A Matter Of Time

January 19, 2005
by Jon Cooper

It's a mere six inches from the seat Hawks head coach Mike Woodson occupies to the one assistant coach Larry Drew sits in, yet making up that ground can take a lifetime.

No one knows that better than Drew, who is in his 22nd season in the NBA and his 12th as an assistant coach.

"I've been in [the league] long enough now and I know there are a lot of guys who have come into this thing way before I did that are waiting, who are very good assistant coaches who never got an opportunity," he said.

Drew, who played with Detroit, Kansas City/Sacramento and both Los Angeles teams before embarking on a coaching career that has seen stops as an assistant with the Lakers, Detroit, Washington, and New Jersey, harbors no frustration in waiting. To the contrary, he's making the most of his current situation, one that. It's a perfect fit for him. For starters, he likes his boss.

"Mike has been a real good friend of mine for a number of years," said Drew, 46, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children. "We played together back in the early '80s and we've maintained a very close friendship. He's somebody I wanted to work with. I had an opportunity to go back to New Jersey but I chose to come here."

Drew met Woodson back in 1980, at the Aloha Classic in Hawaii, following their senior seasons at their respective schools -- Drew at the University of Missouri, Woodson at Indiana University. Neither remembers meeting on the floor in that tournament, but both remember their first meeting. It came courtesy of pre-draft interviews with the Detroit Pistons.

"After one of the practices, Jack McCloskey, the general manager of Detroit at the time, wanted to sit down with both of us," Drew recalled. "We were sitting in a room just talking to him. That was the first time he and I made contact."

Woodson would be drafted 12th by New York, while Drew would be chosen 17th by Detroit, but the two met up again in Kansas City during the 1981-82 season. Drew was traded for a pair of second-round picks following his rookie year and Woodson was traded from New Jersey prior to the '82-83 season. Two seasons later current Hawks GM Billy Knight came over in a trade from Indiana.

The threesome would play only one full season together, 1983-84, when the Kings finished 39-44, third in the Midwest Division, seven games behind Utah, but the bond they formed lasted. This season, the triumvirate has reunited, allowing them frequent opportunities to catch up.

"You get to tell some stories, lie a little bit," said Knight. "You know stories get better -- in your favor, of course. It's fun to exaggerate a situation that came up, like of Woody shooting a lot in a game. Instead of 20 shots when it actually happened it's 30 now, stuff like that. We have a good time with it."

"We talk about [the Kansas City days] all the time," added Woodson. "Back in those days, we scored so freely. We averaged 108, 109, 110 points a game because we had a bunch of offense weapons.

"Our defense was [lousy]," he added with a laugh. "We tried to outscore guys and that was fun. We had a lot of guys who could score the basketball."

Drew, the team's point guard and leading scorer that season among the trio at 16.4 points per game (Woodson was next at 14.5 ppg and Knight averaged 12.8), remembers that no one liked to score the basketball more than Woodson.

"I loved to shoot the basketball, but [Mike] REALLY loved to shoot," Drew recalled with a laugh. "We had another guy named Eddie Johnson, who was a shooter. Then Billy Knight came and he was a scorer. I had three guys that I had to try to keep happy, plus I had to find a way to get my shots up. So it was a challenge.

"The main thing Mike always reminded me was that he was going to be my first option," Drew added. "Eddie was my second option, then Billy. Then I had to find my shot."

Drew's job requires him to still try and keep Woodson happy. It's still not an easy task.

"I'm demanding of my assistants and when things are not right I have to be hard and let them know that," said Woodson. "We have heated battles sometimes but that's a part of growing as a coaching staff and a part of trying to put a good team together."

Drew is enjoying the challenge enough that he hasn't put any thought into a timetable on leaving Atlanta, even if his next logical step is getting a head coaching job of his own.

"I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing right now," he said. "I still enjoy coaching and teaching young guys. If that opportunity comes I'll look at it but if it doesn't, I'll keep doing what I'm doing and I'll still be the happy camper."

Both Woodson and Knight agree that it shouldn't be long before Drew gets that opportunity.

"Larry should be a head coach in this league," said Woodson. "He's worked with some great coaches and some great organizations in this league. He's learned his craft and he knows the game."

"Larry is an experienced guy," added Knight. "He's very knowledgeable about the game having played it and having been around it for a long time. I feel he's a prime candidate to move to that next seat."

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta