One-on-One with Tony Campbell

The Wolves signed free agent Tony Campbell to a four-year deal on September 13, 1989, prior to the inaugural season in Minnesota. Campbell handled much of the scoring load for Minnesota in the early years, and he still holds several franchise records, including most points in a half (30).

Andrew Stephens caught up with Campbell and received candid answers regarding his most memorable NBA moments, his transition from NBA player to retiree, the funniest story from his playing career and much more:

Q. How did you get involved with basketball?
I started playing basketball at the age of 10. At the time, baseball was my first love. I only played basketball as an alternative when it was too cold for baseball in the wintertime. When I entered middle school I had a difference of opinion with our baseball coach and that ultimately kept me off the team. I ended up walking away from baseball and turned my focus to basketball. When I turned 11, my mother signed me up for Biddy Basketball in Teaneck, NJ. We would travel to several sites to play games against other kids around my age. At the age of 12, I wasn’t allowed to travel with the Biddy Basketball team for the national tournament because I was too tall to participate. I remember someone clipping out this article about me in the local paper that had the title, ‘Too Tall at 12.’ At the time I was 5’9” and there was a silly height restriction where no one could be over 5’8” to compete in the national tournaments.

In high school I played year round basketball and was fortunate to be surrounded by talented players as well. The team had great chemistry that resulted in a successful season my junior and senior year at Teaneck High School. In my junior year we won the county tournament and my senior year we went on a 29-0 stretch only to lose our 30th game to Barringer High School. My senior year ended on a positive note because we were back-to-back county champs.

Q. Share the story of how you selected Ohio State.
As I approached my senior year I was looking heavily at the local colleges on the East Coast to play college ball. I seriously looked at Rutgers, Louisville, Fairfield and Wagner to name a few. During my senior year the director of the Five Star Basketball Camp, Howard Garfinkle, approached me to talk about my options for college. Garfinkle always told me, ‘You must have a plan. It’s critical that you select the college program that’s the right fit for you.’ I’ll admit, I never had a set plan, but with time, was able to narrow my choices down. One of the front-runners I considered was Iona College. The legendary coach Jim Valvano was the head coach at the time and played a big role in recruiting me. A few of my high school teammates chose Iona and I was almost ready to follow. Coach Valvano ended up leaving Iona College in the summer of 1980 and moving onto NC State as a head coach. If he stayed at Iona, I probably would have played my college ball there.

During my senior year there were always college coaches and scouts in the gym watching my every move. I remember playing in an all-star game my senior year and Ohio State’s coach, Elden Miller, approached me after the game. He told me he was looking for a guard of my talent to play for him at Ohio State next season. After that initial conversation everything else fell into place and I knew this was going to be the next step in my basketball career. I received a full athletic scholarship to play for Ohio State.

Q. Most Memorable NCAA Moment(s)?
My most memorable NCAA moment would have to be the experience I was blessed with outside of basketball. When I look back at my college experience, it was nothing short of fantastic. There were so many positive experiences I was exposed to in college, from living the college life, being exposed to different cultures, and, most importantly, growing as an individual where you are forced to learn from your mistakes.

From a basketball standpoint, I remember having this nervous feeling inside just before my first NCAA game. Most guys will describe the feeling as butterflies or chills when you get into that lay up line because of the adrenaline pumping through your body. I was extremely nervous and will never forget that moment in my life. My junior and senior year at Ohio State I was a First Team All-American. In addition to that honor, I had the pleasure of play alongside fellow Buckeye legends Clark Kellogg and Herb Williams. Everyone from my teammates to the coaching staff left a positive stamp on my college experience. I was blessed to have an opportunity to play for Coach Miller and appreciated the close relationship I developed with him and his family during my time at Ohio State.

I’ll never forget matching up against Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers and their 2-3 Zone. His team did a good job at boxing me and shutting me down offensively. My favorite team to match up against was Minnesota. I had a 38-point performance against them in their building. Of course all of the home games at Ohio State were wonderful. I have to thank all of the students and alumni for bringing all of the much needed energy and support throughout my career.

Q. Most Memorable NBA Moment(s)?
My most memorable NBA moment was playing for Coach Bill Musselman with the Minnesota Timberwolves. When I was in Minnesota I was given the green light to score and was able to show the league my full arsenal of skills.

Having the opportunity to play for the Los Angeles Lakers and be a part of the legendary “Showtime” era team was truly memorable. I loved that my teammates embraced me with open arms when I was traded there. Not many people would be aware of this, but I was the closest to Kareem when I played in LA. I sat next to him when we traveled and enjoyed being in his company. Kareem always had something inspiring to discuss.

Every player was given a nickname in the locker room and that’s how we referred to each other. James Worthy was “Clever”, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was “Cap” (Short for Captain), Michael Cooper was “Coop”, AC Green was simply “AC”, Byron Scott was “B”, Magic was “Buck” and I was given the nickname “T.C.” (short for Top Cat) by Kareem.

Q. You have played under Pat Riley with the Lakers in the 80s and with the Knicks in the 90s. Describe the difference between Riley’s coaching style with Los Angeles in the 80s, New York in the 90s and now in Miami?
There is a significant difference when you compare the three styles.

In the 80s, the Lakers under Riley had a run-and-gun type of offense. The ball got into Magic’s hands and it was “Showtime.” We were the white collar, pretty boys in Los Angeles. The talent we had on that team was deep. We had a collection of Hall of Famers and legends that were students of the game and knew their roles.

In the 90s the Knicks under Pat Riley were the hardhat and sledgehammer type of group. The Knicks were intimidators and took no nonsense from any team that walked into the “Garden.” We left the opposing teams with bumps and bruises to enjoy in the morning. Led by Patrick Ewing, they had a wonderful collection of veterans and role players to compliment Riley’s style of play. In New York it was all about defense and playing a more deliberate grind-it-out offense.

Now in Miami, I see a mix between the styles. Riley has the luxury of having the most dominant big man in the league with Shaq. In addition, he has an All-Star in Dwyane Wade and a solid big man in Udonis Haslem to put in the front line with Shaq. Haslem reminds me a lot of New York’s former intimidator and fearless leader Charles Oakley. The Heat reminds me more of the Knicks than the Lakers. The team under Riley will grind it out, their game is more methodical, and, for the most part, they are a half-court team. They have solid point guards in Williams and Payton, but they are not a run-and-gun team. The real key is chemistry and how they mesh as a team going into the playoffs.

Q. Describe your transition after you retired from the league.

I finished my NBA career with the Cavs in 1995 and went over to Europe to play overseas. In 1996 I suffered an injury working out and was forced to retire early. I moved back to New Jersey and started coaching Biddy Basketball in Teaneck, NJ. During that span I took a job as an assistant coach for John Jay College’s Men’s Basketball Team. When the season was over I always made time in my schedule to assist Howard Garfinkle at the Five Star Basketball Camp. In 2000, I went back to my alma mater, Teaneck High School, as a counselor for two years. While working at Teaneck High School, I was approached about an opening to coach Paramus Catholic’s Boys Basketball Team. This is where it became a challenge between balancing my role as a counselor in Teaneck with my coaching at Paramus. I started at Paramus Catholic in November of 2002. I mentored at Teaneck during the day and held practices in Paramus at night. In the fall of 2003 I was given a teaching position in computer graphics. In my third year I became the Athletic Director of Paramus Catholic High School. It’s been tough making the adjustment from staff member to administrator, but I welcomed the challenge and look forward to whatever the future holds for me.

Q. Most former players that go into coaching take select philosophies from the coaches they played for in the NBA or NCAA. Describe the style of basketball you have your team running. Which coaches can you credit for making you who you are today?
I personally credit my coaching style to Pat Riley, Bill Mussleman and Chuck Daly.

