Derrick Coleman was a breakthrough big man when the Nets selected him as the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft after a standout career at Syracuse. A rebounding monster, the agile lefty also had the ability to put the ball on the floor, distribute, and face-up from the mid-range.
Ask Coleman for a comparison in today’s game, and he has a ready answer: DeMarcus Cousins.
“I’m the original stretch 4 at 6’10” — I just never settled for taking a three,” said Coleman. “Why would I take a three, again, when I got a guy half my size checking me? I’m (going to) take you to the block. I wanna punish you, but when I look at a guy like DeMarcus Cousins, he can put the ball on the floor, he can pass it, he can shoot the 3, he can post, and again, that’s a skill set, and like the big fella out there in Denver — (Nikola) Jokic. I love him, man, because again, those guys to me have a skill set and we’ve gotten so far away from that. We don’t have a lot of guys that have skill sets that can pass it, can shoot it, can go rebound it, run the offense, so I love guys like that. But when I look at DeMarcus I’m like yeah, he’s got it.”
Coleman filled a box score for the Nets, averaging a double-double with 19.9 points and 10.6 rebounds over five seasons, but also 3.1 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 0.9 steals per game.
With Coleman, Drazen Petrovic, and Kenny Anderson playing under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly, the early 1990s Nets were primed for big things and made three straight playoff appearances, but after Petrovic’s premature death in a 1993 car accident, things weren’t quite the same.
“I’ve been blessed to have great guys that really cared about the game of basketball, but more importantly cared about you as a person, as a human being,” said Coleman. “It was just special, with me, Kenny, and Drazen. That combination, man, we were deadly, and we were looking forward to being there in Jersey, winning ballgames, going back to the playoffs. I just think the car accident with Drazen, like I said, took the wind out of our sails.”
During Coleman’s rookie season, the Nets debuted the iconic “tie-dye” jersey that has been brought back for the 2020-21 season as the team’s first-ever Classic Edition jersey. With the uniform set to debut in Thursday’s game against Philadelphia, Coleman looked back on his Nets days with BrooklynNets.com. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion about key moments in his Nets tenure.
SELECTED NO. 1 OVERALL BY THE NETS IN THE 1990 NBA DRAFT
At Syracuse, Coleman broke out as a freshman starter on a team that went to the 1987 national championship game, where he grabbed 19 rebounds. He planned on leaving for the NBA after his junior year, but coach Jim Boeheim’s pitch that he could secure the top overall pick with a great senior year lured him back, and proved prescient after Coleman earned his third straight All-Big East First Team honor and was the conference Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.
“When you set out to achieve goals in your life, my first love was baseball or football,” said Coleman. “I really didn’t play organized basketball until I was 13 years old, with coaches and referees. Always had a hoop in my backyard, and I continued to grow and practice and play. To really start at high school and through college and here it is draft day, and you’re sitting there waiting for your name to be called, it was just a great feeling. It didn’t really hit me until I got back to the hotel and I was sitting there talking with my mom and my uncles and my family members like, ‘Wow, I did it.’”
PLAYING WITH PETROVIC
It was in January of Coleman’s rookie season that the Nets made a franchise-altering deal. Drazen Petrovic was a legend in Europe, but was having trouble getting off the bench for a championship contender in Portland. He played the final 43 games of the 1990-91 season for the Nets and averaged 12.6 points, then broke out with consecutive seasons averaging at least 20 points and shooting above 44.0 percent from 3-point range. In June 1993, Petrovic was tragically killed in a car accident in Europe.
“When he came to Jersey, it was an opportunity for him to step in and play,” said Coleman. “First upon meeting Drazen, it’s always the language barrier. But I saw him with his work ethic and wanted to prove himself in the game of basketball. He felt that being in Portland he didn’t get a chance to showcase his talents and what he was capable of doing. With us making that trade for him, and you know with me, sports, it’s always just a rhythm and getting familiar with your teammates, and as that season started to really, I would say at the All-Star break we had a little chemistry. It wasn’t quite there yet. But you could see Drazen’s potential and his talent, just his will on the basketball court to really show everybody that he belongs in the game.”
