Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog - Randy Wittman still energized by hoops

Wittman still energized by hoops

Indianapolis (Dec. 1, 2011) -- How does it happen so fast?

One day you're winning the NCAA title for Bobby Knight and the next, or so it seems, your son is leading his Cinderella squad to the Sweet 16.

Three decades have passed since Randy Wittman helped Indiana win the national championship in 1981, including more than 25 years in the NBA as a player, assistant and head coach. Wittman prefers to think in terms of what lies ahead, which keeps him fully energized as he heads into another new challenge as an assistant with the Washington Wizards.

"Sitting here at (age) 52 and talking to a lot of these young kids that are coming into the league, I think a lot of times you just think this is what you're going to do, that it's going to last forever," Wittman said. "When you first come into the league, you don't realize how fast your career is over. I mean I played nine years and it was over in the blink of an eye.

"Luckily, I had an opportunity with Donnie Walsh, who was with the Pacers when my career ended, that when I decided it was time to retire he sat me down and thought that I should give coaching an opportunity. What he saw in me as a player translated into maybe coaching and he gave me an opportunity right after retirement to sit on the bench with the Pacers. From there, it's been history. I've loved it. I've been in it ever since."

A true Hoosier legend, Wittman is an Indianapolis native who starred for Ben Davis High and then produced a remarkable run at Indiana University. The Hoosiers won the NCAA title in 1981 and Wittman, a two-time academic All-America, was the co-Player of the Year in the Big 10 in 1983.

His NBA career launched in Atlanta, where he spent his first five seasons, starting at shooting guard the final three. Surrounded by one of the best assemblages of talent in Hawks history (Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis, Doc Rivers and Spud Webb, among others), Wittman was a key role-player, averaging just under 13 points from 1985-87.

Traded to Sacramento for Reggie Theus in 1988, Wittman was subsequently dealt to the Pacers with LaSalle Thompson for Wayman Tisdale midway through that season. And so the prodigal son returned.

"To be traded to Sacramento for a couple of months and then to the Pacers, to come home -- how many kids get the opportunity to play at home, where my family, brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles all still live?" Wittman said. "The blessing in disguise was Donnie Walsh, who I still think is one of the best GMs that I've ever come across in my 30 years of being in the NBA, having an opportunity to watch him work and learn some things from me and then him giving me an opportunity to step right in and start my second career."

When Wittman's playing days came to an end after the 1991-92 season, Walsh not only encouraged Wittman to pursue coaching, he gave his career a start. Wittman spent one season under Bob Hill and then moved on to Minnesota, which turned out to be his second home. He served three stints with the Timberwolves including more than a year as head coach (spanning the 2006-07 and '07-08 seasons), serving most of that time under Flip Saunders -- who now is his boss once again in Washington. Wittman also spent two seasons as head coach in Cleveland (1999-01).

"I think this is my third stint with him, and each time I leave I seem to come back," Wittman said. "I can't get away from him."

Though his career record as a head coach is 100-207, in both Cleveland and Minnesota Wittman was saddled with teams in rebuilding modes.

"I would never change anything," he said. "Both opportunities presented themselves in different ways. Obviously the first one, at 39 years of age being hired in Cleveland, you can't pass that up and I wouldn't pass it up again even though it turned out to be a situation where the team that they tried to assemble there kind of fell apart and they hired me to kind of start over and rebuild.

"The second one, being in the situation when a head coach (Dwane Casey) is let go, you're put into a situation where you take over in the middle of the season, both situations taught me a whole lot that is invaluable to me in my experiences moving forward. Even as an assistant coach, it helps me understand situations that arise and how to handle them. Do I wish we had a little bit better luck in those situations? Absolutely. But I'm not sour about it."

Wittman's life away from the game has been eventful. His wife, Kathy, is a breast cancer survivor. Daughter Lauren is a junior at I.U., of course.

Son Ryan, however, has made quite a name for himself. He led Cornell to its first NCAA appearance in 20 years in 2008, returning in 2009 and then capping his career with upsets of Temple and Wisconsin to reach the Sweet 16 in 2010.

"I was really proud of him," said the proud papa. "As a high school kid, he developed slowly. He was a lot like I was growing up in terms of being a late-bloomer so he wasn't really recruited by a lot of high Division I teams. A lot of mid-major teams recruited him. He wanted to go somewhere he could get a great education but he also wanted to play Division I basketball and the situation at Cornell University arose. At that time nobody really thought of what might happen but it gave him an opportunity to play in a Division I program and get an Ivy League education on top of it. I was really proud of the decision.

"And then he just continued to develop. He grow from 6-4 to 6-7 in his four years at the university and I was really proud of how he continued to develop as a player. It gave them an opportunity to have a run. I went through it at the ultimate level in winning a national championship in 1981 and it brought back so many memories watching him go through it. They make the tournament three straight years and then as seniors to do what they did in beating Temple and Wisconsin to get to the Sweet 16 to play the No. 1 seed Kentucky and to have a chance to win the game, it brought back a lot of memories for me. Sitting there absorbing it as a dad and as a fan is a little bit different than as a player."

While Ryan pursues a professional career in Europe (he has played in Italy and Poland), Randy is set for the next stage of his coaching life in Washington.

"Obviously being on the floor, being active, you're not sitting behind a desk and growing old," he said. "You're very active from the standpoint of being on the basketball court still and that's what keeps me rejuvenated. Both of my stints as a head coach were with very young teams and developing young players and that keeps you kind of young to be more of a hands-on teacher. If it was an old veteran group where all you're doing is organizing and pointing them in the right direction, you might become a little old with that.

"But for me, as long as I continue to love it I'll continue to do it."

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