The Player-Coach Relationship
by Brian Witt
Ask any NBA player what it took for them to make it to the highest level of basketball in the world, and they'll assure you they never made it there all on their own.
Someone pushed them. Someone inspired them. Someone coached them.
For many of those athletes, the relationship with that special someone was not experienced at a single moment in time, but rather, is one that persists to this very day.
This Friday night, that special bond will be on display at the third annual Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, a tribute to coaches and mentors who have inspired Bay Area star athletes and their community.
Amongst the five coaches to be honored and the five players presenting them are Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo and current Golden State Warrior Draymond Green.
It's actually the second-straight year a member of the Warriors will be honoring a coach that has made a difference in their lives at this same event, and the unique bond between Izzo and Green is just one of several special player-coach relationships connected with the current Golden State roster.
Draymond Green was a four-year player under Izzo at Michigan State, over the course of which he established himself as one of the more decorated players in the nation. Green helped the Spartans advance to two Final Four appearances, was the 2012 NABC College Basketball Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.
"He had incredible basketball IQ. It's off the charts," said Izzo of Green last April. "He had incredible toughness. You know, he'd fight Godzilla. And then he had one more quality that I think is getting lost in our sports world – he had an incredible will to win. Meaning, everybody wants to win, but he would sacrifice to win."
While a natural competitor, Green credits Izzo for instilling the mentality within him that has driven him to become a two-time All-Star.
"He showed me that if I wanted to be a player, if I wanted to be successful, if I wanted to one day possibly play in the NBA, that I had to always have that energy, and it just started to become who I was, and who I am."
Throughout their four highly successful years together in East Lansing, they developed a lasting bond that continues to stretch far beyond the basketball court.
"That's the thing I love about Coach Izzo," Green said at a press conference in June 2015 after re-signing with Golden State. "Him raising you into a man when you get to his program is 10 times more important than what type of basketball player you become. The impact that he had on me and my life is through the roof, and that's why we're so close today."
Two months after that press conference, Green made a $3.1 million donation to his alma mater, and his relationship with Izzo had plenty to do with it.
"I can say thank you all I want and I can talk to coach Izzo every day, but how do I do something to say thank you but to also help these guys over here have the opportunity that I have?" Green said. "One thing Coach Izzo used to always tell me is I'm living my dream. All I want to do is see you live yours."
Izzo's coaching resume now includes 536 victories, 12 conference titles, seven Final Four appearances and a 2000 NCAA title, and just last September, Izzo was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame. Green was in attendance, of course.
"That's a guy I know would do anything for me. To see him get inducted into the Hall of Fame, I wouldn't miss that for anything," Green told The Undefeated. "I can't remember a big moment in my life that he hasn't been a part of. When there is a tough time in my life, he is there for me."
Izzo has made a habit of attending Green's professional games when circumstances permit, and he was there on April 6, 2016 when Green and the Warriors hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves and fellow former Spartan Adreian Payne.
At a pregame press conference, Izzo was asked about Green's donation to his former school.
"I always say that great players play great, but elite players make other players better. Well that's the same with a person. He has the ability to make people around him better, whether it be on the court or if he's challenging them off the court. And that's probably what I appreciate of him most."
One year ago, Green and Izzo's spots at the Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards were occupied by Stephen Curry and his former college coach Bob McKillop. And, much like Green and Izzo, Curry and McKillop maintain a close relationship to this day that extends far beyond basketball.
"He's had such an impact on my life and on my basketball career," Curry said in introducing McKillop. "He instilled confidence in me, gave me a vision for what kind of player I could be, and he's still impactful in my life — even beyond Davidson and wearing that jersey…We talk all of the time about life and how to be a great man. He's had a huge impact in my development, and to be able to honor that in any way I can is huge."
McKillop, who was sitting courtside during the Warriors' victory in Charlotte on Wednesday and is credited by Curry for taking a chance on "a scrawny kid who looked like he was 12 years old," views his relationship with Curry as a heartfelt reward for that now obvious decision.
"It's one of the most extraordinary gifts that's ever been given to me," McKillop said of the bond he shares with his former star guard. "That's the greatness of Steph Curry. He's continually giving gifts to people. He can make a devil look like an angel. He has the capacity to make people feel good."
Despite the inherent demands placed upon Curry, a two-time reigning MVP, and McKillop, now in his 28th season as Head Coach at Davidson, Curry estimates the two still manage to converse weekly.
"Sometimes, it's about random stuff, keeping tabs on him and the team that's representing the Wildcats right now. It's the same old Bob, pushing guys, yelling at them, getting on their case," Curry said. "He can do that because he has so much love for each one of his players, and that never stops no matter how far we are away from the campus."
For Curry, their relationship is built upon a mutual dedication to McKillop's favorite acronym of TCC – ‘Trust, Commitment, Care'.
"The biggest influence he has on myself and any other players that play for him is that he develops total character. He puts as much value on that, if not more, than what you do on the court. He's like a low-key father figure for everybody that comes through there because he pushes you so much."
