leading the Akron Wingfoots to the AAU National Championship in 1964. He was also selected for the 1964 Olympic Team. His first coaching job was at Davidson College, but he never coached a game for them and instead jumped to the Carolina Cougars of the ABA. So his actual first Head Coaching experience, game coaching, was with a professional team.
Phil Jackson was drafted as a player into the NBA. When his playing days ended, Jackson’s first coaching jobs were in the CBA and with Puerto Rico’s National Superior League (BSN). Jackson was hired as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls in 1987, and became Head Coach of the Bulls in 1989.
George Karl was also a former NBA player, although drafted by the ABA San Antonio Spurs; then when the Spurs joined the NBA, Karl played with the team two years in the NBA. Karl started his coaching career as an assistant with the Spurs and had his first Head Coaching job in the CBA with the Montana Golden Nuggets.
Jerry Sloan is also a former NBA player. When his playing career ended Sloan was hired as a scout for the Chicago Bulls. One year later he was promoted and was a Bulls assistant coach. His first Head Coaching job was also with the Bulls in 1979.
Don Nelson was also drafted to play in the NBA. Nelson was the only one of these six to “jump” directly into a Head Coaching position in the NBA when their career ended. He became the GM and Head Coach of the Milwaukee Bucks soon after retiring at the end of the 1975/76 season.
It is interesting that five of these six “old coaches” are former NBA players; Larry Brown is the exception. It would take too long to go through all thirty of the NBA Head Coaches so I’ll try to “group” the other twenty-four.
The remaining twenty-four NBA Head Coaches fall into distinct categories: 15 of the 24 are former NBA players. Of the nine Head Coaches left, Jay Triano (Raptors Head Coach) was actually drafted by the Lakers but never played in the NBA, so I leave him as a “unique”. Triano did play for the Canadian National Team and later Coached that team. That leaves us with eight Head Coaches not NBA players. The other unique Head Coach, Eric Spoelstra, played professional basketball in Germany for two years. Gregg Popovich, like Larry Brown, played AAU, but with the Air Force overseas. Five of those seven – Jeff Bower, Stan Van Gundy, Alvin Gentry, Gregg Popovich, and Flip Saunders – started their careers as college assistant coaches. The one remaining non-NBA player Head Coach, Mike Brown, started as a scout/video coordinator with an NBA team. For this compilation I left Eddie Jordan in since his replacement with the 76ers has not been named.
One aspect of becoming an NBA Head Coach I’ll touch on, though it is beyond the scope of this article to do it full justice, are relationships that are built with-in the “Coaching fraternity”. I’ll use Mike Brown as my example.
Coach Brown is one of the ten Head Coaches that did not play in the NBA. Brown played College basketball at the University of San Diego. Brown started his NBA career as the video coordinator, and then scout with the Denver Nuggets. Bernie Bickerstaff was the GM, and took over as Head Coach of the Nuggets during the time Mike Brown was there. Brown then went to the Wizards for three years as an assistant coach, and later scout, for Bernie Bickerstaff. In 2000 Brown was hired as an assistant coach with the Spurs and Head Coach Gregg Popovich. After the Spurs won the NBA Champioship in 2003 Brown was hired as the associate head coach to Rick Carlisle with the Indiana Pacers. Brown helped the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals in 2004, and was then hired to be Head Coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005. Many of these NBA Head Coaches (Nelson and Doc Rivers are the exceptions since their first jobs were as NBA Head Coaches) spent time working for presant NBA Head Coaches, and I’m sure received recommendations from those coaches. Some of these relationships, the one between Hawks Head Coach Mike Woodson and Bobcats Head Coach Larry Brown, go back many years. It helps to have long-built friendships/working relationships if you want to become an NBA Head Coach.
So what exactly did I learn from this exercise? It was of no particular surprise to me that 67% of the NBA Head Coaches are former NBA players. Fifteen of the twenty former NBA Head Coach/players played guard at the NBA level (75%). The chance of getting one of these thirty jobs is definitely enhanced if you are a former player, and further enhanced if you played guard in the NBA. Nine of the ten non-NBA player Head Coaches played guard at the College level. Jeff Bower is the only NBA Head Coach that did not play College basketball, or I can’t find a record of him playing in College (so correct me if I’m wrong). A staggering number of NBA Head Coaches (24-30 or 80%) played Guard at the College or NBA level.
The other thing I found interesting, while looking at these coaches, was that five of the 30 played at UNC or NC State, and Alvin Gentry played at Appalachian State. Twenty percent of the NBA Head Coaches are products of college careers in North Carolina.
This gives us an idea of from where NBA Head Coaches come. The second part of this three-part series will look at “candidates” who might become NBA Head Coaches. That article will explore former NBA Head Coaches not currently with a team, NBADL Head Coaches that might make the jump, former players that have a desire to coach in the NBA, and current NBA assistant coaches being discussed as Head Coaching candidates.