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David Aldridge

John Kuester is bringing over 20 years of NBA experience to the sidelines of the Pistons.
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Persistence pays off for first-time head coach Kuester

Posted Oct 26 2009 8:16AM

It was imaging that harmed a good man and a smart coach.

In 1975 the Washington Bullets posted a 60-22 mark, the best in basketball, throttled the defending champion Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, and were overwhelming favorites to win the title against the who-dey Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. But Rick Barry's Warriors were primed for a monumental upset. Coming from behind in every game, they swept Washington in four straight to capture the championship.

And when some tried to figure out just how Golden State did it, a few pointed to the pictures that CBS had showed during the Finals of the Bullets' bench during timeouts. There stood K.C. Jones, Washington's coach, off to the side, while his assistant, Bernie Bickerstaff, ran the huddles. It didn't matter that this was as common an occurance during the Bullets' season as Wes Unseld's rebounds starting the fastbreak. It didn't matter that Jones was one of the game's greatest winners, a teammate of Bill Russell's both at the University of San Francisco and with the Celtics, winning two national championships in college, the 1956 Olympic gold medal and eight rings as a Celtics guard (later, back in Boston, Jones coached the Celtics to two more titles in 1984 and 1986).

The perception was raised, and stuck in some circles, that Jones was too laid back, not hard-driving enough. It was wrong then; it's wrong now. But we know that perception, incorrect or not, can sometimes stick in some minds as reality.

"I was there," Unseld told me many years ago. "I know what happened. K.C. controlled the huddle, controlled the timeouts, told us what he wanted done. He didn't have to pull out a board and draw things for the TV crew. I never understood why that got so much play or what was so important about that one incident, that perception."

But that smearing of Jones impacted a lot of coaches for a long time. Some barred cameras in their huddles (some still do, or at least make it as hard as possible). Some tended toward the theatrical, making sure that people watching at home knew they were in charge.

So, all these years later, it was surprising to a fossil like myself last June to see Cleveland's Mike Brown, who had just been named NBA Coach of the Year a couple of weeks earlier, standing off to the side during the Eastern Conference finals, in full view of what now is a phalanx of videographers, while assistant coach John Kuester ran the Cleveland huddle. That proved two things:

1) Mike Brown, who only has to keep LeBron James happy and in Cleveland, is a remarkably secure man, and

2) John Kuester knows what he's doing.

The Pistons certainly think so, after hiring the 54-year-old this summer as their sixth head coach this decade. It may be a gamble, for Kuester is a first-time NBA head coach, just as Michael Curry was last year in what became a nightmare season, and team president Joe Dumars had sought an experienced man to run his team, leading to negotiations with former Mavs coach Avery Johnson and former Bulls, Pistons and Wizards coach Doug Collins before hiring Kuester.

But while Kuester may not be a household name, even among NBA fans, he has a resume with every hole punched: college star under Dean Smith at North Carolina; a couple of years playing in the pros; a college coaching history that included assisting, and succeeding, Rick Pitino at Boston University in 1983, becoming the youngest college coach in the country at 28, surviving a 1-27 record at George Washington University in 1988, and 19 years in the NBA, starting as a video guy for the Celtics in 1990, apprenticeships alongside the likes of Larry Brown -- where Kuester and the Pistons won a championship in 2004 -- a second go-round with Pitino in Boston with the Celtics, Lawrence Frank, Mo Cheeks, Brian Hill and Mike Brown.

"I'm pinching myself that I've been in this league for 20 years," Kuester said last week. "Working with Larry Brown and Mike Brown, two guys that have been special. I learned something from all the people that I've worked for. People that have been assistants for a long period of time realize that we've got a great situation being assistant coaches. But having the opportunity to be a head coach is something I was looking forward to."

Kuester knew he was a long shot to get the job. If Johnson and Dumars could have agreed on money, AJ would have gotten the gig. But they didn't.

"If that had happened, I would have been fine," Kuester said. "I had conversations with (Cavs general manager) Danny Ferry and Danny knew I wanted to become a head coach. He said 'John, just keep doing what you're doing and something good will happen.' And, lo and behold, it did. I didn't expect it to happen (so soon). Coming back to Detroit is very special to me."

Larry Brown, who first hired Kuester as an assistant in Philly in 1997, pushed him to grow and to start thinking of himself as a future head coach. Mike Brown made him the Cavaliers' offensive coordinator last season, and while it's silly to posit that Kuester was any more responsible for the Cavs' jump from 24th in points scored the year before to 12th (100.3 points per game) last year, and from 28th in shooting to sixth (46.8 percent) than, say, James or the arrival of Mo Williams, Cleveland did seem to be much better moving the ball and diversifying -- a little -- from all James, all the time at the offensive end.

