- Open coaching jobs in the NBA are scarce and landing one is tough, but throughout the league, there are coaches with unique journeys to the pros.
- The Assistant Coaches Program is a program created by the NBA to help former players fine-tune their skills and get their foot in the door around the league.
- All coaches agree two things are critical to making the NBA — making connections and boasting a strong resumé.
In March, over a dozen former basketball players gathered in a conference room at the NBA’s league office in New York City.
The group included players from all walks of basketball — role players, veterans, players with short-lived careers, star college players, successful women players — who had travelled from around the country, through a snowy New York, for the meeting.
Sitting around a long conference table, the players intently watched a presentation teaching them important lessons for their future — networking, resumé-building, formulating an elevator pitch.
Gathered in New York for the orientation for the NBA’s Assistant Coaches Program (ACP), the players were not so much focusing on Xs and Os, timeout strategies, or rotations, but on selling themselves for positions of which there are limited openings.
“The reality is is that in this day and age if you don’t master technology, if you can’t articulate your skill set, if you’re not able to be relevant and present in interviews, all of those skills that I think many of us in the job market take for granted,” NBA Senior Vice President of Player Development Greg Taylor told Business Insider, “we know you’re just not competitive from the beginning.”
Taylor said the Assistant Coaches Program, one of several league initiatives aimed at finding former players work, was established to help players fine-tune their skills, make connections, and, hopefully, find work on the other side of the ball.
“It’s a who-you-know business,” said Stephen Silas, an assistant coach for the Charlotte Hornets. “People wanna hire people that they know and are comfortable with, so the more relationships you have, the easier it will be for you to get a job, have someone recommend you, that sort of thing.”
The participants in the coaching program are hoping to make those connections to make their way into a profession in which who you know, timing, skill, and, of course, a little bit of luck, can determine everything.
The first step to becoming an NBA coach — getting your foot in the door
Several of the coaches interviewed for this story say networking and job-seeking is common at league events like the draft combine or Las Vegas Summer League, where people are frequently talking about job openings or possible connections.
Some NBA coaches, however, are fortunate to get a start in the league without actively seeking a position.
Brett Brown, head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, was running a scouting camp for Adidas in the south Pacific region when he met a scout for the San Antonio Spurs named R.C. Buford. Brown had left the United States shortly after college to travel and ended up in Australia, coaching several levels of basketball.
Over the years, Brown and Buford formed a friendship until, eventually, Buford, who is now GM of the Spurs, offered Brown a job as a scout for the 1998-99 season.
“When an opportunity became available in the ’99 season, I appreciated and accepted it and went over there almost on a sabbatical,” Brown told Business Insider. The Spurs won the championship that season.
“I wasn’t a big networker, I didn’t do a lot of clinics, I wasn’t on social media,” said Brown. “I just tried to do my job and do the best I could at that. I was fortunate that things just played out.”
Brown would spend nine seasons as an assistant coach for the Spurs before being hired as head coach of the Sixers in 2013.
‘It’s not about who you know anymore, not even who knows you, but who’s willing to help you’
Theo Ratliff, a former NBA center who played 16 seasons in the NBA, is participating in the Assistant Coaches Program in hopes of getting involved in the league once again. Ratliff has front-office ambitions — another goal of the program — and found working the combine through the ACP to be a good resource for reconnecting with people he knew during his playing days.
“I’ve been retired now seven years, not seeing most of those guys in that time, to be able to rekindle some old memories of back in the day and make those contacts [has been helpful],” Ratliff told Business Insider.
Trisha Stafford-Odom entered the ACP as a decorated women’s college coach with stops at UCLA, Duke, North Carolina, and Concordia Irvine in California. In May, she accepted a head-coaching position at North Carolina Central.
But if Stafford-Odom decides to pursue a job in the NBA — she says her latest coaching gig hasn’t ended the “pull” of the NBA — it’s her connections that may help her most. Stafford-Odom says she befriended several NBA players when they were on men’s college teams while she coached the women’s teams.
According to Stafford-Odom, one such friendship paid off during the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder flew Stafford-Odom to their practice facility around Christmas to have her meet some of their staff and watch practices. Once there, she was greeted by a familiar face — Russell Westbrook, who she became friends with while he played on the UCLA men’s team in college.
“It’s not about who you know anymore, not even who knows you, but who’s willing to help you,” Stafford-Odom said.
