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Assistant Coaches Know the NBA's Secrets


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?


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 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, 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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