Posted Oct 26 2009 8:17AM
There was one person Kurt Rambis really needed to impress as he prepared for his head coach interview with the Minnesota Timberwolves. It wasn't Al Jefferson or Kevin Love or the Wolves' new president of basketball ops, David Kahn. It wasn't Ricky Rubio or any of Rubio's agents, or his old Lakers boss, Phil Jackson, or Minnesota's owner, Glen Taylor.
If Ali Rambis didn't approve, it was going to be hard for her father to move 2,000 miles away, even if the job was the one for which he'd been waiting his whole life.
Kurt Rambis and his wife, Linda, had decided that 17-year-old Ali, their youngest, would finish her senior year in high school in California with her friends and where she was comfortable, instead of coming to Minnesota. Linda would, of course, remain in Cali, too with her daughter. That meant Kurt would rent a place, and live out of boxes, for a year, as he took on the job of making the Wolves relevant again, two years after they ended the Kevin Garnett Era.
"It would impact her life the most," Rambis said last week. "She was the one I sat down and talked to, explained the ramifications of everything, how it would work out and the dilemmas that would be there. It was almost like I was getting her blessing. It's hard. I can't deny it's not hard. It's hard on me, it's hard on my wife. But even if I'm there, I'm gone half the season anyway on the road."
This is the life NBA coaches choose. They are well-compensated and they can become as famous as their players sometimes, and there are great hotels and charter flights and a dozen other amenities that most people would never receive in a lifetime of work. But they are still fathers and husbands and boyfriends. They miss their children. They have to live with the fact that their spouses have to become self-reliant, create worlds that don't include them, where they aren't necessary. And their spouses have to accept the fact that that reality is built on sand, that it can crumble the nanosecond a franchise player blows out a knee, or a team is sold.
But the 51-year-old Rambis jumped at the chance, just as he did a decade ago, when he coached the Lakers during the lockout season in 1999. Fired from that job despite making the playoffs, Rambis has spent the last decade waiting for just the right chance for a second chance. It was not easy to leave, for Rambis had it very good in L.A. as Jackson's top assistant and defensive coordinator.
Jackson has a commitment from owner Jerry Buss to stay as long as he wants, and Rambis and the other assistants have a commitment from Jackson. And in the never-dull world of LakerLand, Rambis was, if not the favored son, part of the ruling family. Linda Rambis is best friends with Jeanie Buss, the team's Executive Vice President of Business Operations, and the likely heir to Jerry Buss's empire. And, of course, Jeanie Buss is dating Jackson (making Rambis...Jackson's coach-in-law?).
Rambis earned significant coin, and lived in Manhattan Beach, where he played beach volleyball after his playing days ended (his son, Jesse, won a two-man tournament in Aspen, Colorado in September). With Kobe Bryant in his prime, Pau Gasol an All-Star second, Lamar Odom newly paid and happily (?) married and the unpredictable Ron Artest coming aboard, the Lakers have a strong chance not just to repeat this season, but keep the party going for a couple more years.
Rambis, though, wanted a shot to run his own program instead of waiting for Jackson to set a date for succession. Keep in mind that: a) despite the close ties between the families, there was likely no guarantee from Jerry Buss, either direct or implied, that Rambis would be next in line -- iit's no secret that Hornets coach Byron Scott wouldn't mind coming back to L.A. some day -- and b) there's no guarantee that the Lakers will remain championship level-ready when Jackson does call it a career. Jerry Buss hasn't exactly loved paying the luxury tax, and the 31-year-old Bryant is entering his 14th season; he's not going to play forever. Would Rambis want to be around LaLa when the party was over and all that was left was Andrew Bynum and a bunch of role players?
"It's not like this was a surprise," Kurt Rambis says of his decision to move on. "Jeanie knew. Phil knew. I talked to Phil all the time about this. Linda talked to Jeanie all the time about this. In reality, we were all expecting and in some respects working toward this. Phil wanted me to get a head coaching job. He came out and said he wanted me to have the head coaching job, but Dr. Buss wants Phil to be the coach there as long as he can. Maybe three or four (more) years. This oppportunity came about and it was too good to pass up."
Rambis interviewed for the Sacramento job first, but the Kings had limits on what they were going to pay and how long they would keep the job open. Once Paul Westphal agreed to all of their pre-conditions, Rambis moved on. He was fortunate that Kahn chose an extensive, exhaustive selection process, one that lasted well beyond the Finals (when the Kings chose Westphal). From a list of 14 candidates, Kahn ultimately whittled the list down to three finalists. After a three-hour initial interview with Rambis, he spent seven more hours with Rambis in a second interview, then brought in Taylor for nine more hours of talks with Rambis before offering him the job.
"He carries himself like a head coach already," Kahn said. "You get the sense that he's done this for years. There isn't anything about him that would lead you to think this guy hasn't been a head coach the last several years. He has great command. He's self-confident in a good way. He's very calm, very serene. You have the sense that this guy has been doing it for a long time...we were fortunate that we caught him when he was really ready to do this."
And Rambis was fortunate that Kahn is walking the walk when it comes to giving his new coach security, to the point where he offered four guaranteed years, twice the traditional length for a bad NBA job. Both Rambis and Kahn say that the idea for four years was Minnesota's idea, not Rambis' or his agent's.
Player development is crucial to Kahn's vision of team building. He wants Minnesota's kids, like first-rounders Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington, out on the floor as early and often as possible. That's anathema to most coaches, who know that young players lose as they learn. And coaches who lose get fired. But with no internal clock running on how soon the Wolves will demand to be a contender again, Rambis can coach in practice, then live with the on-court results. It was one of the reasons Kahn traded away veterans like Randy Foye and Mike Miller that still had plenty of tread left on their tires.
