Posted Oct 26 2009 9:54AM
Eddie Jordan was in the ninth grade when he saw what being a coach could mean, and decided that he couldn't do anything else with his life.
He lived in the Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., the part of D.C. that is, 40 years later, still looking for a solution to its myriad problems, cut off from most of the rest of town by the Anacostia River, forgotten economically and socially by the rest of the city. While Jordan had the self-assurance and confidence of being in a stable home, many of his classmates didn't. He knew that many of them would find trouble when school ended and that there wasn't a future for so many of them. He knew all of that until he started playing basketball for John Paul Davis at Douglass Junior High.
"We had a coach that showed young men, young teenagers who were from the roughest parts of anywhere in the country, showed them direction and structure and how to play with each other, how to follow direction," Jordan recalled. "When they were on the court, they were disciplined, they had structure, they listened. They respected their teammates, and they respected the coach. And I said to myself, 'This goes beyond basketball. This is about life skills, and saving, you could save one of those guys' lives, because they liked that. And keep them off the streets.' "
There aren't many ninth-graders who know what they wnat to do for a living -- much less decide to teach. But it was the beginning of a love affair for Jordan. The next 30 years were spent soaking up knowledge from a palette of coaches -- George Leftwich, a local Washington legend and former teammate of John Thompson's, at Carroll High School; Tom Young at Rutgers; Bill Fitch ("he toughened my ass up"), Kevin Loughery and Pat Riley ("we loved Riley. It was a fresh approach to coaching") in the pros during a seven-year playing career; Young again, at Rutgers and Old Dominion, and Jim O'Brien at Boston College when Jordan became an assistant coach after his retirement as a player.
And, so, perhaps because he revered the profession so, Jordan may have been more willing to listen than his peers when an old coach suggested a new idea in 1996. It was, of course, not a new idea, because there have been precious new things in basketball during the last six decades or so. Players may run faster and jump higher, but the marrow of the game is as it's always been -- move the ball until someone gets an open shot, and if you can get a better shot, keep passing.
But Eddie Jordan, now 54, listened to the coach he'd beaten four times as a player in college: Pete Carril. The Hall of Fame coach who was, at the time, a fellow assistant coach with Jordan in Sacramento under Garry St. Jean after a brilliant three-decade run at Princeton, where he set the Ivy League record for victories. Jordan came to believe that Carril's Princeton offense had something of value for the NBA game, and he vowed that he would use it when he got his chance to be an NBA coach. And he has. He is a true believer in the system and in Carril, the latest in his line of coaching mentors.
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It was the height of the league's awful isolation era. Because of the rules that then prohibited zones, teams would go to ridiculous lengths to keep defenses from packing the paint. At its worst, halfcourt offense devolved into two men on one side of the floor, playing catch, with their three teammates on the other side, well above the foul line, not involved at all in the play -- literally, standing and watching.
It made Carrill pull hard on what was left of his hair.
"It's the passing that's missing in the game," Carril said. "I don't know if we'll get that back again. I hope so, because the fans like that. They like stuffs, but they like to see other stuff, too."
In his despair, Carril would insist to Jordan that the offense he used at Princeton, the one that made slow, short guys competitive with taller, faster guys because they never stopped moving, could work in the NBA. If Jordan had been born 10 years later, he might have dismissed it. But Jordan was a freshman at Rutgers when the Knicks of Clyde Frazier and Bill Bradley and Willis Reed won the second of their championships. He played against Carril in college, and loved the competition.
"Pete told me the Celtics used it, and the '70s Knicks used it, and then, even the Utah Jazz used it," Jordan said. "And I said, 'Jerry Sloan's a heck of a coach. I loved watching the Knicks. They were a terrific team. Red Holzman was a Hall of Fame coach. Obviously, the Celtics won 16 championships. That's not only a winning formula, that's a championship formula.' And it was so different from what everyone else was doing. This is hard to guard. There's so many options at the same time. And I fell in love with it."
Now in Philadelphia, in his first season coaching the 76ers after five-plus seasons in Washington with the Wizards, Jordan has brought Princeton with him. Same as he did when he became coach in Sacramento (he lasted 97 games, clashing with Mitch Richmond, who wanted out). Same as he did when he went to New Jersey in 1999 as an assistant (the Nets made the Finals in 2002 and '03 playing Princeton, and Jason Kidd became so close with Jordan that he referred to him, not Byron Scott, as "my coach" to confidantes even after Jordan left for the Wizards). And the same as he did in Washington, where Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison each became all-stars and made the playoffs four years in a row.
They not only won games playing Jordan's way, they got paid doing it: Kidd banked $103 million from the Nets in 2003; Kenyon Martin got $82 million from the Nuggets in 2004; Larry Hughes, who played next to Arenas for two years in Washington, got $60 million from Cleveland in 2005; Butler got his $50 million a couple of months later; Arenas ($111 million) and Jamison ($50 million) got paid in 2008. Playing the same offense in Sacramento, Chris Webber got $121 million in '04.
Carril, now 79, is still with the Kings, assisting new coach Paul Westphal. But he still hears from Jordan, still is willing to tweak the system, always there when his student is in need.
"I don't think there's a thing in the world that can tarnish that relationship," Carril said from Sacramento.
Jordan's belief in the Princeton is absolute; he says that anyone who can pass a basketball can play it, and play it well. Three thousand miles away, Carril says the same thing; good passers will be good defenders, because they'll know where they can help on defense, and they'll be good rebounders, too. But he insists that the system with which he is synoymous was not his creation, and that like all good coaches, it was an amalgam of ideas from others -- some offered, some stolen. In this case, stolen from Red Auerbach.
