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Steve Aschburner

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Nuggets assistant coach Tim Grgurich (right) has a practically top-secret summer basketball camp in Vegas.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Grgurich's quiet camp makes its boldest statements on court


Posted Aug 5 2010 6:26AM

There are after-parties in Las Vegas. There are velvet ropes and VIP rooms galore. And then there are the places that are really hard to know about and nearly impossible to gain admittance to.

Like Tim Grgurich's summer basketball camp.

It might be the only gym in America that has an impenetrable door with a little slot at eye level, through which eager customers must offer up the right password before that door will swing open. OK, not exactly. But it is a relative secret in a league with few. For most fans and even many alleged veteran observers, Grgurich's camp -- being held this week on the courts of a Vegas high school -- is so below the radar that it requires sonar. Part Xs & Os, part "Skull & Bones."

And considering how the NBA dominated the sports world in July like never before, shifting gears in August to this lowest of profiles is both jarring and refreshing. After a month of having their business put in the street, players and coaches have taken it back into the gym. Largely away from Twitter, bloggers and prying eyes, for some serious basketball work.

"It's understated because 'Gurg' is an understated guy," Milwaukee general manager John Hammond said Monday. "There are a lot of people in the NBA who have respect for Tim Grgurich and what he does as a teacher, but he doesn't want any accolades for that."

The Bucks have draft pick Larry Sanders, the 6-foot-11 forward from VCU and the No. 15 pick in June, at the camp. As a young player getting his feet wet at the pro level, Sanders is typical of the 50 or 60 players who attend -- except that he's not. The camp annually draws experienced players with one, two or more seasons behind them. Sometimes it's a guy at the back end of his career, hoping to polish a skill and stay networked.

"It's really great to initiate a player into the league," Hammond said. "For someone like Larry, it can give him a taste of individual work in the NBA. You think about the time frame for these guys: You draft him, he comes in, you have a mini-camp and the next thing you know, he's playing summer league. So you've had very limited time to individually work with that player.

"This is a great way for him to learn some of the techniques of individual workouts. And then 'Gurg' has his own philosophy and style, but it's still 'the NBA way' of doing it. So I think every team in the league supports him, what he does and how he does it."

Who is Grgurich? To those outside the NBA, he might as well be a ghost, a figment, a pebble-grained version of Keyser Soze. He would be a top candidate for the NBA's "Most Interesting Man in the World" title, except Grgurich would beg out of the beer commercials. He shuns the spotlight and assiduously avoids talking to the media, and if you search for him by name on basketball-reference.com -- at this point, pretty much the cyber-bible of the NBA -- and you'll get a response that reads: "Found 0 hits that match your search." Which is standard for assistant coaches, though few have had the impact of this one.

Grgurich has been an NBA assistant -- in Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Seattle -- for 18 years. Twelve of those have been spent with Nuggets coach George Karl. Before that, Grgurich worked at UNLV under Jerry Tarkanian, developing a series of future NBA players (Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony) and helping the team to the 1990 NCAA championship. He began his coaching career at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, first as an assistant, then as a head coach for five seasons.

Grgurich held the top position at UNLV in 1994-95 but lasted only seven games when doctors mandated rest and warned about the physical and emotional toll the job was taking on him. Since then, he has thrived behind the scenes, away from the pressure, immersed in hoops but free from the rigmarole that so often surrounds it.

That's how his summer camp began, too -- just Grugrich working with Sonics point guard Gary Payton in the offseason, initially in Payton's hometown of Oakland. Gradually other Seattle players joined in, along with some Golden State players. Word spread and the camp mushroomed from there, but not too much.

Gurus, after all, need to maintain their "cult" status if they're going to have full impact.

"There have been two major forces in the development of players and coaches over the last 20 years: Pete Newell and Tim Grgurich," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle told the Boston Globe. Only Carlisle said that back in 2004, when he was coaching Indiana and spending summer days both at the Grgurich camp and at Newell's more famous "big man" variation.

"The irony," Carlisle said at the time, "is that in this day and age of marketing and self-promotion, neither Pete nor Tim would ever want any publicity for what they do or the part they've played."

These days, Grgurich's camp is institutionalized enough that NBA teams pick up the expenses for their young players to attend and generally have coaches or personnel men drop in to chart progress. Grugrich doesn't charge the players for their participation.

With Sanders, the Bucks are hoping the rookie can pick up a few defensive habits to boost his rebounding and help center Andrew Bogut inside. The sorts of things that might get neglected once training camp revs up and the hectic regular season follows.

"As many years as I've been in the game, what I've seen is there is no better way for personal growth than camps," Hammond said. "I can't say I've known anybody where he's come back and you immediately say, 'This is going to be the difference-maker in his career.' But it's one of those experiences that can only help."

Help early and help late. Boston's Paul Pierce was still going to Grgurich's camp in 2004, by which time Pierce had logged six NBA seasons and appeared in three All-Star Games.

"This is probably the best workout that I'm going to get this summer, as far as being around coaches and other talented players," Pierce told the Globe then. "I always say I've got to be here. ... I'm not overly fast, I'm not jumping higher than everybody out here, but they're teaching the game, angles, and how to read different situations."

It also gives vets such as Pierce the chance to check out the competition, the youngsters who covet his job. And jobs are part of what attracts NBA assistant coaches, with fellows such as Mike Brown, Dwane Casey, John Kuester, Lionel Hollins and others boosting their profile while adding to their personal databases.

Said Hammond: "For coaches, they'll walk away with a couple nuggets. Things that Gurg is teaching that they can apply to their teams. Or maybe it's an idea that comes from spending time together."

It's all about getting an insider's edge, and it begins, runs and ends in a span of a few days. When the players and coaches scatter to their respective teams, there's hardly a trace left behind that it even existed.

Just the way Grgurich seems to like it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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

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