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A Coach's Decision

Xs and Os come easy. It's whether to ply their trade in the college or professional ranks that wrangles the country's top coaches
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

(continued from page 5)

"It's a very small group that keeps churning through the NBA," he says. "They've been in the league for a long time, and they use the same terminology and have the same understanding of everything. And you come into it, and you don't use the same terms, and you don't think the same way. And you're almost forced into doing what you see being successful for others, because you're not going to have enough time to do something different, even if you thought you could or wanted to.

"I may have been naive," he adds. "You can't explain it to anybody. The guys who did try to explain it to me, bits and pieces of what they said started to make sense to me over time. It's not the game, it's not the coaching, it's not the Xs-and-Os. It's all the stuff that you don't know when you get there—that you can't possibly know."

One dirty secret is how ill-prepared most players are. Montgomery was shocked to discover what his well-paid NBA players couldn't do. "We were running some pretty good stuff that I thought would work," he says. "And it did for some of our players. But as we got into it, I found that some guys couldn't dribble to their right, couldn't pass to their left, couldn't catch a pass and dribble. So I eliminated a lot and made it very simple."

Nevertheless, the Warriors didn't start winning until guard Baron Davis arrived in early 2005, in the middle of Montgomery's first season. "When Baron came, we kind of threw everything out the window," he says. "We were losing, we didn't have time for practice. Baron had been hurt. So we just ran Baron off the pick-and-roll. We just said, 'Baron, if you come down the right side, we'll run the pick from there. If you come down the left side, we'll just run it from there. We'll just play off you.' And boom! It worked and it worked."

In college, coaches lead. But in the NFL and NBA, having a coach on the floor or the field is more than just a sportswriter's cliché, it's an essential component of winning teams. "Any NBA team that wins has a great player or players leading the team in a positive way," says Bzdelik. "When I was with the Heat, I saw Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and Dan Majerle take a rookie, put him in a corner, and say, 'You know what? We don't do this here.' He was acting like a fool, not getting a good night's sleep, not real serious in the locker room. And they took charge of the situation."

"If you have somebody who is a leader in the locker room, somebody you can say something to and he's not going to react badly, that's the difference," says Golden State forward Mike Dunleavy Jr., the son of Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. "If you don't have somebody like that, it gets tough. Because then you're picking your spots. Who you're calling out, who you're not. In college, you can get on everybody. Nobody's older than 23. You can jump guys, whatever. This level, guys have guaranteed contracts. People are going to say something back to you. I don't think Coach Montgomery anticipated that. It was a big adjustment for him. I think he thought it would be a little easier than it was."

Montgomery is clearly struggling. After two losing seasons, he is on all the lists as one of the coaches who might be fired at any time. And because familiarity breeds contempt, some of his players already have tuned out his exhortations. They figure he'll be gone before they are. Yet he stills gets calls from college coaches asking about opportunities in the NBA. "Guys who are discouraged, disgusted with recruiting," he says.

He tells them to be careful. "You probably should be ready to say, 'I've done that. Now, what else is there?'" he says. "And don't think you're going to go in and revolutionize the league. You're not. You're not going to revolutionize anything. What you're going to do is take some hits."

In August, Montgomery was fired by the Warriors and replaced by Don Nelson, who has coached more than 2,000 regular-season games in the NBA.

The College Try
Jeff Bzdelik sits at the rear of a gym on the Air Force Academy campus, watching the Falcons women's basketball team play Army. It's a show of support, but it also represents Bzdelik's affinity for college coaching. At Air Force, he's part of something larger than his team.

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