Catching Up With Tyrone Corbin

Anyone who remembers the Wolves' inaugural team knows the two most rock-solidly reliable players were Sam Mitchell and Tyrone Corbin. These days, Corbin is on the verge of following Mitchell into the NBA head coaching ranks.

In just the past offseason, the former small forward — now a Utah assistant — had interviews with the Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls. Phoenix went with a head coaching veteran in former Wolf Terry Porter, and the Bulls opted for coaching newcomer Vinny Del Negro. But for Corbin, only in his third year as an NBA assistant, the interviews mark him as destined for bigger things.

“My ambition is to be a head coach,” says Corbin, who turned 46 on New Year’s Eve. “From playing the game as long as I did, I have the knowledge, a good feel for the players.”

Among the inaugural Wolves, Mitchell ended up playing a season longer, but Corbin had the longest career: an incredible 16 seasons.

“To be honest, I had no idea I would play that long coming out of DePaul,” Corbin says. “I love to play, and I learned every year what it takes to be on a team. I wanted to be a player who could play for any coach.”

He was already a four-year vet when the Wolves took him as their second choice in the NBA expansion draft — refusing the Phoenix Suns’ offer of two draft picks and guard Steve Kerr to pass Corbin by.

“That was a bit of a shocker,” Corbin recalls. “In Phoenix, we had been to the conference finals. Behind the scenes, [the Suns] told me I wouldn’t be taken, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Corbin was a winner before he got to Minnesota — and in the 10 seasons he played since getting traded for Utah’s Thurl Bailey in 1991. All but one of his post-Wolves squads were winners. Still, he looks back on his Minnesota years as key.

“I never played so many minutes,” he says. “It gave me a chance to showcase my skills. One of the things that was great for an expansion team was that Bill Musselman was the coach. He was demanding. He didn’t want us to think we could throw up shots. He was hard-nosed, stubborn, and if it didn’t work out it was because we didn’t do it right.”

Musselman’s passion for hard work fit Corbin perfectly; the 6-6 forward maximized his value as a smart player who could score, rebound, defend and play in any system.

The truth of that was demonstrated in a January 1991 game, when he racked up the Wolves’ first-ever triple-double: 10 points, 13 boards and 10 assists.

“What I remember most is we won the game,” says Corbin without false modesty. “One of the great things about those teams is we played like a team — Tony Campbell, Todd Murphy, Pooh Richardson, Randy Breuer. Everyone played right.”

However, the next season, coach Jimmy Rogers came in and emphasized scoring over the all-around game. Corbin was traded for Jazz big man Thurl Bailey. At the time, some Wolves’ fans rejoiced; Bailey was a bigger man (6-11) and a bigger name. But Corbin proved the best player, outscoring, outrebounding and outlasting Bailey after the deal was made.

“Utah was looking to get a stopper, and to get quicker at defending the 3 (small forward) spot,” Corbin says. “Minnesota was looking to get bigger. This was another deal that worked out for me, because that’s where I got to know Jerry Sloan.”

After three years in Utah, Corbin wrapped up his career in Atlanta, Miami, Sacramento and finally, in 2000-01, Toronto. Corbin was a sought-after role player for coaching legends Pat Riley, Rick Adelman, and Lenny Wilkens, for whom he played three separate times.

This Hall-of-Fame finishing school served Corbin well; after a couple of years away from the game, the Columbia, S.C., native began mentoring players from the D-League’s Charleston Lowgators. One of his mentees, Ime Udoka, now plays for the San Antonio Spurs.

Among his biggest assets, Corbin says, is his ability to bridge eras: from the fundamentally sound days when NBA rookies played four years in college — as he did at DePaul — to today’s “younger, more talented players who miss out on a lot of the fundamentals.”

His D-League work earned Corbin a job as the New York Knicks’ Director of Player Development in 2003-04. He later accepted a job on Sloan’s staff. It was truly a rare honor: Sloan only has three assistants.

Aside from Sloan’s remarkably long, winning tenure, one reason a staff spot can be a coaching incubator is that assistants split the responsibilities, Corbin notes. “It’s not that one of us works with big guys, one with small guys. It’s different from a lot of teams.”

Corbin got his first head coaching nibble in only his second year on Utah’s staff, when he was interviewed by the then-Seattle SuperSonics, who picked P.J. Carlesimo instead.

Corbin says should a team make him their head coach, they’ll be getting a Sloan disciple. “The main thing is consistency,” he says of the Utah system. “Whatever system fit your players best, it can’t be ‘team one day, individual the next.’ Every week, you have to work toward creating that identity, and the sooner you do it, the more you win.”

Some NBA owner will get a head coach with a proven work ethic; Corbin says he got his lust for elbow grease from his mom, who put six kids through school as a worker in a South Carolina dry cleaners. (One brother, Darryl, played professional football in Canada, while others played basketball at the collegiate level)

Mom’s philosophy sums up what it takes to get a coveted NBA spot: “She would say, ‘give them more than you’re paid for, and they’ll always ask you back the next time’,” Corbin recalls.

As for his own family, Corbin is still married to his high school sweetheart Dante, and a couple of years ago moved her and their son Tyrell to Salt Lake City. (Their daughter, Tyjha, is a senior at Clemson.)

The box scores in Utah still feature a Ty Corbin — Tyrell is a double-digit-scoring sophomore point guard for Salt Lake City West High, whose exploits can be found via YouTube. Tyrell’s coach expects the 5-11 guard to grow as big as his dad, when perhaps the younger player will demonstrate the triple-threat scoring, boarding and passing ability that made his dad one of the Wolves’ early fan favorites.

Then again, the “original” Ty Corbin’s days here might not all be in the past. Put on the spot about whether he’d be interested in the Wolves’ top job should it come open, Corbin chuckles and says, “I would love to come back to Minnesota — there’s good young talent on that team. With some tweaks, I think they can be really, really good.”