If you think about the NBA coaches, past and present, there is a strange shortage of former stars. The vast majority of head coaches are, and have been, journeymen or at best, second tier stars. There are more stars who have caught on as position coaches but the assistants tend to be journeymen also. I believe that there are several reasons for this.
Dateline: August 27, 2012––34 days until the start of training camp!
Coaching entails motivation, managing people, teaching, and game management. Stars are typically ill-equipped to handle any of the four.
For them motivation has always been with them as the centerpiece, focus, leader, and only perhaps the recipient. If they were doing the motivating, it usually came by example, or as a demand. The truth is that stars are usually internally driven. Their competitive fires typically burn so bright that they have a hard time understanding why others aren’t similarly maniacal. For a star the idea that a player would need to be persuaded to play hard and play his best comes as an alien and almost reprehensible concept. Needless to say prodding pampered laggards exceeds the patience limits of most of the self-motivated over-achievers.
Most stars have been catered to since high school, or even middle school. An agent handles the team officials, a posse handles the trivia of day-to-day life, doormen and establishment owners fawningly supply their every whim, and women fall on their backs at every turn. Most of these stars struggle to manage a personal relationship with a wife or girlfriend of the month. They haven’t negotiated compromises, they have demanded concessions. Once again, little in their background has prepared these A-lister’s to navigate the treacherous waters of interpersonal interactions.
Stars often do what they do without really know how they do it. It comes so easily that they frequently aren’t even aware of the steps and stages that culminate in a flowing action. They didn’t build their skill set with building blocks and seldom have any idea how to deconstruct the finished product to lead a less gifted player through the step-wise process.
For game management, an awful lot of the stars subscribed to the “give me the ball and get out of my way” approach. Their extraordinary skills too often carried them beyond the typical framework of plugging along in the planned attack channels and working in the traces along with their teammates. Why invest in an analytical approach when you can out run, out jump, out maneuver, and/or out finesse your opponent? More often their supremacy was of the mano-a-mano dominance and the ensuing chest-thumping celebration back down court. They may have observed their coach(s)’ machinations; but it was hardly critical to their personal excellence.
On the other hand good coaches, and certainly great ones, are masterful practitioners of each of these facets. Not just good motivators but great psychologists. Not just good managers of people but supreme puppeteers. There is a reason they call Phil the Zen master, a reason Doc is one of the best F/A recruiting tools in Boston’s arsenal, and a reason Riley could direct all those massive egos into a cohesive Showtime force. All three coaches were good players in their own right, not top-of-the-line stars but hard working veterans who built a long career by getting everything possible out of their adequate talent and leveraging a keen understanding of the game into slight edges which they applied with a vengeance.
A career of overcoming their limited athletic skills became an advantage as coaches. Because the game did not come easily to them, they had to assemble their moves and shots one step at a time. They had to understand the angles and anticipate the play developing to compensate for not being the strongest, fastest, and most athletic. Because they had to learn the game step-by-step, they knew the pieces and the process to teach the less gifted athletes just as they had learned themselves. Limited in talent, they also had to employ every angle to be successful. They studied the game, and their coaches’ actions, in order to apply every advantage. The perfect school of hard knocks, complete with the motivation of necessity, to acquire the game management skills that also thrust them to success as coaches. Other modern examples include Popovich, Karl, and Carlisle.
It would be an oversight to not mention an obvious exception. Larry Bird was a star of the first order, and he made an excellent coach. But if you will remember he was hardly a lock to achieve greatness in the NBA. A fifth-year senior (potential topped out) who wasn’t fleet of foot (lacks athleticism) and couldn’t jump (white man’s disease). His legendary shooting skill was born of countless hours of practice. His point-forward prowess growing out of a keen study of the game trying to compensate for his pedestrian natural skills should have been a foreshadowing of how well his full complement of basketball tools would translate to coaching.
Boston, and all points beyond