Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM
| September 19, 2006
New Sonics Assistant Coach Gordon Chiesa brings a wealth of experience to Seattle. Chiesa started his career in the college ranks, including stints as head coach at Manhattan and Providence, before coming to the NBA in 1989 as an assistant to Jerry Sloan with the Utah Jazz. Chiesa spent 16 years in Utah, helping the Jazz to two NBA Finals (he also coached in the NCAA Final Four as an assistant at Providence), before joining the New Jersey Nets in the summer of 2005 and moving to Seattle this June. SUPERSONICS.COM chatted with Chiesa about his background and philosophy.
Why was Seattle the right fit for you this summer?
It was the right fit because of the people involved. I knew very well Bob Hill both personally and professionally, and Steve Rosenberry, who's the head scout for the Sonics, I knew very well also. When I coached the Jazz, we obviously played against the Sonics for many, many thrilling games. It was the right fit for all the dynamics involved.
I always liked coming to Seattle to play the Sonics, but also, more importantly, I liked the city of Seattle. I always had a lot of great memories of Seattle. I'm excited. I can't wait.
You resigned your position in New Jersey for family reasons, because your family didn't feel comfortable there. Is this a better fit in that regard?
My family now is living in Salt Lake City. I have a college sophomore and a high school junior, so the high schooler is back at the original high school he started at. I'm also a caretaker for my in-laws. So our whole family is now back in Salt Lake City; it's an easier commute between Seattle and Salt Lake City.
What do you feel like you bring to the Sonics coaching staff?
What I bring to the coaching staff is another set of eyes, a new voice. Hopefully my expertise would be working with the players individually, especially all the perimeter players. It's assisting Bob Hill in any way he'd like me to assist him. My job as a first assistant is to help the head coach and be part of the decision-making process. I've been an assistant for many, many years, so hopefully I can continue that as far as helping the head coach.
How important is your experience given that the rest of the Sonics coaching staff besides Bob Hill is relatively young?
I think when Bob and I talk basketball, we talk in the same jargon as far as what it takes to go to the playoffs. We always talk about going to the playoffs - that's the goal. The goal of any professional team should be to reach the playoffs - that's the first, immediate goal - and then advance from there. Both Bob and I have been playoff-savvy and we talk about it, what it takes to get there. That's experience. The Utah Jazz, we played 149 playoff games from 1989 to 2003 - 149 playoff games. That's part of the reason why I think I got hired. That's how we think. We think in that terms, getting to the playoffs and taking it from there.
How would you describe your philosophy of basketball?
Well, again, my philosophy is going to be what Bob Hill wants me to immerse, what he believes. Whatever the philosophy of the Sonics is, led by Bob Hill, that's what I'm going to adhere to. That said, to be successful in the NBA, you have to offensively let the players be creative but still have a system. Defensively, just generally speaking, you have to sell the players on playing team defense, because the single hardest thing in the NBA when you're on defense is to keep the dribbler in front of you. All this technique is one thing, but it's hard to do, so the better teams play good team defense. That's the philosophy that I believe in and Bob believes in as well.
Successful teams have certain traits. We're going to try during training camp from day one to master the little details. The little things matter. In any business, you think it's the big things. It's not. It's the little details and your attention to details that separates everybody. You need big vision, but you need everyday, little details. That takes energy, that takes a lot of effort, that takes a lot of poise under fire. Every player wants to be successful, but the question is do they want to pay the price and the effort to be successful?
What impact did working in Utah and with Jerry Sloan for so long have on your philosophy?
The influence Jerry Sloan had on me was about, really, defense. Utah played, historically, very good defense - across the board. There was a physical nature that had concepts and had a high level of accountability. I saw it visually, I was part of developing the philosophy and it was successful. Offensively, the culture of the Utah Jazz is one of execution. That's the culture, is the ability to execute. Now, I don't want to reflect on Utah, because it's more about the Sonics. I'd like to think that will be part of the culture also, a version of that, taking the best of the Sonics and trying to help them develop themselves defensively but also have a level of culture of execution. The Sonics are a perimeter-oriented team. That's good. That's their strength. So as coaches now, we're going to attempt to get the guys to play at a high level of execution, be perimeter-oriented, but still improve the young big guys as they catch up to create the ability to have both - perimeter but also inside.
What did you learn from Rick Pitino when you worked under him at Providence?
Rick Pitino is a marvelous coach - so is Jerry Sloan, I might add. Rick Pitino taught me the individual offensive skills back in 1985 when we started the journey at Providence College - over 21 years ago now. That's when we put the original individual improvement session together - the one hour on the court with the players, which I do with the guys right here all the time now. This afternoon, I'll be with Earl Watson doing parts of that. Rick Pitino taught me how to teach individual offensive skills. Also, the matchup press and the half-court trap defense. That's what I got from Rick at that time.
Coach Hill has emphasized player development. Does that make your interest in working with players individually a good fit for the Sonics?
It's a high level of interest and hopefully we have an expertise in doing that. That's part of the reason why I got hired is, hopefully, our ability to improve the players. Now, like anything else, when the players become self-motivated, I'm a better teacher. So besides working with the players, there's also a level of communication and interaction. At this level, the players won't work hard until you know them as people. Like any business, it's the ability to communicate with the players by your voice, by your listening skills, by your body language, how you have laser-beam focus with the players. They understand that. As a coach, it's very rewarding. I get a great kick of seeing players develop, and hopefully I played some part in that.
What do you remember of the Sonics-Jazz rivalry in the 1990s?
I remember Nate McMillan - so many games Nate McMillan playing very sound defense. Sam Perkins making 3-point shots against Mark Eaton. To the Sonics credit, they used to space out their five-man to play against our five-man and we had to match down and take Mark Eaton out. Mark Eaton - 7-4, 300 pounds. A very good player, but that's not his game, playing perimeter defense. I remember in 1996, when the Sonics went to the NBA Finals, we lost Game 7 up here. Then, fortunately, in 1997 and 98, we got to the Finals. I remember the Sonics battles of Stockton and a young Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp against Karl Malone. Detlef Schrempf, a very talented and underrated performer, playing against our small forwards. The games were high-intensity, they were well-played, and they were two good franchises that are very similar that have really overachieved. Obviously, Seattle's a bigger city than Salt Lake City, but as far as the landscape of the NBA, they're very similar as far as being out west as opposed to the East Coast mentality.