Hawks Assistant Coaches Story
Give `em a Break!
Even during the off-season "rest" is a four-letter word for Atlanta Hawks assistant coaches.
By Jon Cooper
Being an assistant coach in the NBA is a labor of love.
Just ask Larry Drew, Herb Brown, Bob Bender, Greg Ballard and David Fizdale, the quintet in the nice suits surrounding Hawks Head Coach Mike Woodson.
After 82 games (not including pre-season games), frequent travel, morning practices, shootarounds, and countless hours watching film to prepare scouting reports for upcoming opponents, winding down becomes a necessity not only to avoid burnout but to preserve sanity.
Each coach finds his own way to unwind, with most -- surprise! -- doing something involving coaching basketball.
Working with the Hawks' guards for six-plus months isn't enough for Drew, who during the summer runs the Larry Drew Advanced Guard Academy in Los Angeles.
"I did one youth camp, four high school camps and actually did a pro version of it and got a tremendous response," said Drew (right), who has 23 years of experience as an NBA player and coach. "I've done camps in the past but this was a little different because I wanted to focus in on the guards and perimeter players."
The camp, which boasts such alumni as Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, Gilbert Arenas and Richard Jefferson, focuses on the fundamentals and uses former NBA stars like Michael Cooper, Eddie Johnson, Reggie Theus, Norm Nixon, Patrick Ewing and Phil Ford, as well as Hawks colleagues Woodson, Brown, Bender and Fizdale.
"We're really focused and zeroing in on just those specific skills needed to play the point guard or shooting guard position," said Drew. "We got such a positive response from it last year that we've been asked to take it cross-country. I've actually been asked to do one here in Atlanta. I'm going to sit down with some people and see if we can make that happen."
When Brown wasn't helping Drew he was taking his 40-plus years of basketball knowledge to the Middle East. He started by coaching the United States entry in the Maccabiah Games, something that has become a regular part of his life.
"I actually started out in the `70s when I was on the selection committee for the Maccabiah Games for the Men's Open team," recalled Brown, who has coached bronze-medalists in 1997, 2001 and 2005. "I love Israel, I love coaching basketball and it was something I didn't even think about."
This past summer Brown (right) took over the team, comprised of college players, a little more than two weeks before the games and still led them to a medal.
He then returned to Israel in August, this time with Atlanta Spirit, LLC co-owner Ed Peskowitz to participate in an initiative called "Playing for Peace."
"Playing For Peace is a nonprofit group, that is trying to get the Arabs and the Israelis together through sports," said Brown. "We try to develop a partnership where people can work together and understand that they can live together. It's modeled after a program that they have in South Africa and a program that they've run in Northern Ireland."
Ballard also served as a basketball ambassador, traveling to Italy to coach basketball as part of the NBA's "Basketball Without Borders" program.
"It was very nice," said Ballard (below, right), who is in his 12th season as an assistant coach following an eight-year NBA playing career. "You had the best 17-year-olds around Europe coming, maybe 60 of them, from different countries. We taught them basketball fundamentals, we coached them, we played a lot of games. That was a real treat.
"[Hawks scout] Harold Ellis went to Africa," he continued. "They have four of them now, in South America, Africa, Europe and China."
Bender stayed in the continental United States, but could not stay away from the basketball court.
"Having been a college coach for as long as I was, I still look at the off-season as part of the season," said the 48-year-old native of Quantico, Va., who is in his second season with the Hawks and fourth as an NBA assistant after spending 13 years as a college coach. "With our team, we try and get the players together as much as we can through mini-camps and the summer league, put them in a structured situation. Beyond that, any time you do get during the off-season I'm with my family. We really enjoy Atlanta and the Southeast. There's so much to do. So you try and pack a lot into a short period of time."
Fizdale, the youngest of the group found it the easiest to get away from hoops to recharge his batteries -- his time at Drew's camp notwithstanding.
"I like to travel. I like the beach, I'm a big reader," said the 31-year-old Fizdale, in his second year with the Hawks. "I love reading things like "The Art of War," strategists' books."
"I'm also a movie buff," he continued. "If there's a new movie out I make sure I see it. Part of it is I'm one of those people that wants to know everything. If people are talking about something and I don't know about it, I hate that. I like to know what is going on."
Of course, all five assistants know that now matter how far they may get from Atlanta -- be it on another continent, on a sandy beach or simply absorbing a book or movie -- the next season is never too far away.
"We spend a lot of time preparing for the draft," said Drew. "When the season does end we jump right into it. We bring a lot of kids in and work them out, then evaluate them. We spend time in Chicago for the pre-draft camp. It's watching kids play and workout all the way up until draft day. Then, once the draft is over we prepare for Summer League. It's almost a 12-month job."
"This past off-season we did a lot," agreed Ballard. "We had a mini-camp in May and June, then we had our regular Summer League in July, then we had a mini-camp in August and a mini-camp in September. So we were definitely working this off-season. That's to try to make our players better. So if you see Josh Childress handling the ball better you know why. If you see Josh Childress shooting the ball better you know why."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta