Getting to Know… Bob Bender

What are you most excited about now that you’ve joined the Memphis Grizzlies staff?

“First and foremost, I’m excited because of my relationship with David Fizdale. It all started in Atlanta. We got there at the same time during the Mike Woodson era and we were there for four years. I grew very close with David as a person, but I saw in him a young coach that just had tremendous potential to become a head coach. It wasn’t going to take long. When he did leave Atlanta and went to Miami as an assistant, I’d see him over the years and saw his role evolve. It was obvious where his future was going to take him. He wasn’t the guy that pursued jobs – it’s all been a matter of where he could fit. That’s crucial in the NBA. When he got this job, I called him and told him that I’d love to work with him again. All the reasons he talked about of why he wanted to be here in Memphis was just so natural. The fit, for me, was just an easy, easy decision that I wanted to come here more than any opportunity that would arise. David was great through the whole process. Secondly, I’ve always respected the identity of the Memphis Grizzlies. I’m a firm believer that consistency in this league is all about what your identity is. Everyone’s is different. You have Golden State where it’s about the three-point shot and their offense. You’ve got San Antonio and it’s all about movement and the way they play. And with the Cavaliers, they play to their strengths with Kyrie and LeBron. To me, the identity of the Memphis Grizzlies is the toughness. It’s about the team that can grind in the NBA. They win close games because they can go and win games down the stretch because of their toughness. I’ve always identified with teams and players like that. I’ve always respected that about this organization. It’s built on that and will continue to be built on that. I like that when you look at the fact they’ve made the Playoffs six straight years in the West – that’s not a given. That’s an accomplishment. As a coach, whatever your criteria for what you believe is a good fit, this to me was a perfect fit.”

What are some things you’ve learned throughout your coaching career that has stuck with you?

“From an overall coaching standpoint, this goes way back to college coaching. But in today’s world of basketball, no matter what level you’re at, as a coach you’re the guardian of the game. It’s not just what happens between the lines on game night. It’s everything involved with respecting the game of basketball. How’s it’s played, how you conduct yourself as an NBA player… All of these things have to be priority. I think that from the standpoint of having left college to come to the NBA, and being in the NBA for 13 years now, I really respect the people who are capable. Whether it’s the organization, or the coaches and players, it’s about the ability of people that have the ability to recognize who they are, play to their strengths, but consistently work on their shortfalls and weaknesses. That way you battle through complacency. You can never be satisfied in the NBA. You have to constantly be trying to get better. It’s more of a challenge in the NBA because of the pace. The pace of the game is so much quicker than college – the shot clock, the number of games you play, the travel, all of these things factor in. Attention to detail is critical. You’ve got men who’ve played this game – the veterans – and they’ve seen it all. But you have to figure out how to still help them as individuals and how you can collectively help the team. That’s what I’ve learned most – Don’t be satisfied, always look to get better, and think, ‘What can I do as a coach to make us better?’ Going into every year, like any NBA team, you hope you stay healthy. You hope you can gauge and monitor the season so that you peak at the right time – that’s obviously the Playoffs. But along the way, you got to win games and you have to put yourself in the position. Challenges are there all the time.”

Who has mentored you through your coaching journey?

“I go back to when I used to play. I played for Bob Knight. I worked for Mike Krzyzewski. I worked for Larry Brown as my first NBA Head Coach. Those three are all Hall of Fame guys. From there it’s gone along with Mike Woodson, Larry Drew, Chris Ford who I worked for in Philadelphia and Randy Ayers. In the NBA you get very close as assistants. The staffs become much more unique. It’s just basketball, but the give and take amongst coaches is constant. In college you have to deal with off-court stuff – like classes and campus life. But here, it’s just basketball. Sure these guys have lives outside of basketball. But they’re treated like adults. Obviously they’re men. I always remembered what impressed me most about David [Fizdale] was his willingness to listen to everyone, and their points, concerns and philosophies. He took it all in, like a sponge. He then took that feedback, and what he believed in, and assimilated it into what was best for the team. When he was a young coach when we were in Atlanta, he had this ability to talk to every player. Whether they were a starter, rotation player or someone who played very little. Whether they were a rookie, a young guy in the league or a veteran. That’s what a team is made up of. And David had the ability to connect. Even before he came to Atlanta, I’m sure that was evident where he was before then. Communication, if I were to say one thing about mentors, and people you respect in the game, is that ability they have to communicate, between players or coaches. David has had that always. It’s part of who he is. As for my mentors in this league – yes, I’ve had several that were head coaches – but I’ve also been lucky to have been on staffs where I learned a lot from other assistant coaches. They’ve had lots of experience and have helped me learn. You come in this league and you have to listen. You won’t have every answer. You have to observe and listen, take it all in, in order to really understand.”

When you’re not coaching, what other kind of hobbies do you have?

