Posted Aug 7, 2013 11:10 AM
Editor's note: This is the latest in a series on rookie head coaches in the NBA for the 2013-14 season. Tomorrow: Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks.
As competitive as big-time basketball can be, as cutthroat as it can get both on the court and behind the scenes, the idea that several dozen coaches and former players from all levels could gather in a gym to openly share their most sacred coaching secrets isn't just Pollyannaish. It's naïve bordering on insane.
Call Dave Joerger crazy then. He has been overseeing a coaching "retreat" in Memphis each summer for the past six years, a place where a small-but-growing group of X&O junkies hash out strategies, fully aware that what they offer up one year could come back at them with a game on the line the next.
"That's the cool part about it," said Bob Thornton, the Memphis assistant who will remain on Joerger's staff now that Lionel Hollins' lead assistant has slid one seat over. "Competitiveness is really left out of it. You share your ideas -- maybe you're not going to give everything away, but you give enough so that guys can maybe give it a spin you didn't think about and put it into their program."
Said Duane Ticknor, Joerger's mentor from their days in the minor leagues and a new addition to Memphis' staff: "It's just a wide-open, no-secrets-held thing. You have everything from a high school coach up there discussing how he's running a 2-1-2 zone to an NBA coach raising his hand asking how to attack it. That's pretty neat.
"My assistant coach from Ft. Wayne last year took 18 pages of notes the first day. Everybody has their own philosophies for what they want to do, but everybody steals from everybody else."
The idea, Joerger said, came from veteran coaches Larry Brown and John Calipari, an invitation that he, his high school coach Lynn Peterson and Ticknor spun forward. It's a day-and-a-half thing at the Grizzlies facility, with talks, Q&A sessions and demonstrations by and for Joerger's "family" of peers, old bosses, former players and friends. The topic is basketball, but the by-products are relationships and contacts, so the group is kept tight -- it's up to 45-50 now -- to avoid an impersonal "clinic" feel. (Hollins would be there, too, except that he'll be in Senegal on an NBA Basketball Without Borders mission.)
Some of Joerger's former players who attend have gone from the minor leagues to playing opportunities overseas. "They want to stay in the game when they come back but they struggle to get these [coaching] jobs because the jobs get filled by guys who weren't playing," said Joerger [pronounced YAY-ger]. "The guys who were working their way up as graduate assistants or who worked all the camps in the summers.
"So it's great for our guys to meet each other. They can network and help each other, and share information not just at the retreat but throughout the year as things come up."
Cue the dream sequence in which Joerger, welcoming everyone into the gym, sees looking back at him 45 or 50 versions of ... Dave Joerger.
Joerger has been those guys, all of them: The wannabe coach from Staples, Minn., who got a foothold in the minors, washing uniforms and speed-dialing players to flesh out a roster for that night's game. The former player [at Moorhead State, now known as Minnesota State-Moorhead] learning the game. The eager NBA assistant hoping someday to move up. The family man (wife Kara, daughters Alli and Kiana) who puts them first but knows that, thanks to his job, he has missed about one-third of everything.
Like the rest of them, it's the life he has chosen. Chose it, in fact, almost abruptly, considering that most who knew him expected him to settle into a high school coaching position like his father Joe. While still a senior at Moorhead State, Joerger landed an unpaid position with the Fargo-Moorhead Beez, then coached by Rory White. A year later, he hooked up with the Dakota Wizards and eventually Ticknor in Bismarck, N.D., serving as a combo assistant coach and general manager.
"Baptism by fire," said Thornton, a 6-foot-10 plowhorse who played 283 NBA games across eight seasons, with three more in Italy. He has coached on NBA staffs in Chicago and Minnesota, scouted for Oklahoma City and run his own shows in the minors in Huntsville (D League) and Quad City (CBA).
"You have to handle so much when you're there, from selling tickets to promotions to dragging the baskets out for practice. If you go through that, it's like, when you come to the NBA level, you're willing to do whatever it takes to win. You're kind of humbled before you come to the league."
Thornton recalls many late-night drives and last-call beers with Joerger. "You're hanging out telling stories, then you start talking hoops, then the pens come out, the napkins come out and we start drawing plays," Thornton said.
"A basketball junkie," Ticknor called Joeger. "Even though the minor leagues are tough, it's very gratifying. I think it's one of the reasons Dave has such good relationships with players -- you build a bond riding those buses for 12 hours."
Joerger built a resume, too, winning an IBA title followed by three more in the CBA (two with the Wizards, one with the Sioux Falls Skyforce) and finally the 2007 D League crown with Dakota. That one gave him more minor league championships than Phil Jackson, George Karl, Flip Saunders and Eric Musselman combined. It also made him the sixth head coach in D League history to get his own call-up to the NBA, joining Marc Iavaroni in Memphis. Now, after Sam Vincent's one-season shot with Charlotte in 2007-08, Joerger becomes the second NBA head coach who apprenticed in the D League.
What does he consider his greatest coaching asset? "An ability to remain calm," Joerger said. "It is a stressful business. But I've had the opportunity to be a head coach for 350 games. So I feel comfortable with my voice, I feel comfortable in different situations.
"Obviously these lights are a lot brighter, the stage is bigger. But for us to be successful, I have to be precise in my thoughts. And there's no way I can do that if I'm being all kinds of emotional all over the place."
This "Keep Calm and Win Games" meme will be huge for the Grizzlies. He is facing high expectations with a legit contender. Whatever honeymoon he gets likely will last until Memphis loses two in a row or slips below .500 in the first week.
Hollins, remember, was the most successful coach in franchise history, with a 415-214 record and an 18-17 postseason mark. He and management got sideways over his contract talks, the Rudy Gay trade and the organization's embrace of advanced stats, but it was Hollins' system that Joerger worked, helping hone the Grizzlies into a top defensive squad (their 100.3 rating ranked second in the league in 2012-13).
Meanwhile, it was Joerger's competency, demeanor and, let's face it, price -- he signed a four-year deal reportedly worth $1.5 million per season -- that convinced CEO Jason Levien and the ownership group headed by Robert Pera that they had a ready replacement. Levien also interviewed newly available NBA Coach of the Year George Karl, Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry and Chicago assistant Ed Pinckney.
"Certainly making changes, making adjustments is never easy," Levien said at Joerger's news conference. "I think there is going to be an important time now for people to get to know Dave, get to know our vision for the team as an organization. ... I think also we're going to soothe a lot of people when we start winning basketball games."
The plan to do that: Maintain Memphis' "grit 'n' grind" defense while expanding the offense. The focus still is on bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but free agent Mike Miller is back to shoot and attack from the wing, and Joerger says he is looking for improvement from Jaryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter and Ed Davis. He wants to play quicker without lapsing into what he calls "vomit basketball," when players jack up shots five seconds into the clock.
Joerger can't sell out Hollins' approach completely, but he needs to build on it to move the Grizzlies along their learning curve. The pressure to do it on the fly doesn't sound too daunting, though, because the new coach already has found his storyline.
"There are certainly groups out there who feel like last year was a fluke," Joerger said. "A lot of people in the NBA are like, 'Hey, the Clippers were up 2-0 on you. Blake Griffin got hurt or you guys don't get out of that series. You play Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook goes down, you don't have to see him. ... Then San Antonio beats you 4-0.'
"There are large groups of people out there who believe that. So for us, we have to look at it as, 'Let's prove it wasn't a fluke.' "
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