"I've been telling people, 100 times I've said, one of the major plays of that offense, the low post, was a favorite of the Boston Celtics when (Bill) Russell was the center," Carril said. "They sent three forwards on the foul line, throw it to Russell, set a screen for (John) Havlicek or Sam Jones, who might have banked in about 500 jump shots off of that play alone. No one seemed to believe that. I don't know why ... now they run the play, with their hand on the chin. It was in the Knicks' offense. It's interesting. My friends coaching with me at the time would never call it a low post play, they'd call it 'Celtic.' "
(Russell, in his latest book, Red and Me, describes the play the Celtics called 'Six,' after his uniform number: "It worked like this: At a practice, Red would ask me, 'Russ, what do you want to do now with the Six?' That was a first -- a coach asking me what I wanted to do. It was also intriguing how he sensed that I wanted to vary the options on that play ... I said, 'Well, I would like to have guys cutting off me.' Red thought it over and said, 'Okay, let's get Russ some cutters.' We set up the play with a forward cutting right by me on one side and a guard following behind him on my other side in an X pattern, like scissors.")
Fifty years later, Jordan offers variations on the same theme.
Like the Celtics, there is no "point guard" and "two guard" in Jordan's offense, just guards. And thus, he doesn't care that Andre Miller has gone to Portland; Lou Williams, a pure scorer his first four years in the league, will now pass and cut and score just like Arenas did. Elton Brand will get post shots, just not the way he's used to. Andre Iguodala will be as deadly on the move as Richard Jefferson and Butler before him. Center Samuel Dalembert will be encouraged to shoot from the top of the key, or pass, or cut -- just as long as he does it fast.
"It's a good offense," says forward Jason Kapono, acquired from Toronto this summer. "It's a moving offense. So not too many people are going to be sitting around twiddling their thumbs and watching one certain guy play. I think the challenge is, because it is a movement offense and it's based on reads, is making sure that we're all on the same page. Because it's a reactionary set where, if A hits B, and does this, then C, D and E have to do that. So if one person doesn't really know what's going on, then it kind of, it slows it down and makes us look a little foolish."
Yet any pro offense is going to allow its best players to flourish and not be held hostage by some egalitarian need that everyone share the ball equally. Like its cousin, the Triangle, the NBA version of the Princeton can easily be tweaked so that the stars, from Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to Kidd and Arenas, have the ball in their hands when the shot clock is dying.
"I tell our players, look, I want you guys to be unselfish. Look out for your teammates first," Jordan said. "But part of that is, the best player has to do his thing. That's looking out for his teammates, 'cause he's the best player. Sometimes the offense breaks down, doesn't work, or you're missing shots, you've got open shots, missing shots, you're not delivering a play, you're turning the ball over. 'Cause those guys aren't as good as the best player. And he helps his teammates when he goes one-on-one."
Jordan remains convinced that injuries and nothing else did him in in Washington. The Wizards haven't had a fully healthy Arenas, Butler and Jamison together for a regular season game since the first week of April, 2007 (and won't have Jamison for the first three weeks of this season after he suffered a shoulder subluxation during preseason). He doesn't think his always-evolving relationship with Arenas, or the fact that he was hired before team president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, or criticisms that the Wizards didn't pay much attention to defense, played any role in his ultimate departure.
"People said Gilbert Arenas would never flourish in it," Jordan said. "He was an All-Star. He was an all-pro. Much more than an All-Star. Antawn was never an All-Star(before). He was just a high scorer with a bad team. Now, not only do they experience individual success, but they experience team success. They get to the playoffs, go to the second round. Jared Jefferies was a 6-11 two guard in it when we lost Larry Hughes. Larry Hughes was known not to be a winning player, or a point, or a two. But they flourished in the offense."
Despite that faith, and despite getting calls from prospective assistants who wanted to be on his next staff, Jordan wasn't as sure as others that he'd get another shot. He spent last year taking his youngest children to school in the morning having lunch with his wife, Charisse, playing golf when it wasn't too cold and making dinner for the kids in the evening so that they wouldn't come home from school and snack. He got pretty good at it, too.
"Mashed potatoes, peas, a piece of fish," he said. "They don't eat burgers, but I always had a real good -- when I got my braces in February, that's all I could chew. We have a great fish store in Potomac (Maryland, where Jordan still has a home), and we'd go get fish -- salmon, swordfish, tilapia. So it was either grilled or blackened or fried -- which I stayed away from, a lot -- and it was mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, rice and something green. I made sure that they saw me and I was part of their lives, went to all the school functions."
But once the 76ers decided after the playoffs that interim coach Tony DiLeo would not return this season, team president and general manager Ed Stefanski turned quickly to Jordan, whom he's liked since their days together in New Jersey. With a three-year, $8 million deal (the Wizards still owe him for the last year of his deal with them), Jordan will have time to put the Princeton system in. It takes at least half a season, he believes, before a team really starts to understand what he wants.
What he really wants, though, has less to do with basketball than with an idea planted in his head a long time ago. Planted there by the first of a dozen coaches who passed him along, one to the next, teaching him something at each stop, making him see there could be a life in developing the skills -- basketball skills, life skills -- of young men.
"Basketball wasn't my best sport then," Jordan said. "We played everything, baseball, football. I was better in football in high school than basketball. I had more football scholarships. But even then, I said, 'I don't know how far I'm going to get, living in Southeast. But even if I come back to Douglass and coach 14- or 15-year-olds, and save somebody's life, that's what I want to do.' "
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
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