“It’s funny because at this point my family has become my hobby. I have a daughter who is a college soccer player at Duke University. She’ll be a junior. I have a son who is a rising senior in high school and he’s a lacrosse player. None of my children are involved in basketball, but they’ve gone on their own path with their own sports. That’s been fun for me. I grew up with soccer, but I definitely didn’t know anything about lacrosse before my son started playing. That’s been my main hobby, trying to keep up in the course of the season with what’s going on back home. During spare time, it’s always great to be there for them for their stuff. But as a whole, my family loves to travel. We’ve been to Africa, Costa Rica, and other places so they could experience life. Both of them have been able to travel abroad with their schools – my daughter to Greece and my son to China. I’m excited for them because that goes along with what our family has tried to expose our kids to. Even simple things, for seven years straight when they were kids we went to Montana to a ranch that was great for family. My son is a fisherman, and my daughter rode horses before she made the ultimate decision to play soccer. All of these things became hobbies for me. I never minded going to a horse show. I’m not a fly fisherman like my son, but at least I can join them for the sake of being able to spend time with them.”

Where do you see yourself fitting in the Grizzlies’ landscape of giving back to the community?

“Memphis is very unique. Something I’ve quickly learned about since being here is that it’s one of the greatest medical communities in the country. I knew that before I came, but not to the extent that I know now. Everyone knows about St. Jude and it’s always been a piece of Memphis’ outreach. The Grizzlies do a great job of making sure people know about their commitments and about the topics at hand in the community, so everyone can benefit from learning and participating. Aside from local issues, I also like the NBA’s approach of making sure the youth know what a priority it is to learn to read. I think any community that hosts an NBA team, the more involvement that can be had from players and coaches, only betters the interest from youth. Reading is a fundamental platform for success. Our world has changed, but that has remained constant. Whether you’re reading a hardback book, or on a computer, it’s an important thing to ensure success for youth. It doesn’t matter who you’re helping and involved with, but rather it’s more impressive that the Grizzlies recognize the need in the community and address those things in a real way. It’s about the follow up and developing relationships that go beyond just a visit. It’s recognized league-wide what the Grizzlies do in the community. I’m excited to experience it first-hand.”

What do you like to do in your spare time?

“I’m a big reader. I probably read more during the season than in the offseason, because of the amount of time you spend on planes. I’m also very into the outdoors. I like working in the yard. If I wasn’t a basketball coach, I’ve told people this for years, I’d be a farmer. Put me on a tractor and I’d be happy all day long! I know it sounds simple, but it’s very enjoyable.”

What is your experience with Coach Mike Krzyzewski?

“Well I’ve said this about David Fizdale – When you look at guys you know will be successful in this profession - when they get their opportunity to head coach – you’re confident in their coaching ability because of their communication abilities. Mike recruited me in high school, he was a graduate assistant at Indiana. I’ve known him since I was 17 years old. He’s a master communicator. He knows how to talk to people, and how to talk to players. The greatest ability to be a good communicator is to be a good listener, and he listens to his players and knows what they need because of that. Then he’s able to communicate and teach it. As a head coach, in working for him, he was someone that exposed you to every aspect of what coaching was about. It prepared you to be a head coach. His advice when I left Duke was, “Take what you believe in and take the positives from your experiences. But then, do it [coach] within your own personality and within the personality of your respective team.” I went to Illinois State, so he said, “Try and make Illinois State the best it can be. Don’t try to make it Duke. You be yourself and you try to make Illinois State the best.” I think that’s great advice. So often in coaching, people who have worked in successful programs try to take what they know and make it fit anywhere. Many times it’s a mistake. You have to know where you’re at, and Mike does an incredible job of preparing you do to do that when you leave that program. To me, he’s the same guy that grew up on the west side of Chicago. He’s got the same friends to this day. I go back to Duke a lot. I graduated from Duke, I have a daughter there, my son wants to go there, and my wife went there… But when I go back to Duke I see his buddy, Mo, which he’s been friends with since grade school, and Mike has him there all summer basically hanging around camps. He’s the Hall of Fame, the National Championships, the world championship, Olympic gold medals… but he’s still just Mike Krzyzewski from the west side of Chicago. People see those things on TV that he’s done for our profession. But when you know him, you just go back to the old stuff, the guy he’s always been.”

How excited are you to coach in a Hoop City?

“Obviously Univ. of Memphis has a rich history in college basketball, they have their spot. It’s a wonderful program. I’ve known Tubby Smith forever. We coached against each other in Missouri Valley when I was at Illinois State and he was at Tulsa. But to be with the Grizzlies and this environment – I’ve never had that. In Atlanta, you had the Falcons, the Braves... In Philly you’ve got the Eagles and the Flyers as well… In Milwaukee we had just the Brewers, but the Green Bay Packers weren’t too far away. And we know that’s big. But to be in a setting like this on the NBA level, I think every coach likes to be in that position. I think that’s why there is so much consistency in this organization. People recognize what they have and they don’t want to leave or make changes. You want to make this the best it can be because it’s appreciated more by the community. To me, that’s an added bonus. For all the other things we’ve talked about, overall when you think about the Grizzlies and Memphis – the Grizzlies are THE thing. And everyone likes that kind of environment.”