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Joining the rebuilding Nets was an adjustment for Coleman, whose Syracuse teams lost 31 games in four years. The 1990-91 Nets lost 56. But Coleman led the Nets with 10.3 rebounds per game and was a shade behind veteran guard Reggie Theus for the team scoring lead with 18.4 points per game. At the end of the season, he was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
“Being able to win Rookie of the Year, it was a challenge for me,” said Coleman. “That was one of my goals that I had set, because I looked at Syracuse and people only saw me in that 2-3 zone all the time with coach Boeheim. And I’m like, OK, I get a chance to really show that I can handle the basketball, I can pass the basketball, I can pull up and shoot the three, I can shoot the mid-range. In college, I think a lot of people don’t get a chance to showcase that. It opened up a lot for me at the next level and that was one of my goals, was to win Rookie of the Year, be first team All-Rookie team and then build from there. When I got the call, I was excited, my family was excited for me. I’m just looking at that as a stepping stone for us in New Jersey, just a start to build on being a better team.”
ENTER KENNY ANDERSON
With the second pick in the 1991 NBA Draft, Coleman liked the Nets’ options. There was his Syracuse teammate Billy Owens, Michigan State sharpshooter Steve Smith, and Queens-born point guard prodigy Kenny Anderson, whom Coleman had actually hosted on his recruiting visit to Syracuse. The Nets went with Anderson, who played mostly behind Mookie Blaylock as a rookie before breaking out in his second season. Anderson’s 9.6 assists per game in 1993-94 and 9.4 in 1994-95 are the fourth- and fifth-highest single-season marks in Nets history.
“Watched him in practice and the flashes he showed, I knew once he got his opportunity that he was gonna shine,” said Coleman. “It’s just getting the opportunity to get out there on the floor and prove yourself, and once he got that opportunity, man, that just took us to a whole ‘nother level, and once again, with a guy like Chuck Daly on the sideline who really more than anything let his players participate in what’s going on. A lot of times Chuck would always call a timeout and we’re not doing something right, we’ll talk about pick and rolls and stuff like that — ‘Hey man? What do y’all wanna do? What’s the best way to play it? What do y’all feel because you done tried it my way and (it) ain’t working. So y’all need to try it your way.’ But he would always ask for input and stuff like that, but Kenny was just destined for that.”
NEXT STOP, PLAYOFFS
In Coleman’s second season, the Nets improved by 14 wins and made the franchise’s first playoff appearance in six years. In 1992-93, with Chuck Daly as coach, they improved to 43-39 even with a late-season fade after Petrovic was injured.
“Chemistry and understanding that the chemistry on the team, but understanding that it takes all of us,” said Coleman of the leap the team took. “All 12 guys and what we’re doing, and Chuck always gave praise to everybody for that. Like I said, Kenny was just destined for that opportunity. He was just sitting there in the wings waiting for that. I’ve got two guys on the floor with me who actually really needed to prove themselves. You’ve got Draz who we got in a trade, played half a year, and I’ve got Kenny, our No. 1 pick the next year and didn’t really get an opportunity to play his rookie season. We come back that following year, they’re destined to really prove themselves: ‘Hey man, we belong and we’re really going to be something in this league.’ That jump, the 14 games and seeing whether we’re going to make it to the playoffs or not, that was the most exciting part about us in Jersey.”
PLAYING FOR CHUCK DALY
As a high school star in Detroit, Coleman had a chance to visit the practices of a rising Pistons team that would go on to win two NBA championships while Coleman was at Syracuse. Pistons coach Chuck Daly would go on to lead the Dream Team to the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, and then coach the Nets for two seasons on his way to the Hall of Fame.