"I felt very strongly that given where we were as an organization and the plan we wanted to lay out, it would not have been fair to say to somebody we're going to make this team younger still, because we think that's the best way to build it back up," Kahn said. "If you really want to have a partner in building something, then that partner has to feel like you really mean it. That they won't be hurt in case the team doesn't perform, because we're going to have growing pains."
Rambis wanted the challenge of building something from the bottom up. He believes in the same kind of team-oriented offense that Jackson employs (though the Wolves won't be running the Triangle). He took to heart the lessons taught by his father, a high school basketball, baseball and football coach. He was further grounded in the fundamentals at Santa Clara University by Carroll Williams, the Broncos' long-time head coach.
"I grew up playing a certain way and I just thought it was the right way, a fun way to play," he said. "There was movement, there was motion, there was unselfishness, ample opportunities to take advantage of quick hitting oppportunities, scoring oppportunities. There wasn't a lot of one-on-one playing, individual stuff. Players couldn't even put their hands underneath the ball to dribble it. They would call carrying right away...to me, that was the right way, that was the fun way to play. We moved the ball, we set picks. That was the way I liked to play."
He got 14 NBA seasons out of those fundamentals, winning four titles as the anti-Showtime power forward of the Showtime Lakers, most famously known for his thick glasses and for getting clotheslined by Kevin McHale in the 1984 Finals. He played with superstars but wasn't one himself. It took Rambis a while to realize he belonged; one day, soon after Pat Riley put him in the starting lineup for good, he came to the bench during a timeout.
"I remember coming up to him, and I asked him, 'How am I playing?,'" Rambis said. "He said, 'You're a starter, now act like a starter. Play with that confidence. Go out and work hard.' I just took that challenge. I guess at that time I never thought of myself as the real starter. I thought of myself as the substitute starter. It just gave me more confidence and more belief in myself."
He wanted to coach almost immediately after he retired. The first time he interviewed for a job, he wasn't ready, he knows now; it was much too soon after he was a player to think like a coach would. But over the next few years, as a scout and an assistant, he learned. He loved working with players, getting them to improve their shots by a little, then a little more. And when Jerry West, an early and earnest supporter, fired Del Harris and gave him a shot at the biggest job in the NBA, he leaped. No matter that Kobe was, then, green as grass, and the starting power forward didn't wear thick glasses. Often, Dennis Rodman didn't wear anything.
But Rambis jumped in, and went 24-13, lasting longer than Rodman, who was waived after 23 games. But he didn't last much longer; after the Lakers were swept by the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Rambis was swept out.
"If I was sitting in the GM's office," he says now, "I probably would have fired myself and hired Phil, too."
Showing no hard feelings, Rambis hung around with West for a couple of years as his assistant GM, then went back to the bench as Jackson's assistant. After seven years, he felt he was ready for another shot.
"I just kept warning him don't overkill yourself, because it's very easy to start studying tape or start studying all this other stuff," Jackson said. "You'll go 12, 14 hours a day, which is a killer."
Rambis has taken that to heart, hiring strong-willed assistants in former Kings head coach Reggie Theus, former WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer and longtime assistant Dave Wohl, one of Rambis's best friends, from Boston. It's an eclectic group, and a little unusual for a new head coach; Laimbeer, the former Bad Boy Piston, has made no secret of the fact that he wants to be an NBA head coach, and Theus wants another shot after lasting just more than one season in Sacramento. You don't usually bring in guys to your bench that could, some day, replace you.
Rambis thinks -- well, he says he thinks -- that that's great. He says he doesn't want "yes" men and he wants people who'll disagree with him, as long as they can back it up.
"I liked the fact that they played in the league," he said. "I liked the fact they both want to be head coaches, because they're going to think like head coaches. There's a drive for each of them to be in the league, for different reasons... Bill gave up his WNBA responsibilities to try and get a job in this league. So there's that drive in them. I like the fact that they're both loyal. They're not afraid to voice their opinions. They understand that when the coaching door opens and we walk out to practice, whatever we argued about, whatever we decided upon, that's what's we're going to go out and teach the players. A lot has to do with the era in which they played, too....that type of environment was how we grew up playing. You were loyal."
Says Jackson: "I think for different players, like for different coaches, it's about different experiences. For Kurt, having experiences as an assistant and a head coach and then back as an assistant, he's so prepared for this next step. I think he's comfortable delegating authority. I think he's got confidence in his assistants. The guys he's hired have some expertise that he can rely on, and he'll be comfortable with that."
They are all living out of boxes and rentals --" We're all kind of winging it right now," Rambis says -- as they slowly begin to put the pieces together. He knows that the Wolves will struggle this season, with Jefferson coming back from an ACL tear, and Flynn learning the NBA game, and Kahn seemingly dealing week after week to increase future cap flexibility, and Rubio now not expected to alight in the States for at least two more years. (Rambis says he'll keep up with Rubio's progress in Spain with DVDs and phone calls.)
If it seems he is figuratively worlds away from his former life, as well as literally away from his family, Rambis sees it differently. He insists he does not have to change his mindset, from coaching a team competing for a title to a team lurching toward the Lottery.
"A lot of it is not that dissimilar," he says. "Your ideal is to get them playing together at both ends, not unlike what I'm doing in this very early experience. You want these guys (in Los Angeles) peaking for a championship at the end of the season, playing their best basketball. In this environment, I just see every day as an opportunity to improve. I will continue to work all season long, because that's the only way we are going to improve.
"For all intents and purposes, we probably know exactly when our season's going to end. A championship level team doesn't. So I look at every day as an opportunity to improve."
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
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