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With little fanfare, lots of admirers, Adelman eyes 1,000th win

POSTED: Apr 5, 2013 2:11 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Rick Adelman will be only the eighth coach in NBA history to reach 1,000 wins.

The way Rick Adelman sees it, the way he learned first as a player and for the past quarter century as a head coach, success in the NBA owes largely to one thing. "You're around good players and you win games," he said, "and it just comes."

That might be an oversimplification, part of Adelman's default mode as one of the most credit-deflecting, under-the-radar coaching successes in league history. Another reason the oft-overlooked 65-year-old has prospered through five stops and is on the brink of a true milestone -- one victory away from becoming only the eighth NBA head coach to win 1,000 games -- stems not from the players Adelman has been around but the other coaches.

Those he played for, such as Jack McMahon, Alex Hannum, Jack McCloskey, Dick Motta and Phil Johnson. And those he worked for, most notably Jack Ramsay. We often talk about coaching trees and the acorns that fall close by. Adelman, a native of California, comes from a veritable forest of basketball redwoods. "All those guys had a huge impact on me," said Adelman, currently with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Adelman has two shots at the milestone this weekend, with home games against Toronto on Friday and Detroit on Saturday. He will join Don Nelson (1,335), Lenny Wilkens (1,332), Jerry Sloan (1,221), Pat Riley (1,210), Phil Jackson (1,155), George Karl (1,124) and Larry Brown (1,098) as the only others to reach 1,000. And he'll be thinking a lot about good coaches, great coaches, who didn't climb as high on the all-time ladders.

"Jack McMahon got me in the league [as a rookie guard with the 1968-69 San Diego Rockets] and he was a terrific basketball guy," said Adelman, the 79th player drafted after his years at Loyola Marymount. "Dick Motta was great to play for, Phil Johnson was great to play for in Kansas City.

"I've used a lot of what they used. We've kind of tinkered with it, but a lot of that was what they did. I watched Dick Motta be successful in Chicago with one type of team, and then he went to Washington with Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, he tinkered with his offense and they won a championship. That's what you learn."

Adelman has surpassed them all -- in won-lost record (999-702), in winning percentage (,587, 13th), in playoff victories (79, ninth) -- and he has done it largely out of the NBA's glare, a step or two outside the public spotlight. Some of that is due to where he's coached, always west of the Mississippi, never in one of the league's anchor markets. Some of it speaks to the championship ring he's never won, despite two trips to The Finals and almost constant postseason appearances.

Some of it is just Adelman's personality and the way he has thrived as a best supporting actor in a sport driven by the marquee names.

"Most underrated coach of our era, generation, time, whatever you want to call it," San Antonio's Gregg Popovich said. "He's done an excellent job wherever he's been, and that was really apparent at Houston [2007-2011], where he had so many injuries but they didn't bat an eye.

"At both ends of the court, offensively and defensively, his teams really compete well, execute well. Now in Minnesota, he's getting that put together, doing the same thing. But he doesn't seek the camera, he's not out and about. He just does his job and goes home."

Sloan and Adelman played in the same Chicago backcourt for 13 months in 1973 and '74 under Motta. Back then, Adelman saw a hard-headed, hard-nosed guy whom rivals hated and teammates loved. Sloan, on the other hand, spotted the future coach in his foe-turned-buddy-turned-eventual-foe again.

"He always had a coaching mentality," said the longtime Utah Jazz head coach. "He was one of those guys, we never really called them 'point guards,' but that's how he saw the game. I think he's been way underrated through all the years. He adapts to any players that he has. That's easier said than done, but he's done it as well as anybody in this league."

Adelman, whose coaching career dates to 1988-89 (with just three seasons away through his five jobs), has done well adjusting to his players, and he's done right by them in the process. Chris Webber was a young NBA big man with a shaky reputation after an aborted career launch with Golden State and lots of losing in Washington. When he landed in Sacramento, Adelman drew out Webber according to his skills -- passing, vision, shooting, smarts -- and re-invented him, boosting both their reputations.

"If you can police yourself with the freedom that he gives you within a basketball framework," said Webber, a five-time All-Star, "then you'll have the best years of your career with him. He's by far the best coach I played for professionally."

Rick Adelman with the Trail Blazers, 1975
Rick Adelman with the Trail Blazers, 1975

Whether legions of fans and strangers know it or not really doesn't matter to Adelman, who said he never planned to coach in the NBA in the first place. Once his playing days were done -- five teams in seven seasons, 7.7 ppg and 3.5 assists as a 6-foot-1 guard -- he wanted nothing more than to teach and coach a little. He wound up at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., in 1977. Over the next six years, he steered that team to a 141-39 record, winning or sharing in three state junior college championship and one regional title.

"I got my master's [degree] when I was playing, and I wanted to coach and teach probably in high school," Adelman said. "Once I coached [at Chemeketa], that's what I was going to do, either that or a small college. Then Jack [Ramsay] gave me a call out of the blue. He asked me if I was interested in interviewing. That was my big break -- it was either me or George Karl. He hired me and I was able to stay there for 12 years."

Ramsay had led Portland to its lone NBA championship in the franchise's seventh season of existence and his first year in town, riding arguably the best-passing big man in NBA history in Bill Walton. Nine years later, the Blazers dipped below .500 (40-42) and Ramsay was out. Mike Schuler came in from Nelson's Milwaukee system, kept Adelman on staff and won a Coach of the Year award in his first season. But he was gone, too, halfway through his third year.

Adelman got bumped to the top job. He worked his first game as head coach on Feb. 18, 1989, losing by a point to Seattle. Then Portland dropped the first three of a four-game trip. The Blazers beat the expansion team in Miami on Feb. 26 -- that was No. 1 -- then ran off three more in a row. The kid from St. Pius X in Downey, Calif., was on his way.

