Getting to Know: John Kuester
In the first of an ongoing series with Mike Brown's new assistant coaches, we get to know John Kuester, who worked under Brown in Cleveland from 2007-09 before taking over head coaching duties with Detroit for the past two seasons. Here's what Kuester had to say about his basketball influences growing up in the game, his memories of North Carolina teammate Mitch Kupchak, his NBA stint as a player and coaching in college and the NBA since 1980:
Q: On growing up with the game in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
Kuester: I was very fortunate, because I went to a Catholic military high school and had probably the greatest high school coach in the country at the time in Warren Rutledge. The three years I played varsity we won the state championship, and had a great experience. We had an outstanding team, and what Coach Rutledge instilled in all of us was a work ethic that was second to none. He prepared me to go to college at the University of North Carolina with the idea that the only way you’re going to be successful is to be in great shape. There’s no question that hard work is the basis (for everything), and continually growing as a player and as a coach, you learn that there’s no substitute. Usually it pays off.
Q: On the difference between growing up as a basketball player in the 1960’s and 70’s versus today:
Kuester: It was a different era back then, before all the things that have made basketball grow so much that weren’t in existence to the same degree if at all, so a lot of it dealt with going outside and just working on your game. We’d hunt for games to play 1-on-1 or 5-on-5, as opposed to so many organized situations that you have today. I was fortunate to come along in the era when I did because there were so many great players, but a lot of it dealt with us being able to work on our games as opposed to just playing organized games all the time.
Q: On playing for the legendary Dean Smith at North Carolina, where Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was one of his teammates:
Kuester: Well, I was very fortunate, because I had the best high school and also the best college coach there was. North Carolina is a great school, a wonderful environment, but Dean Smith was the reason I went to school there. He was somebody that appreciated all of the little things that are done in basketball. You find athletes that might have a certain gift athletically, but Coach Smith was somebody that appreciated the little things, and he was someone I wanted to play for. I played with a lot of gifted players: Mitch Kupchak, Walter Davis, Phil Ford and Tommy LaGarde was the starting line up when Mitch was a senior and I was a junior, so with all that talent, you wanted to do whatever it took to be on the floor. The thing that we all had in common was just caring about winning.
Q: On his memories of Mitch Kupchak, and carrying that friendship throughout the years:
Kuester: Mitch was a very talented basketball player, and he was very gifted in regards to how he defended, how he took pride in becoming a better player each year, and yet, as talented as he was, he always tried to overachieve. This is talking about a guy who was a top 10 pick in the NBA Draft. Every team would want to have a guy like Mitch, because he gave full effort every night. Since college, we’ve stayed in touch. He’s had a great run in L.A. since 1980 or so, being affiliated with the same team, and I think that speaks volumes about what Mitch is all about. When you’re able to have that type of run where they want to keep you around that long, that’s very rare in our business. From a professional standpoint, they don’t come any better than Mitch. He has always been a very good friend, and he’s a great teammate. (Kupchak’s being the GM in L.A.) was icing on the cake, the situation worked out perfectly.
Q: On his three NBA seasons as a player with the Kansas City Kings, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers:
Kuester: (Laughing) It was too short. But it was very sweet, and I was fortunate to be able to play for three years. It’s really interesting, because I wish I played longer, no question about it. After I got released my last time, I had an opportunity to coach at the University of Richmond while I was still looking to get back into the league and play, and that’s when my coaching career took off. I look back at the opportunities that I had playing at a great university and in the NBA against some of the greatest players of all time, and I feel very blessed that way. I keep telling young players today, especially now with all the opportunities to play now in the United States and abroad, to play for as long as you can.
Q: On relating to how Phil Jackson said last year that he wouldn’t necessarily use the word “love” to describe coaching, but that it was certainly the next best thing to playing:
Kuester: No question. I agree with him, and I do look forward to the opportunity each day to teach young players. There’s all kinds of challenges in each practice, in each game, and that kind of excitement keeps you young and involved in one of the great sports of all time.
Q: On the basketball influences he’s been privileged to be around, like Warren Rutledge, Dean Smith, Larry Brown, Red Auerbach, Dave Gavitt and Rod Thorn:
Kuester: The people I’ve been involved with and been blessed to be associated with is really an amazing journey for me. Not only the amount of coaches that I’ve had the opportunity to be under, but in management as well. Red Auerbach had a huge influence on my life, for example. One of the beauties with our game is to be associated with people who have different philosophies, and each one had their own style. To be able to pick and choose some things while still being your own person is one of the things the Lakers fans have a lot to be excited about. When I was with Mike Brown in Cleveland, that’s a young man who has a vision of how he wants the game to be played. He goes about it in a manner that’s outstanding.
Q: On working with Brown in Cleveland for two seasons:
Kuester: One of the things that Mike allowed is his assistant coaches to become a big part of everything that he wanted to get accomplished in a game or a practice. He always listened to what we had to say and allowed us to teach on the floor, and yet, we all knew that his voice was the final voice. I was very impressed with how he organized things offensively, defensively and overall. Now, every team is different. You have to adjust to your team. We had a philosophy in Cleveland, Detroit was a different situation, and now we’re coming into really a totally different situation. Mike’s discussed what he wants to get accomplished, and what you want to be able to do is adapt to certain player’s skills.
Q: On the difference between being an assistant coach and a head coach:
Kuester: The biggest adjustment that any coach makes from an assistant to a head coach is the management of everything that needs to be involved. Not just offense and defense, but player’s minutes, and also the press. You know how many times that you have to speak with the press every day, and keep them abreast of what’s going on. That’s an adjustment, and Mike Brown’s ability to manage that in Cleveland was outstanding, and very helpful to me in making that transition when I went to Detroit. In Los Angeles, Mike is the one that deals with the press day in and day out. My job right now is to run ideas past Mike that can improve our player’s skill level, and whatever Mike wants me to do, do it to the best of my abilities.
Q: On his primary interest off the court:
Kuester: It’s spending time with my family. My daughter Katie is a rising senior at St. Josephs (in Philadelphia); she plays basketball, and having an opportunity to see her play during the summer is important as I don’t get to see her very often during the NBA season. Then there’s my son (John the third), who graduated from St. Josephs, and also my wife Tricia, to whom I’ve been married for 33 years. We’re a very close family.
Q: On if his wife likes the beach:
Kuester: (Laughing) My whole family is very excited about coming out to L.A.