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Sunday November 27, 2011 10:46 PM

Getting To Know: Brett Gunning


Rockets assistant coach discusses his Philly basketball upbringing

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - The Rockets introduced a brand new coaching staff this summer, bringing in Head Coach Kevin McHale along with assistants Kelvin Sampson, J.B. Bickerstaff, Chris Finch and Greg Buckner, while promoting former player development director Brett Gunning to the role of assistant as well. To help fans get a better feel for these men both on and off the court, Rockets.com will sit down with each over the coming weeks to discuss their unique backgrounds, philosophies and experiences within the game.

Today, we put Brett Gunning in the spotlight, giving him a chance to reflect upon his deep roots in Philadelphia basketball and what it means to make his coaching dreams come true. Click here to read part I of the series in which we interviewed Chris Finch, and here for part II for our interview with lead assistant Kelvin Sampson.

JCF: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to spend it working in basketball in some form or fashion?

BG: For me, it was weird because a good portion of my family was very involved and connected with Villanova University. My dad went there, my uncle was a business professor there, my mom ran the travel agency, my grandfather worked there – because of those things, I was just very lucky at a young age to be around (former Villanova) coach Rollie Massimino. First, I started off as more of a camper but, for whatever reason, he kind of took me under his wing and I’m grateful for that.

I’d go to all the basketball camps and then when the camp was over I’d help out by doing little things like setting up or breaking down, so through that I sort of started actually working the camps. Next thing you know, it would be 11 o’clock at night and all the coaches would be getting together – coach Massimino was big on bringing in guest speakers to address the coaches working the camp – and I remember sitting in the back of the room at 12 years old, I probably should have been back in the dorms in bed sleeping, and instead I’m listening to people like coach Massimino, Jim Valvano and Gene Keady speak to this room of coaches. I just sat there in awe of that scene.

I think everybody dreams of being a great player at first, but for whatever reason I just got bit by the coaching bug at a young age and I just loved being around Massimino which eventually led to developing a great relationship with (current Villanova men's basketball coach) Jay Wright, who was an assistant for Massimino at that time.

So at a very young age I just always dreamed of being a coach and that led to sitting there in high school diagramming plays on my notepad. Some of my boys would be looking over my shoulder saying, “Man, you better be great at that one day if you’re going to spend all this time X’ing and O’ing in class.”

JCF: I can’t even imagine how cool that must have been for you, being a kid hanging around Rollie Massimino, the guy who authored one of the great sports moments in Villanova history back in 1985.

BG: I was just in awe of the guy. As a kid you’re a fan first and Villanova was my team growing up and, here it is, they pull off one of the greatest upsets of all time. So being around the guy, and working for him at a young age, I just felt a sense of awe.

What’s crazy is that just about two weeks ago I went back east and coach Massimino is actually still coaching – he’s coaching at the No. 1 team in NAIA, a school called Northwood; they actually made it to the Final Four last year and this year they’re preseason No. 1 – and his team was playing an exhibition against Fordham in New York City, and I got to spend the day with him there. What blew me away was he was coaching those kids as if they were one of his great teams at Villanova.

What it showed me is just the passion and genuine concern he has for kids – that’s what stuck with me from the very beginning whether it was something as simple as him taking me under his wing and showing unbelievable concern and belief in me, or just seeing him 20 or 30 years later still investing in young people and trying to impact their lives. It really came full circle for me and made me realize that this is a guy who believed in me and took a chance on me and here he is, in his mid-70s doing the same thing still – whether it was Villanova or Northwood, he’s still impacting people’s lives and that’s what impacted me the most about being around him.

JCF: You obviously have Philly basketball in your blood. What does that mean to you and how has it manifested itself in your basketball philosophy?

BG: There’s such a passion among Philadelphia fans. There’s a reason why a lot of people say there’s no greater place to be than Philly when you’re winning, and it’s a real tough place to be when you’re losing.

I was very fortunate to be part of some great college teams when I was at Villanova. To be playing in Wachovia Center in front of 18,000 people – it was incredible. I think that passion lends itself, if you’re playing in those games, the energy level and toughness has a way of coming out in those games and I think you see it throughout all different levels.

Anybody from Philly has that reputation as being someone who plays hard, is tough, is feisty and is a gritty type player and I think spending all those years with Jay Wright, that’s kind of what I took most from being around him. When the game is over and you can look at each other as a team and a coaching staff knowing that you played hard and competed, you walk out of the arena with your head up regardless of the score. To me, that’s what Philly’s all about.

JCF: When you’re talking about toughness and the grit and grind of Philly basketball, it sounds very much like the same concepts Kevin McHale and Kelvin Sampson hammer home every day. Has that made it really easy to form a relationship with those guys?

BG: I was just thinking about that the other day. To be able to work with Kevin really is a dream come true because I think, as an assistant, if you can work for somebody who believes and stands for the things you believe in, there’s no greater situation. So No. 1, just to be an assistant working for a guy like Kevin who believes in toughness, playing hard, competing and battling, it’s a dream come true.

And then to be next to a guy in Kelvin who, when I was at Villanova, we actually played Oklahoma and one of our biggest wins in my time there was when we were third in the country and they were fifth, and they came to Villanova and we beat them in a battle. I remember after the game we had a great sense of pride in knowing that we beat Kelvin Sampson’s Oklahoma team because they were known as one of the toughest, grittiest teams in the country.

So I feel so lucky right now because both those guys believe the game should be played in a way I believe in as well, and I think I’m just so fortunate to be a part of that.

JCF: I didn’t even think of this until just now but, growing up in Philly, you probably didn’t have too many fond feelings of Kevin’s Celtics teams from back in the day. Has that subject come up at all in any of your meetings?

BG: Well we’ve been meeting on so many topics but we haven’t had a meeting to discuss that yet (laughs). But I will say there’s just something embedded inside of me that when I see green my first vision is of those Boston Celtics and it just makes me sick (laughs).

But there’s no doubt, I grew up during that time when there were just these unbelievable Sixers-Celtics battles. The passion and intensity of those games, that’s something that hit me from the very beginning and it’s one of the reasons why I just love the NBA because of that passion and energy. We were on the short end of the stick on many of those battles but, wow, they were great to watch growing up.

JCF: How has your life changed now that you’re an assistant coach?

BG: In a lot of ways things have stayed the same because the bottom line is that when you’re an assistant, whether it’s player development or you’re an actual assistant on the staff, your job is to do whatever is necessary to help the team. So whether I was in a player development role and it was my job to spend time with guys behind the scenes and work with them in the trenches or try to instill the message that’s coming from the head coach, I think that’s something that will stay the same in the role that I’m in. My job is to help coach McHale any way I can and also be of assistance to the other assistants.

I think if you keep that mindset it’s pretty simple. Just do whatever you can do to help the team win. So things really have stayed the same because the role is still just doing whatever I can to help the team in any way possible.

JCF: Have you given much thought to whether or not your coaching future lies in the pro or college game?

BG: I was smitten with the NBA game at a very early age. I always loved it and loved the passion and excitement and coaching of it. Sometimes you hear negative things about the NBA, but what I’ve witnessed is a lot of guys who are obsessed with being great and want to be pushed and want to be coached and want to be taught, so I think, if anything, it’s just reinforced my thoughts that this is where I want to be.

Obviously, as I’ve stated many times, I feel very lucky to be in the NBA and I’d like to stay as long as I can because just to be surrounded by greatness, whether it be from a playing standpoint or a coaching standpoint, to me there’s no better job.

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