"He was pretty good. But that team, we were just starting to put together the pieces we needed," said Terry Porter, Portland's point guard back then. "We all kind of grew up together, to be honest."

After wrapping up 14-21 with their interim coach, the Blazers gave Adelman a contract to continue and, just as important, added power forward Buck Williams. "Then we took off," Porter recalled. "Our offense was, we got out and ran. Then the makeup of our guys, we were always a tough-nosed, defensive-minded team. I'm sure he learned on the job, because we started going deep in the playoffs and he hadn't been there."

Turns out, Adelman had been learning all along, including tons as Ramsay's assistant. "To watch the way he did things -- his resiliency, where he could get up for the next game no matter what was going on -- always amazed me," Adelman said. "I try to keep that in mind when we're going through tough times now. These guys are still looking for you to be some sort of constant, and you've got to keep up for them."

Adelman was fired after a 47-35 finish in 1993-94 fizzled in the first round. He sat a year, spent two forgettable seasons battling inertia and other woes in Golden State (66-98), then was gifted with another "sabbatical" year. Next was Sacramento, where Porter hooked up as an assistant coach in 2002-03 and found his former coach running a completely different system.

"That team had two of the best big passers," Porter said, "so they got into more of the stuff we run now: corners, Princeton-style, a lot more backdoor-cutting, pick-and-rolls, handoffs. That team probably was the first team that started doing a lot of the stuff you see teams do know, with multiple body movement and dribble-handoffs -- Vlade [Divac] and [Webber] used to be so good at that. Before that, it was always, 'Two guys in the parking lot, three guys on one side.'

"What Rick is, like most coaches who make it to that milestone, you have to be able to adapt to your roster."

Adelman gave Chris Webber his All-NBA award in 2001.
Adelman gave Chris Webber his All-NBA award in 2001.

Said Webber: "He doesn't bring a philosophy that he's stuck to. He coaches the talent on his team. If we would have played any other way, we'd have not been as good. I mean, he redefined my career. I'm known as a jump shooter and that's something I never did 'til I got there, because he wanted me at the high post. He asked me to change my game for that reason. There was a lot of trust in that."

There was a lot of confidence, swagger and fun in that, too. From 2000-01 through 2004-05, the Kings averaged 56 victories and butted heads each spring with the Lakers and the Spurs. It never went Sacramento's way at the end, but it was special while it lasted.

"When you walk out on the floor, you know -- I don't care what's going on, who you're playing, where you're playing -- you have a really good chance to win," Adelman remembered. "When you'd lose, you were disappointed but you knew it wasn't going to last. You weren't going to go on some long losing streak because you had a team that knew what it took to win.

"When you don't have that, it's a struggle to win in this league. Because it's not only the opponent you're playing, it's the schedule, it's injuries."

Dispatched in 2006 after a 44-38 finish, Adelman was back in 2007-08 with a Houston team built around Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. McGrady logged 107 appearances in two-plus seasons before being traded to New York. Yao was available only 137 nights across four seasons before his forced retirement. Adelman was out at the end of that season, too, exiting again above .500 (43-39).

Still there were moments, such as the 22-game winning streak cobbled together mostly by role players in Adelman's first season with the Rockets. "His team always executes well and they have a discipline to them," San Antonio's Tim Duncan said. "Which is a factor you look for in great coaches -- how a team responds and puts that out on the floor."

The injuries in Houston were a fitting prelude to what Adelman has faced in Minnesota. On the surface, his two-season stay in Minneapolis looks like the unstoppable force (his history of success, with 16 playoff berths) vs. the immovable object (the Wolves' history of losing and bad luck). His winning percentages -- .394 and now .378 -- are Golden State-like blights on his record.

Yet he never has had to cope with injuries quite like this. From Ricky Rubio's knee blowout in March 2012 and long recovery to Kevin Love's broken and surgically repaired hand this season, from Brandon Roy's precarious and so-far-failed comeback to a half dozen other aggravating things (Chase Budinger, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko and Malcom Lee each missed from 16 to 59 games this season), Adelman has coached through 314 lost man-games.

"Rick's done a great job of keeping this team motivated," said Budinger, who played for Adelman in Houston.

The slog to 1,000 sure did slow down, though. He was at 971 when training camp broke. "I told people at the start of this year, I didn't think that was going to be a problem. But I found out it's really difficult," he said. "I don't think you can take anything for granted in this league, and that's why I tried not to talk about that."

It has been a tough year all around. His wife Mary Kay has been suffering from a series of seizures that had baffled doctors and pulled Adelman away from the team for 11 games in Janury. Her condition stabilized enough to allow him to return to -- and concentrate on -- his job. But it remains a concern, enough that many who know him believe he will walk away this summer from the two years left on a four-year, $20 million contract. No matter how intrigued he is by the potential in Minnesota, the untapped dynamics of getting Love and Rubio and the others on the floor together for an extended stretch. No matter how badly he'd like another shot at a ring or the satisfaction of building another team in need into something special.

"Rick is a family guy, whether it's your family or his family," Webber said. "That's his first and foremost priority. If it's ever a situation where it's a choice between family and basketball, basketball is going to lose every time."

It would be, however, the NBA's and its fans' loss. Seven others have gotten to 1,000. In Webber's opinion, none earned it or was more worthy than his guy.

"To me he's the perfect coach to get your team up to the championship level and he's the perfect coach to rebuild your program," Webber said. "He's one of the unique guys who can coach a team full of rookies or a team full of veterans.

"He really helped me fulfill my potential and challenged me. So I don't care if he won one game, I would know he's a great coach."

With one more, that will be official.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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