Past coaches prepared Nájera for a future on bench

Credit: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images
By: Douglas Farmer

Eduardo Nájera’s jersey will become a coat and tie. His shoes will change from a white-and-orange pair featuring adidas stripes to black dress shoes featuring black shoelaces. His tenacious pursuits of rebounds will be restricted to encouraging yells from the sideline. But the new Texas Legends coach will not need much time to adjust to one change as he moves from hardwood to sideline. The now-retired power forward has been called “Coach” for years now.

“The last couple of years, even my teammates called me ‘Coach Nájera,’” the 12-year NBA veteran said. “It really hit me about two years ago when I was playing for the Bobcats. “They told me I wasn’t going to play that many minutes, and in fact I wasn’t going to play at all because they played the young guys. They gave me the opportunity to interact with the coaches in meetings and in practices … Eventually I started taking that role and people started seeing me like that. I started to like it. I’m loving it right now and I think there’s a future there.”

That future will rely strongly on what Nájera has learned in the past, playing under some of the giants of the coaching profession such as George Karl, Larry Brown and Don Nelson, as well as current Legends General Manager Del Harris, Paul Silas and Rick Carlisle. If coaches are reflections of those who coached them, a listing of mentors that talented means Nájera’s coaching mosaic should be a masterpiece.

“I learned a lot from all of them,” he said. “I learned to create mismatches with [Nelson]. I learned how to run a fast break with George Karl. I personally think Rick Carlisle is a brilliant coach, especially after timeouts.

“I learned a lot from Larry Brown and the old-school mentality of the NBA. I had the opportunity to be with Paul Silas and see how to give players the confidence to succeed.”

Harris, as well as Legends co-owner Donnie Nelson — who both coached Nájera as assistant coaches with the Mavericks, will make the transition to the bench even easier. The former NBA Coach of the Year coached the Legends last season and will play a primary role in crafting Nájera’s roster this fall.

“I knew of Eddie because he played for a friend of mine at Oklahoma, Kelvin Sampson,” Harris said. “I kind of knew what to expect, but I will say I was always impressed with how hard he played and how he was able to do what coaches call ‘the little things,’ the non-statistical factors that help a team win a game.”

Nájera’s college career ended in the 2000 Sweet Sixteen, losing to eventual national champions Michigan State. Harris pointed to Nájera’s sponge-like brain absorbing information even in college as an indicator of a soon-to-be successful coach.

“Eddie being intelligent, I know he learned something from each of them,” Harris said. “That’s what we always are as coaches, composites of our previous experiences.”

Nájera expects to continue learning from the future Hall of Famers who marked his previous experiences. His retirement and subsequent entry into the coaching ranks were announced at a Wednesday press conference in Mexico City, with family, friends and young children attending.

Scheduled to return to the Texas Thursday afternoon, he said he looks forward to powering up his phone.

“Everybody has texted me,” he said. “I’m sure once I get back to the States, I’m going to get a bunch of phone calls from different coaches and assistant coaches.”

Nájera’s time in Mexico this week was short. He left Dallas on Tuesday, as the Dallas area has remained his home since he was first drafted in 2000 — the first Mexican-born player drafted in NBA history. After the Mavericks acquired him in a draft-day trade, Nájera and his family made their home in Plano, Texas. Though the Mavericks traded him four years later to the Golden State Warriors, his family remained in Plano. In 2009, Donnie Nelson, as Mavericks General Manager, brought Nájera back to Dallas for part of the season. Nájera now will also serve in the Mavericks front office.

“Eddie is a winner,” Nelson said. “We brought him to the Mavs three times because he helped us win games. His integrity, work ethic and savvy are off the charts.”

To Nájera, though, this is not a return to Dallas. His family remained in the area, and he makes it clear so did his plans for the future.

“I never left. Even though I got traded, I still left my family behind, my kids. They’ve grown in the Dallas community,” Nájera continued. “I always had that dream of coming back and hopefully finishing out my career. If not on the court, then somewhere in the front office or in this case in the D-League.”

That makes two things which the new coach won’t have to adjust to in his new role: the title and the location.

“The Legends are basically in my back yard.”