From Coach Riley I learned how to work with my players, determine which buttons to push and how to get them to respond. Riley was a master motivator and strategist.

Coach Mussleman was more of an X’s and O’s type of coach. He was a true student of the game. I remember he would call me at 2 a.m. with plays he wanted to run when I was in Minnesota. He was all about finding a style to fit his team.

Coach Daly was a blue-collar type of coach. He was the godfather of the “Detroit Bad Boys” style of play in the 80s. He was nice on the outside, but tough on the inside. He wanted his players to reach for higher heights and come to play every night. I learned my toughest lessons from Daly as a new rookie. He challenged me day and night.

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced since becoming head coach of Paramus Catholic High School Boys Basketball Team?
My biggest challenge is getting the kids to consistently work hard and get better every day. That has been the toughest challenge for me to overcome. When I was growing up players worked harder and had a stronger dedication to the game of basketball. Playing basketball in high school was a year- round commitment. The young athletes of today sometimes get a little over confident about their ability. When they play AAU ball or get selected on All-Star teams their egos grow. The kids on the high school level need to understand they are just beginning their learning experience of the game. There’s a level of respect they must have in addition to a strong dedication to maximizing your talents.

Q. Funniest story you would like to share from your playing career.
The funniest story from my playing career was somewhat serious, but when looking at it now, all of the guys can laugh about it. It happened during the 1994-95 season when I was with the Cavaliers. We were getting ready for the playoff match up with the Knicks. We were on the plane and we were experiencing some strong turbulence. Some of the players on that team were Tyrone Hill, John “Hot Rod” Williams, Mark Price, Chris Mills, Terrell Brandon and Danny Ferry, to name a few. The turbulence was so bad we thought we weren’t going to make it. Luckily the pilot was able to get the plane under control and the turbulence settled. We had at least four to five guys that were strongly affected by that event. I remember when we landed John “Hot Rod” Williams went to get therapy and Tyrone Hill ended up taking a limo from Cleveland to New York and said, “I will never fly again.” The rest of us got back on the plane and flew to New York. I’ll be honest, after that incident I was tempted to tag along with Tyrone and ride in the limo versus getting back on that plane with the team.

Q. Have you ever thought about coaching in the NCAA or eventually in the NBA?
Yes, I am actually waiting and praying that an opportunity will present itself. My game plan was to start with high school coaching to gain experience making plays, learn how to manage 12-15 different personalities, study tape, learn from other coaches, merge all of that together and put a winning team on the floor.

I’m hoping that my hard work doesn’t go unnoticed and that one day it will open a door for me in the NCAA or, ultimately, the NBA. Anything from scouting, becoming an administrator, mentor, or assistant coach in the NBA or NCAA would be ideal for me. My realistic long-term goal is to come back to the NBA family to be an assistant, and, eventually, a head coach.

Q. What is the most asked question from some of your players? Advice?
Most of my players want to know what it was like playing in the NBA. I tell them you have to be in it to understand it. I saw the NBA as the higher level, the end result of a long process of playing ball as a kid. It’s one long transition from playing in high school, receiving a full scholarship to play college ball, and finally being drafted into the NBA. I tell my players you have to want it. My achievements can be attributed to the hard work and dedication I put in as a player. I still remember running miles, doing sprints, suicides and the long practices. While my friends went to parties and dances, I was on the court constantly working on my game.

Q. What message do you have for the guys just retiring from the league or the former players out there that are not currently part of the NBRPA family?

You have to keep the bridges open and reach out to different people. During my playing career I had a different mentality. I, unfortunately, did not build strong relationships when I was in the league. My focus was on basketball and my family. When the season was over I would go home to spend time with my family, but when training camp was near my focused shifted back to basketball. I’m proud to be a Platinum Lifetime Member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). The networking opportunity this Association provides is unlimited. It allows me to reconnect with old teammates and friends on a personal level outside of basketball.