Igor Kokoškov Breaking Barriers in Basketball
Throughout his entire career, Igor Kokoškov continuously broke barriers and overcame the odds on his way to becoming the newest head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
A car accident in his early 20’s forced an end to his basketball career, but Kokoškov wasn’t willing to abandon the hardwood completely. At just 24 years old, Kokoškov was named the youngest coach in Yugoslavian basketball history.
He then went on to make NCAA history by becoming the first full-time European assistant in a Divison I school after joining the coaching staff at the University of Missouri in 1999.
Kokoškov one-upped himself just a year later and helped diversify the NBA as he was named the first non-American full-time assistant coach in league history. He joined Head Coach Alvin Gentry and his staff on the Los Angeles Clippers for the next three seasons before winding up on the Pistons in 2003.
In just his first season as an assistant with the Pistons, the team finished third in the Eastern Conference with a 54-28 record. Kokoškov helped guide the team through the playoffs and into the NBA Finals. Detroit took care of the Lakers in just five games as Kokoškov and the Pistons raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy and he became the first non-American assistant to be an NBA Champion.
Kokoškov remained an assistant with the Pistons until teaming up with his former mentor in Phoenix. Gentry had been working on the Suns coaching staff for the previous four seasons and on June 20, 2008, Kokoškov joined him in the Valley.
Rookie Goran Dragic and Kokoškov formed a mentor-apprentice relationship early on in Phoenix as the Slovenian guard grew accustomed to the NBA.
"Igor was the main guy,” Dragic told ESPN. “He always talked to me. He always opened my eyes and my head. I always remember him saying, 'Just put hard work in and be patient.' He was always saying patience. At that time, I didn't understand that well and now I really do, I really do. Even now I don't see him as a coach. I see him as my friend."
Gentry was appointed Head Coach just a year later as he and Kokoškov saw much success early on. After missing the playoffs the season prior, the newly guided Suns had a bounce-back year as they finished third in the Western Conference with a 54-28 record.
The Suns battled their way through the playoffs including sweeping the Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals. The team eventually lost to the soon-to-be-champion Lakers in a six-game series, but the turnaround from the season prior was not to be ignored.
“He’s had some great head coaching experience internationally,” Gentry told 98.7 FM’s Arizona Sports Station. “I think he’s very much ready to be a head coach. I think he understands the game, (he’s) got great personal relationships with the players … he’s got great temperament. I think he would be a great choice.”
While in Phoenix, a special ceremony was held on the home court of the Suns as Kokoškov became a citizen of the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) welcomed Kokoškov at US Airways Center as he was presented with his citizenship.
Kokoškov stayed with the Suns until 2013 before winding up on the Cavaliers coaching staff in 2013-14. He joined James Borrego’s staff on the Magic for the final two months of the 2015 season.
On July 1, 2015, Kokoškov was hired by the Utah Jazz to be an assistant coach under Quin Synder. Just a year later in 2016, Kokoškov was given a chance to guide an NBA team as Head Coach for a game after Snyder was ill. He made the most of this opportunity by leading the Jazz to a 107-101 victory over the Lakers.
The Jazz have made the Western Conference Semifinals the past two seasons with Kokoškov on their staff and players like George Hill have expressed just how much he has impacted their game.
“The things that he has me do are different than I've been used to,” Hill told the Salt Lake Tribune. “But what he's had me do is phenomenal, little things that I didn't know would help me become a better shooter and better off the dribble, things like that. We take a lot of time doing balance and core. You always want to work with someone who's experienced, and Coach has been very good for me.”
Throughout his time in the NBA, Kokoškov had continued coaching overseas as well. He was the Head Coach of Georgia from 2008-2015. Following that he became the Head Coach of the Slovenia national team in 2016 and 2017. He led Slovenia to a 2017 EuroBasket tournament championship taking home a gold medal.
Kokoškov had already made history by becoming the youngest coach in Yugoslavian basketball, the first full-time European assistant at a D-I school, the first non-American full-time assistant coach in the NBA and the first non-American assistant to be an NBA Champion.
He breaks another barrier on his way back to Phoenix as he becomes the first NBA head coach born and raised outside of North America.
“We are thrilled to bring Valley resident Igor Kokoškov back to Arizona as head coach of the Phoenix Suns,” General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “Igor has been a pioneer throughout his basketball career and he brings a wealth of high level coaching experience to our club… Igor’s teams have always had a player development focus, a creative style of play and a track record of success.”
As Kokoškov returns to the Valley, he reunites with Jared Dudley from their previous Suns days.
“From a development standpoint he’s really big on players putting in the work, working before games,” Dudley told AZCentral.com. “If you watch him in Utah with the players he has, he has a very thorough and extensive pregame workout where he pushes you and is on top of you.”
Dudley believes that Kokoškov has put in the work and has shown that he deserves the opportunity to be a head coach in the league.
“He’s had plenty of experience. It’s like Brett Brown in Philadelphia and Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta,” Dudley said. “He deserves the opportunity.”
Even back in their time with the Suns, Gentry always felt that one day Kokoškov would make a great head coach.
“He’s an unbelievable teacher,” Gentry said. “I think they guy’s a bright mind, a great coach and an unbelievable offensive mind.”
Kokoškov’s player development skills have been on display with players such as Dragic and potential Rookie of the Year Donovan Mitchell. With the young core on the Suns roster, these skills will be crucial as the team continues to push toward the future.