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One-on-One with Cavaliers Assistant Coach Hank Egan

by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer
Hank Egan has coached at every level and brings nearly 40 years of basketball knowledge to the Cavaliers.
Robert Laberge
NBAE/Getty Images

At just 35 years old, Mike Brown is the second-youngest head coach in the league next to New Jersey's Lawrence Frank. But he has surrounded himself with a pair of assistants who have a thorough knowledge of both the Cavaliers and the NBA. One is Kenny Natt, who was on Cleveland's bench for the duration in 2005-06. The other is 67-year-old Hank Egan.

Egan has nearly 40 years of coaching experience and been an assistant in the NBA for nine seasons, most of them with the San Antonio Spurs. During his time with the Spurs, Egan assisted in leading them to a 403-221 (.646) record including winning an NBA Championship in 1999. The Spurs won the Midwest Division Title five times and had the NBA’s best record four times during Egan’s tenure in San Antonio.

“I feel fortunate to have a coach of Hank's caliber join my staff,” Brown said, upon Egan's hiring. “He brings great experience to our team. He has coached at all levels and has been a part of many successful teams as both a head coach and a trusted assistant. He was part of San Antonio's staff when they won the NBA Title in 1999 so I'm thrilled to add championship experience to the staff.”

Egan graduated from the Naval Academy in 1960 and began his coaching career in 1966 as an assistant at the Air Force Academy. He was promoted to head coach in 1971 and spent the next 13 seasons in that role. In 1984, he was named the head coach at the University of San Diego and spent 10 seasons in that position before joining the Spurs in 1994. While head coach at San Diego, Egan coached Brown for two seasons from 1990-92.

The father of two children and grandfather of five was preparing to make the trip to Cleveland from his home in Colorado Springs this week and took a few minutes to talk about his defensive philosophy, the Spurs blueprint for success and what Mike Brown was like as a college player. You are sort of the “Godfather” of Gregg Popovich’s system in San Antonio and by proxy Mike Brown’s system in Cleveland. What’s the prevailing philosophy behind it?
Hank Egan: (Laughs.) Well, it’s a nice title. What the philosophy is, first of all, and utmost is a “We vs. Them” philosophy; it’s not “Me vs. You.” It’s a team concept. And it’s very, very disciplined in that everybody has to be able to rely on one another and there has to be a trust factor.

When a guy’s guarding the ball, if he’s doing it the way we want him to do it, he's pushing his man and the ball to the outside. Then he’s got to get help from everybody else.

So everybody’s got to be involved with playing the ball, all the time. Why was Mike Brown the right coach for the Cavaliers?
Egan: Well, he was going to be the right fit for somebody. And I think the Cavaliers are fortunate to get him. First of all, he’s a very meticulous guy in everything he does, especially from an X’s and O’s standpoint. And he pays attention to all the little nuances that are involved in putting together schemes, whether it be offense or defense. Because he really works at it.

The other thing that comes even more naturally to him, and that’s dealing with people. And this is very big in the NBA, as you know. And it’s some X’s and O’s, but it’s more about people. It’s about being able to deal with a lot of different kinds of personalities. Have you had a chance to meet or work with any of the current Cavaliers?
Egan: I’ve met LeBron James. We just had a very casual meeting. We haven’t done any work together or really sat down and discussed anything. It was just a ‘Hello, this is who I am.’ And of course, I knew who he was and I just said hello and introduced myself.

I’ve had a chance to observe him, and you talk about a person mature beyond his years, this is another guy like that. The Cavaliers notoriously had a problem defending the pick-and-roll last season. How does your defensive system plan to remedy that?
Egan: It’s something that we’re going to have to address and it’s something that we’re going to have to work very, very hard on in practice. They had a lot of problems with it and they struggled with it. But the fact that we’ve identified the problem early, even before we’ve started practicing, it’ll be something right at the top of the list that we’re going to have to deal with. You have LeBron James and Larry Hughes, two of the three league leaders in steals. At Hughes’ press conference, Mike Brown said he’s not a “big ‘steals’ guy” unless it fits into the defensive scheme. What are your thoughts on that?
Egan: I know where he’s coming from. Steals come from taking risks, and you have to weigh what you’re doing. You can get X number of steals, but are you giving away easy baskets in the process? Or offensive rebounds in the process?

You want to get some steals, but you want to get them from guys who are taking risks at the right time and not just taking risks to get that stat up. Do you see any similarities to the improving Spurs teams of the late-90s and the current Cavaliers?
Egan: Yeah, I think there are some really good players on both teams. When we got to San Antonio, we really found some players there. But we felt that our job was to make those players start thinking and acting a performing like a team. And I feel the same way about the Cavaliers.

There’s some nice pieces here and maybe there’s one more that you need. (There’s always that.) But there’s some pieces here and getting them to come together as a team where it’s no longer “me” or “him” it becomes “the Cavs.”

That’s the way you think of “the Spurs.” They have probably the best player in the game, but that’s not the way they think and that’s not the way people think of them. Mike Brown is the second-youngest head coach in the NBA. Is it important to have someone with vast experience like yourself working with him?
Egan: I think the reason Mike wanted me to come is because I bring a different element. He’s not going to need any help dealing with the players. I’m not going to help him there. He’s gifted in that regard. He’s mature beyond his years, especially dealing with people. He can deal with all kinds of players, and he’s very effective.

I think what I can provide for him is a sounding board for a lot of the things he does. I think that’s the most important thing that I bring. I know he knows what he’s doing. But having somebody that he personally knows and trusts, we’ve got that going for us. It’s just having someone who’s been around for a while who can say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea’ or maybe another idea might work best at another time. As of right now, the power forward position includes Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and Anderson Varejao. How do you see that situation shaking out?
Egan: It’s going to be a war!

I think this is the best situation for a coach because every guy is really going to have to bring it. Because there’s a guy right behind you who wants that job. I would assume that it’s a wide-open deal and let the best man win. And to be honest, I’m really looking forward to watching it. It’s a good problem to have. Looking over film from last year’s team what are some of the areas that they really need to improve upon? General observations?
Egan: I’ve watched a ton of film from last year. First thing Mike did when I met him in Chicago was give me the DVDs from all 82 (Cavaliers) games.

With just a casual observance of last year’s team, there is a capability they have to do things pretty well. It seemed to me that they had almost two seasons last year.

They played very well early and I know the caliber of the teams they were playing in the first half wasn’t as good as the teams that they were going to face when the schedule got tougher. But they did some nice things and they played as a team and that just eroded as the year went on. And it looked like in the end that it was just non-existent.

I think with a new start and a new dedication, that some of that can be recaptured. I think this could potentially be a very good team, defensively. You’ve got good athletes at all the key positions and you’ve got some guys who are not only athletic, but have some decent size as well. So if we can get dedicated to the defensive end, there’s the capability that we could become a very good defensive team. What was Mike Brown like as a player when you coached him at San Diego? Did you see anything in him that made you think he’d make a good coach one day?
Egan: We played Mike at both point guard and off-guard. Mike was a pretty good athlete, very strong physically. Little bit lighter than he is today. He maximized his game; you knew what you were going to get from Mike. He never took a day off. He was going to bring it every day. He was not afraid to compete against anybody. And he paid attention to everything. He knew exactly what the coaches were saying and if he didn’t he asked questions. He prepared very well.

We kept him around after graduation. Mike knew he wanted to get to the NBA. Very early on, as a player helping us on the coaching staff in San Diego and then later on when he joined Bernie (Bickerstaff, in Denver) he walked in there and showed that this is what he wanted to do. And there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be successful.


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