Even in NBA, role as father always trumps role as coach
On the morning after the Cleveland Cavaliers had been roughed up by the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, Melvin Hunt would have preferred to hit the snooze alarm, pull the shades and sleep the pain away.
His status as a Cavs assistant coach gave him that right. It was trumped, however, by his status as a father.
After a fitful few hours in bed, Hunt poured some coffee, got in his car and headed to Avon East Elementary School. Schedule permitting, he had told his son Miles that he would read to Mrs. O’Hara’s third-grade class.
“When he walked in, Miles was chest-out happy,” Hunt’s wife Carmen said. “He wasn’t happy because Coach Hunt was there; he was happy because his dad was there.”
With a six-month regular season that guarantees nearly 100 nights on the road, the NBA schedule presents plenty of challenges for coaches who also pull double-duty as fathers – or, more accurately, fathers who pull double-duty as coaches.
The coaches themselves know the sacrifices and demands when they sign up for the job, but that doesn’t make it any easier when they miss birthdays, holidays, spelling bees and other milestones inherent to raising children.
“You have to give more quality time to the quantity that you get,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “Fitting the family into an NBA schedule is no question a very difficult challenge. Usually the people that suffer are your children and your partners.”
As Father’s Day weekend approached, Karl and a few members of his coaching staff shared their thoughts on juggling their roles as dads and coaches.
Karl has two grown children, Kelci and Coby, along with a 7-year-old daughter Kaci.
Hunt, who joined the Nuggets in 2010 after five seasons in Cleveland, has a 14-year-old daughter Braya and an 11-year-old son Miles.
Denver assistant John Welch has a 16-year-old daughter Haley and a 14-year-old son Riley.
Nuggets video operations/player development coordinator Ryan Bowen, who also played 10 NBA seasons, has an 11-year-old daughter Isabel and two sons Benjamin (8) and Zachary (7).
Each coach is at a different stage of his respective career, but each shares similar experiences as NBA fathers.
“I watch John, and how he navigates and works with his kids,” Hunt said. “I watch Ryan and Coach (Karl). We all have our own ways of coping with it. We all try to figure out our own way of doing it.”
During his playing days, Bowen estimates he celebrated four or five birthdays via iChat, while Hunt often receives a running play-by-play of Braya’s volleyball games and Miles’ basketball games via texts from Carmen.
“Texting and phone calls,” Welch said. “My son is a lot better with it than my daughter is. With my son, it’s usually four or five times a day.”
Though birthdays and other events have been shared through pictures, text messages and video, none of the coaches has missed a delivery.
Bowen was with the Houston Rockets when he received a big assist from the Memphis Grizzlies in April 2005. After playing the Rockets in Houston, the Grizzlies were flying to Denver, where Bowen’s wife Wendy was scheduled to be induced with their third child.
Memphis officials allowed Bowen to hop on their charter flight, causing some double-takes on the airplane.
“I walk on and they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ The trade deadline’s long past,’ ” Bowen recalled. “It was a very nice gesture by the Grizzlies and I always remember them letting me do that.”
Bowen, 36, said the office hours are longer as a coach, but the fatigue factor was more of an issue as a player.
“You might get home from a road trip at 4 in the morning but the kids are up at 7,” he said. “You put the fatigue aside and find the energy for them.”
Because Bowen joined the Nuggets on short notice in December, his family stayed in Iowa so they could finish the school year. Welch went through a similar experience when he made the move from college to the pros and joined the Memphis coaching staff in 2003.
“(Grizzlies general manager) Jerry West told me not to bring my family with me because it was a one-year contract,” Welch said. “They stayed in Fresno. Being away was really hard. Being gone for six months was tough.”
The offseason allows Welch to make up for lost time. He and his son Riley work out on the Pepsi Center practice court as much as possible throughout the summer.
“Believe me, I’m not complaining,” Welch said. “The NBA lifestyle has more positives than negatives for a coach.”
Welch’s fellow fathers/coaches share that sentiment. The offseason coincides nicely with summer break for the kids, so scheduling conflicts are minimal. When things get busy again in the fall and winter, everyone simply adapts.
For Hunt, that might mean landing at Denver International Airport at 3 a.m. and driving straight to Colorado Springs for a Saturday morning volleyball game.
“Creativity,” Hunt said. “Your family can help you with your creativity, and you figure out ways to multitask.”
Sometime during Father’s Day, Hunt will take time to pay tribute to his stepfather James Fort, who was an encouraging influence in his life. Before every high school game, Hunt would look up in the bleachers and acknowledge his mom and Fort sitting side by side – a tradition that he carries on with his own children.
“There was nothing like being in the warmup line and catching eye contact with my mom and knowing that she was there, knowing my dad was there,” Hunt said. “It sets you at ease. There’s a comfort you get.”
Karl has a similar pregame ritual with Kaci. Before pregame introductions at Pepsi Center, she walks down to the Nuggets bench and gives her dad a big hug.
It is a priceless dad-and-daughter moment cherished more than any victory.
Coaching careers eventually come to an end, but Karl will always be a father.