"You want to do nothing more than to make him proud and be successful for him," Curry said. "To do your best because of what he invests in you."
Sometimes coaches have such an immense impact on players, they end up creating other coaches in the long run.
There's a reason why during Steve Kerr's postgame interview following Golden State's championship-clinching Game 6 victory in the 2015 NBA Finals, one of the first people he thought of was his former college coach.
"I'm thinking of Lute Olson," Kerr said, in addition to listing Phil Jackson, Lenny Wilkens and Gregg Popovich. "I've been blessed to play for the greatest coaches ever, and I've learned a ton from them, and they've all helped me get here."
Kerr was a lightly heralded recruit coming out of high school in San Diego, but eventually wound up at the University of Arizona under Olson during his first year as Head Coach of the now-storied basketball program. Prior to Kerr and Olson's arrival, the program had consistently ranked amongst the worst in the Pac-10, but reached the Final Four in 1988, Kerr's senior year.
"Once he ended up in the starting lineup as a sophomore, there was no question he was my extension on the court," Olson told The Arizona Star. "He was a guy who could get the most out of people."
When Olson heard Kerr's postgame comments after winning the championship, he was touched – and stunned.
"When Steve made that comment after the game, I mean, just to even be mentioned in the same sentence with Popovich and Phil Jackson, that definitely hit me hard," Olson said. "I was shocked when he said that."
And yet, it was only the reciprocation of the kind of friendly gesture that has come to define their friendship now going on 30-plus years of existence. Just two months prior, Kerr was recognized as the NBA's Coach of the Year, and unbeknownst to Kerr, Olson made sure to be in attendance at the award ceremony.
When Kerr saw Olson walk in following the introduction, his gratitude was impossible to contain.
"Wow," he mouthed to the packed room.
Now on the other side of the player-coach equation, Kerr maintains frequent contact with Olson, who attended a Warriors game as recently as January 2nd. Golden State ended up defeating the visiting Denver Nuggets by a score of 127-119, and when Kerr was asked to speak to his team's defensive performance, his mentor and friend was apparently on his mind:
"I wasn't thrilled. I was glad my college coach Lute Olson wasn't here to see that."
"Oh, he's here?" Kerr joked.
There was Olson, right in the third row.
You don't have to look much further past Kerr on the Golden State sideline to see another longstanding player-coach connection at work.
Kevin Durant may be in his first season with the Warriors, but his prior tenure with Assistant Coach Ron Adams had plenty to do with bringing him to the Bay Area.
"Ron Adams is the only reason I came here," Durant relayed to reporters at his introductory press conference after signing with Golden State in the offseason.
While that statement was certainly hyperbolic, his love and appreciation for the Warriors’ defensive guru is not.
"I missed him, man," Durant said of Adams. "His spirit is contagious. That's why everyone wants him on their bench."
Prior to being reunited in Golden State, Durant first undertook Adams' tutelage over their three seasons together with the Thunder in the franchise's first three years in Oklahoma City. Durant was 20 years old when Adams arrived, and the two immediately partnered to improve Durant's defensive performance. Durant, already an elite scorer in his second year in the league, often asked Adams during games to assess his defense.
"I liked the way Kevin always tried to do the things we asked him to do," Adams told the San Francisco Chronicle, now in his 22nd season on an NBA sideline as one of the league's top defensive strategists. "He was younger then, and I used to be staying on him pretty well, trying to get consistency and focus and all that."
The dividends were immediate, as Durant accounted for 2.7, 5.0 and 3.3 defensive win shares – a metric that estimates the number of wins a player produces for his team due to his defensive ability – in those ensuing three seasons, a considerable bump up from the 1.9 defensive win shares he was responsible during his rookie campaign. And now, reunited years later in Golden State, Durant is on pace for arguably the most impactful defensive season of his career, averaging a career-high in blocks (1.7), rebounds (8.4) and defensive rebounds (7.8) per game.
Adams witnessed Durant's transformation into a defensive force firsthand in the Warriors' seven-game Western Conference Finals series against the Thunder last postseason, and now together again, the dynamic duo is focused on increasing Durant's consistency on that end of the floor.
"He's challenging me," Durant said. "He wants me to be the best defender out there on the floor. He knows what I'm capable of."
When asked his reaction once he found out of Durant's decision to sign with Golden State, Adams admitted he didn't anticipate it coming.
"I was extremely happy and surprised at the same time," he recalled. "I just didn't think that would probably happen."
The joyous feeling was both mutual and readily apparent, as Adams made the 70-mile drive from Santa Cruz to the Warriors' team headquarters in Oakland to be there for Durant's introductory press conference.
Upon first sight of each other the two engaged in a massive bear hug.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that these special player-coach relationships have had a hand in producing nearly 40,000 NBA points, 13 All-Star selections, five league scoring championships and nine NBA championship rings combined.
To get to the highest levels, no one does it on their own.