“One thing that I loved about Chuck Daly and I would say Larry Brown, it was never always about the game,” said Coleman. “It was about life. Chuck never gave us long speeches, win or lose. It was always quick-witted. ‘Hey, hey, we’ve got to do this or that. Let’s get it in. We’ll get it in practice tomorrow.’ Never gave the long speeches. Never was too high, never was too low. Always had the medium-keel, and in game situations what I loved about him also, that he could just change the whole narrative on a game in a timeout. And he loved, when we scored on a play, he’s going to milk that play. That was one thing I loved about him. We’re going to make them play defense. They’re going to have to figure out how to stop us. But we always had wrinkles for that. Strictly, we’re going to get it, we’re going to push, when we’ve got those opportunities, we’re going to take those opportunities. But more than anything, the life lessons. Being around him. When the game of basketball was over that he always asked you about your family and how everybody was doing and the conversations just about life. That’s one of the things I took away from him.”
ALL-NBA IN 1992-93 AND 1993-94
Coleman had his two best NBA seasons under Daly, earning All-NBA Third Team selections in both 1993 and 1994. In 1992-93, Coleman averaged 20.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, and in 1993-94 he averaged 20.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game.
“For me, I always looked at just growing each year,” said Coleman. “And I think it helped a lot with Chuck because I was able to really show parts of my whole game, from knocking the threes down to handling the basketball, and Chuck never tried to limit me in doing that. He’s like, ‘Hey, if Derrick has the rebound, he’s got it, everybody run. He’s going to pass the basketball. He’s going to give it.’ I was excited about it because it was always one of my goals, I always set goals for myself every year what I wanted to try to achieve, and I would stick them in my locker. To make All-NBA, it was great for me, but again, I think I was Third Team, I’m like OK, how do I get to Second Team, how do I get to First Team. So I’ve always put that type of challenge in myself. Yeah, I’m excited about the accolades, but how do I keep continuing to get better and keep continuing to work at this game.”
ALL-STAR STARTER IN 1994
In 1994, Coleman and Kenny Anderson became the first Nets ever voted to start in the NBA All-Star Game, and only Vince Carter in 2005 and Jason Kidd in 2008 have done it since.
“I thought a couple years before that I should have been on the All-Star team and I wasn’t, but every player thinks that,” said Coleman. “That always was another challenge, like every time, I think they picked Larry Nance those two years ahead of me, so every time we would go play against Cleveland I always had a chip on my shoulder for him and (John) Hot Rod (Williams). But again, when you’re talking about accolades, and knowing that you belong as being a part of it, and then to do it with your teammate, that was just icing on the cake for me and Kenny. I thought our combination of point guard and a power forward was great, because we really fed off of each other and also both of us being left-handed, all that played into the games and the schemes of playing the game of basketball. I was real excited about playing in the All-Star Game, being there, trying to absorb and take everything in and again, having Kenny there with me, somebody I knew I could depend on, I knew when he was in the game I was going to get the ball. It was great.”
AFTER THE NBA
Coleman played in the NBA through the 2004-05 season, with stops in Philadelphia and Charlotte before wrapping up with a brief tenure with his hometown Pistons. Coleman lives in downtown Detroit, where he’s been active in the community and youth basketball and done real estate development. In 2017, Coleman led groups in delivering water to Flint, Michigan residents during the city’s water crisis. Another former Syracuse star, Dave Bing, who was an NBA All-Star six times while playing for the Pistons from 1966 to 1975, and later became mayor of Detroit, has been a mentor since Coleman’s childhood. Over the last decade, Coleman has created and run DC Elite, a summer league program in Detroit.
“I just started it because I saw the level of competition here in Detroit dying off,” said Coleman. “We were a state of producing talent. I started it because I wanted the kids to have a safe environment to come and compete and play, but also work on the game of basketball, and I started doing the week, which was like Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, because everybody always played at St. Cecilia on Saturdays and Sundays. It took off. First year, I probably had 15, 20 teams and I have to turn teams away now because I really don’t have the floor space to do what I really want to do. We’re playing in one gym, with one court. But again, it’s bigger than basketball. We have the mentoring program with all our kids where you see all these ex-NBA guys come through the gym and have a chance to really sit and have conversation with all these NBA cats that are still here in Michigan. We have a food program. We still feed all the kids every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and to be able to take food home to their families. So for me, it’s always been bigger than the game. It’s just using the game to enrich the lives of these kids and get them to understand that through sports, through basketball, basketball can take you around the world if you let it.”