For one of the NBA’s veteran and most respected coaches, Jim Cleamons is enjoying a long-awaited homecoming, as he spent two-and-a-half seasons in a Knicks uniform in the late ‘70s. Three-plus decades and nine coaching championships later, he hasn’t lost his taste for the Big Apple.
“You’d have to be from Mars to not want to play or coach in New York City,” says Jim, currently in his 24th season as an NBA coach. “It is the Mecca of Basketball, and you’d have to have a pretty low threshold of emotion if you didn’t get enthusiastic about the opportunities you get just by being associated with a pro basketball franchise in New York City. When you think of the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, those are the type of emotions that come to my mind. As a player and also as a coach, you realize how much you want to be there and be a part of it. Having been a player with the Knicks and now as an assistant coach, these same emotions exist. This is what makes it real. If you’re a competitor, if you enjoy the spirit of competition, if you like challenges, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Author of a championship legacy as both player and coach, Jim is in his second season on the Knickerbockers staff, joining New York as an assistant coach on Sep. 3, 2014. Cleamons, who owns a total of 10 NBA Championship rings (nine as a coach, one as a player), joined the Knicks from the Milwaukee Bucks, for whom he served as an assistant coach in 2013-14.
Jim’s NBA coaching career began with seven seasons as an assistant with the Chicago Bulls (1989-90 through 1995-96). He served for 10 years (in two different stints) with the Los Angeles Lakers, from 1999-2000 through 2003-04, and again from 2006-07 through 2010-11. He also spent two seasons with the then-New Orleans Hornets (2004-05 through 2005-06) as well as one (2013-14) with the Bucks.
As part of Phil Jackson-led coaching staffs, Cleamons was a member of four NBA Championship teams with the Bulls (1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996) and five with the Lakers (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010).
“Jim reminds everybody that, although many things have changed, there are a lot of things that remain the same about the game,” says Head Coach Derek Fisher, who was coached by Cleamons as a Laker. “It still comes back to good, old-fashioned hard work and guys being willing to play together on the offensive end, sharing the ball; and also taking pride in getting stops on the defensive end. He reminds all us young guys that no matter how sophisticated we try to make the game, it’s still a pretty simple game. It’s good to get those messages, and that’s what Jim is able to do for us.”
Moving past last year’s difficult season into a bright future is also on Cleamons’ Knicks agenda.
“It’s difficult when you give it your all and still come up short,” says Cleamons, 66. “I think that’s a measuring stick of the great ones. The great ones find a way, when they come up short, to redefine themselves the next night. There’s something in their competitive nature where they say, `I can do better, and tonight I can and I will.’ Those are the things that we have to find within ourselves moving forward. Who are the really great competitors on our team, and who can this franchise depend on, moving forward, to take their game to the next level? That’s the challenge I’m looking forward to having this year.”
In addition to his career as an assistant coach, Cleamons served for a season-and-a-half as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks (1996-97 to 1997-98), and has a career NBA head coaching mark of 28-70 (.286).
Prior to joining the Bucks in 2013, Cleamons had served for one season as a head coach in the Chinese Basketball Association. He began his coaching career with assistant coaching stints at Furman (1982-83), and at his alma mater, The Ohio State University (1983-84 through 1986-87), and as head coach for two seasons at Youngstown State (1987-88 through 1988-89). In 1998-99, he coached the Chicago Condors of the now-defunct women’s American Basketball League.
The 13th overall pick in the 1971 NBA Draft, Jim enjoyed a nine-year playing career (1971-72 through 1979-80) over which he averaged 8.3 ppg in 652 games. As a rookie, he was a member of the fabled 1972 NBA Champion Lakers squad that won a League record 33 straight games under Hall of Famer Bill Sharman. He then played five seasons in Cleveland, averaging a career-high 12.2 points and earning NBA All-Defensive second team honors for the 1975-76 “Miracle of Richfield” squad that won the Central Division title under Bill Fitch. Cleamons authored one of the signature moments in Cavaliers history when his buzzer-beating layup off a Bingo Smith miss gave the Cavs a 92-91 win over Washington in Game Five of the East Semis (Apr. 22, 1976), en route to Cleveland’s seven-game series win.
Cleamons signed with New York as a free agent on Oct. 10, 1977, with the Knicks sending future Hall of Famer Walt Frazier to the Cavs as compensation. He played a two-and-a-half seasons (180 games) with the Knicks, averaging 6.5 points for the 1977-78 squad that included Phil Jackson and earned a Playoff berth under Head Coach Willis Reed. On Oct. 18, 1979 at Detroit - the fourth game of the season - he earned an additional honor by becoming the first Knick ever to record a three-point field goal in regular season play.
“I got the honor of playing in New York, and the team that we had - and I’ll tell anyone to this day - was one of the most talented teams in the League, in 1977-78,” he remembers. “It was a good team, but we didn’t win. I have very good memories of that team, but they aren’t quite what I’d like them to be because we didn’t live up to the billing.”
Born on Sep. 13, 1949 in Lincolnton, NC, Jim averaged 18.5 ppg over three seasons at Ohio State, earning a degree in education. He was the captain of the 1971 squad and earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in 1969-70. A member of the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame (2008) and the Greater Columbus Basketball Legends Hall of Fame (2013), Cleamons and his wife Cheryl are proud parents of daughters Imani and Rose.