"One of the things I know about Mike Brown is he's somebody who's very secure with his own skin in terms of feeling comfortable with people that he trusts," Kuester said.

Trust isn't just a five-letter word in the Larry Brown Wing of the coaching fraternity. The Brown Wing itself is but a limb on the Dean Smith Tree that dominates basketball coaching in the United States. It's all tied up in that North Carolina Cult that has Smith as its avatar, but others, like Mike Brown and Gregg Popovich, that didn't play or coach at Chapel Hill, are part of it, too. It is steeped in paying one's dues, and learning the craft of coaching, before going out on one's own.

"When the guys who have helped you and are loyal to you and helped you get better, when they get an opportunity, it's as big a thrill as when I was standing next to David Robinson (as Robinson's presenter at the Hall of Fame ceremony last month)," Larry Brown said. "Guys like John, Woody (Hawks Coach Mike Woodson), Pop, Alvin Gentry, when you see people get opportunities like this, it's why you coach. (Kuester's) paid his dues. He's been so lucky to be with Lawrence, and Mike Brown, it's expanded all the things that John has always known."

His NBA education began working in the Celtics' film room, leaping at the bone thrown his way by then-Boston head coach Chris Ford. Kuester's college coaching career imploded in D.C. at George Washington, Red Auerbach's alma mater, when the Colonials' lone victory in '88-89 over UMass was offset by a 35-point loss to West Virginia, a 30-point loss to Georgia Tech, a 29-point loss to Temple, 26-point losses to Old Dominion and Penn State and 12 other double-digit losses.

That tends to humble a person.

"I tell people all the time, I wanted to become better at my craft, and I needed to go back and start with the basics again," Kuester said. "And that's what I did. Sometimes we have people that are successful, some that aren't successful. I did love the game and I wanted to become better at that... being a video coordinator at that stage made me learn what the league was all about. It was deck-to-deck back then. It's a whole new generation right now. The things that you talk about is the work ethic. Are people willing to put in the time at that position? I knew what coaches wanted and had to be done. You sort of got a taste for everything."

After a year, Kuester was hooked, and his two-decade coaching internship began. The problem with being so methodical, though, is that you tend to get stereotyped. There are guys who've been on NBA benches for more than a decade as assistants, guys who just need someone to believe in them. Guys like Phil Johnson in Utah, Larry Drew in Atlanta, Darrell Walker in Detroit. But if you're not careful, you can become pigeonholed. Ask Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons, who's won 10 rings as a player and coach, how hard it is to just get an interview with a non-Lottery team.

Kuester had to overcome some of those biases, too.

"I called one team for him and one of these GMs, these so-called geniuses, said 'I look at him as a second guy,'" Larry Brown said. "I got so (ticked) off. I said, 'What do you mean, a second guy? The guy is a top assistant.' I looked at some of the guys they were bringing in. It blew my mind."

But Dumars had had Kuester on his radar ever since '04, when the Pistons became one of the league's all-time best defensive teams. After Rasheed Wallace's arrival at the trade deadline, he and Ben Wallace patrolled the middle. Mike James and Lindsey Hunter harassed guards on the perimeter. Tayshaun Prince took on Kobe Bryant pretty much one-on-one in the Finals. And with Chauncey Billups rolling to the Finals MVP award, Detroit pulled the biggest Finals upset in the NBA since...maybe Golden State, in '75.

With a different group now, featuring free agent pickups Ben Gordon and Charlie Villaneuva, with holdovers like Prince, Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey, the Pistons won't be as good a defensive team. To win, they'll have to be efficient scorers and team defenders.

"Kuester knows the league extremely well and he has a very good disposition about how he deals with people," Dumars said via e-mail. "He's passionate and dedicated."

He has been thinking about this moment for a long time, like almost all assistants. What would I do in that situation? Who would I trust? But like almost all assistants, he'll also have to be his own man.

"You can't worry or doubt your ability," Larry Brown said. "The biggest challenge John has, any guy becoming a head coach has, or taking another job has, is making the guys that you coach understand that you know. You're real. And you're capable....John's going to a team that's won, with guys that are familiar with him and love him, a strong staff, unbelievable ownership and a great GM."

When Dumars left Kuester the first message about the job, Kuester hoped Dumars wasn't just putting him on the list for show. When Dumars called again and said he was a serious candidate, Kuester knew it was for real. And when he was offered the job, Kuester took a minute, then realized that the moment, and the job, wasn't too big a fit at all. He's spent almost 20 years getting ready to be an overnight sensation.

"To be honest with you," he says, "looking at a training camp, and having been a coordinator, and an assistant where the head coach wanted (me) to be a voice in front, I feel very comfortable going into this situation."

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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