LAS VEGAS -- Before Tim Grgurich arrived on the NBA scene, the couple hours on game nights, immediately before tipoff, were more than casual, bordering on loosey-goosey out on the court.
Sure, there’d be players getting up shots and warming up. A few could be seen stretching. You’d see little clusters of two, three or four fraternizing away with opponents (despite what old-school guys today might claim). And back when no one had ever heard of a “stretch five,” you’d have 7-footers launching 3-point attempts just for the fun of it, without any chance of ever hoisting one in a game.
Heck, you’d have players routinely jacking up the equivalent of 4-point shots, working on their H-O-R-S-E games from midcourt or seated on the bench or from behind the backboard.
But after Grgurich joined the Seattle SuperSonics in 1992, bringing his work ethic, no-nonsense approach and wealth of coaching techniques to the league?
It became a classroom, a workshop and a practice court extended to the last possible minute. And that’s why Grgurich, 76, was chosen as recipient of the 2018 Tex Winter Assistant Coach Lifetime Impact Award, announced here Tuesday by the National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA).
“Now,” said Dallas Mavericks coach and NBCA president Rick Carlisle, “that pregame period is a time for game simulation with assistant coaches for guys who are going to be featured players on a given night. And it’s conditioning and skill development for depth players or inactive.
“In an NBA season, there’s so much going on, you’ve got to make the most of every second. When Gurg started doing this stuff for Seattle, it was a total game-changer. He had a lot to do with getting other NBA coaches out on the floor with their players.”
Other nominees for the award were current and former assistants Ron Adams, Jim Boylan, Hank Egan, Jim Eyen, Dick Helm, Brian Hill, Jim Lynam, Brendan Malone, Bob McAdoo, Brendan Suhr and Bob Weiss. Phil Johnson, Jerry Sloan’s longtime wingman, was the inaugural winner in 2016 and Ron Rothstein won the Winter award last year.
"I am humbled by this recognition. I always felt Tex Winter was the gold standard for all coaches,” the notoriously media-averse Grgurich said in a statement. “I am pleased to accept this award in honor of his great legacy."
Even rabid NBA fans who have followed the league for decades might have trouble identifying Grgurich, who has stayed behind the curtain and (by choice) under-covered while working for nearly 10 teams and consulting elsewhere.
Among the many players and coaches Grgurich has helped, men who swear by his know-how and approach: Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Scottie Pippen, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chauncey Billups, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, Bill Cartwright, Terry Stotts, Steve Kerr, George Karl and Weiss.
Karl hired Grgurich as a member of his staff multiple times (twice in Seattle, later in Milwaukee and Denver). He later referred to his work with players as a “taller, more intense Yoda.”
I am humbled by this recognition. I always felt Tex Winter was the gold standard for all coaches."
“Brief, wise observations delivered in a hoarse voice,” Karl wrote in his 2017 book, “Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection.” “Gurg had an intensity that was so bright it was like looking into the sun. And he hated taking a day off.”
Karl said that he often used Grgurich as a “permanent mediator” with players Karl found difficult, such as Payton early in his career, with every profane bit of advice and response going through the assistant.
“The workaholic Gurg always preferred to be working out a player or working out himself,” Karl wrote. “His intensity made players trust him and they confided in him, too. A great assistant coach.”
Grgurich was a coach twice. In 1975, after a decade as an assistant coach at the school, he was promoted to coach at the University of Pittsburgh and stayed for five years before heading to UNLV.
In 1994, he left Seattle to return to the Runnin’ Rebels, where he had spent 12 years (1980-92) as a Tarkanian assistant. But Grgurich’s run there lasted only seven games – he stepped down citing both the stress of the job and leftover bitter feelings about the school’s handling of Tarkanian in his recurring battles against the NCAA.
His greatest work, however, has come in the 49 of 54 years he spent sitting one or more seats over from the boss. And most of it came apart from the games, filling up all the hours before and after with prep work and reviews.
But as far as a coach who has helped more players, developing them and working with them, I’ve never known anyone who’s done more than that guy."
Mark Warkentien, a longtime NBA executive, told Sports Illustrated in 2004, “Before Gurg, NBA assistants didn’t normally work with players individually, because the mentality was, either the players are good enough or they’re not. At that time, the players coming into the league were getting younger and in greater need of coaching. And Gurg was a college guy who helped bridge the gap.”
Another area of Grgurich’s impact is his summer camp, a relatively well-kept secret in the very-public NBA. Each August for four days in Las Vegas, about 50 players (mostly rookies but some veterans) and about 35 coaches (mostly assistants) participate in drills, game situations, tutorials from NBA referees and more. But no agents and no media.
It is heavy on instruction. “If you can’t teach, you can’t coach,” Grgurich has said.
There also is no cost to participants, one of Grgurich’s many idiosyncrasies driven by his dedication to the game. He has worked on a series of one-year contracts, allowing him to move on if he feels ineffective or that his work with a particular team is done. These days he probably is best described as a “special assignment” coach, offering guidance where he sees the need.
Grgurich hasn’t been seen on the bench during games in a while now, preferring to watch from the shadows of an arena tunnel or some other backstage vantage point.
He will work this season with the Pistons, new Detroit coach Dwane Casey confirmed the other day.
“Coach Gurg is one of those guys who stays under the radar,” Casey said. “He doesn’t like the limelight, doesn’t like talking to the media. He does all his work without people seeing who he is. But as far as a coach who has helped more players, developing them and working with them, I’ve never known anyone who’s done more than that guy.”
Casey, who first worked with Grgurich on Karl’s staff in Seattle and volunteered at Grgurich’s Vegas camp for years, added: “I know he’s going to help us a lot. Just a great motivator, a great communicator with young players and a great teacher.”
Grgurich’s most recent NBA stint was with Milwaukee as a member of Jason Kidd’s staff prior to Kidd’s midseason dismissal in January.
“Knowing who he is and his work ethic and what he means to the game of basketball, he should be in the Hall of Fame,” Kidd told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2016.
“For what he’s done ... let’s just round it up to a million [basketball people he has influenced]. You might be short-changing him. He’s responsible for why we have development coaches.”
Said Bucks center John Henson: “He’s a big voice for me. He’s always with the bigs. He breaks film down. His perspective is almost always brutally honest, which is great. He’s going to tell you how it is.”
Carlisle had Grgurich on board in 2010-11 when the Mavericks won their only NBA championship and considered the assistant’s work essential to that title.
“He was amazing, across the board,” Carlisle said. “He really helped us create a total team environment that helped get us on a roll to the championship.
“Based on his impact on our game, he’s the greatest assistant coach in the history of NBA basketball. And it’s not close.”
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