“I don’t think I’ve used them, some of the players I’d say I’m friends with, to get where I am. But as I get closer and closer, their names come up in conversation, just because people are curious, it’s a familiarity. And sometimes it’s just a matter of you know that person and they respect you, ‘OK, I’ll listen a little more intently.'”
Paths to the NBA vary
When Jay Hernandez got a call from the Orlando Magic to work in player development in 2014, he considered the offer, thinking it may be good resumé material for his basketball training business, ProHoops, in Long Island., New York.
For Hernandez to even receive interest from NBA team was unlikely. In the early 2000s, after playing professionally in Puerto Rico on the weekends while working on a dual-MBA, Hernandez worked in sales for Johnson & Johnson. In 2004, he left the company to commit full time to ProHoops. From there, Hernandez gradually built a talented client base that included NBA stars like Kemba Walker, C.J. McCollum, and Tobias Harris.
As Hernandez’s clients made their way into the NBA, so, too, did his name and reputation as an elite trainer.
Hernandez accepted Orlando’s offer, intrigued by the culture and the training tools he’d have at his disposal. Now an assistant coach with a spot on the bench during games, Hernandez admits he had to grow on the job.
“My first week in the meetings, I was completely lost. You might as well have been doing quantitative methods in terms of just the way they were [talking], the terminology that was being used … I had to ask for like a dictionary or like a glossary of terms that they had. And they did — they had a big book that I got and I started just reading up on a lot of this stuff.”
In some ways, Hernandez’s path to the NBA is squarely different than that of Silas. Stephen, the son of former NBA head coach Paul Silas, got his first job as a scout on the Charlotte Hornets — under his dad.
But being the son of a legendary coach didn’t give Silas an easy path.. Silas has hopped around the league, scouting and working as an assistant coach for the Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Golden State Warriors for over 10 years. Last offseason, he reportedly impressed the Houston Rockets’ front office and was one of two finalists for the head-coaching job, but lost to the eventual 2016-17 Coach of the Year, Mike D’Antoni.
Along the way, Silas tried to separate himself from his father, coaching at pre-draft camps, participating in Basketball Without Borders, and speaking at clinics — anything to make his own name.
“People look at you and say, ‘You just got the job because of your dad’ … It was very important to me, branching out and getting to know people and having people know me for me as opposed to knowing me for being my dad’s son.”
Adrian Griffin, now an assistant coach for the Thunder, recognised the value in having a foothold in the league, which is what prompted him to take his first assistant coaching job with the Milwaukee Bucks.
In 2008, Griffin a journeyman center, was traded three times. At 33, entering his tenth season, Griffin was prepared to start the season when Bucks head coach Scott Skiles called him to tell him he was being cut.
“‘But hold on,'” Griffin recalls Skiles telling him. “‘How about you join my staff? Why don’t you take a few days and think about it?’
“I wanted to play another year or two like all players do, but I realised that day was gonna come regardless of where I was gonna hang it up. And I knew this from being around that these NBA coaching jobs don’t open up often. So I literally went from being in the locker room with all the players and the next day I was with the coaches in the coaches locker room.”
‘If you do a good job … word gets around’
Making connections in the league certainly helps, but coaches believe that the best way to make a reputation in the league is simple: be good at your job.
“I think at an early stage in my coaching life my father said something that continues to resonate with me. It’s: The best job you have is the one you have now,” Brown said
“It didn’t mean I was any less aggressive or less ambitious, it was just how I felt most comfortable just doing my day to day job with the belief that good days can add up and maybe opportunities unfold.”
Hernandez abides by the same philosophy. His work with players who became NBA stars is what got his name in the league in the first place. Silas can testify for the reputation that followed Hernandez.
“I knew Jay before he was in the NBA and I knew he had a great reputation with players because he had worked with Kemba Walker,” Silas said. If you do a good job and you’re working with whoever, whether it’s players or assistant coaches or GMs or whoever, word gets around. So it’s important to get to know people, but it comes down to your ability to do the job and the reputation you build by doing a good job.”
Hernandez also realises his time in the league could have ended sooner than anticipated. 52 games into his first season with the Magic, head coach Jacque Vaughn was fired. Hernandez remained on the staff. The following season, Skiles was hired, and he re-signed after the season, leading the Magic to hire Frank Vogel. Again Hernandez remained on board.
“I’m an outsider, I never played in the NBA, I don’t have any ties to the NBA, and I’m just somebody who just worked at it … It could have easily been 52 games in, the coaching staff gets fired, and maybe we’re there for a week and then they bring in a coach to finish out the season and that’s it. And then I would have had my little run and then I would have been done,” Hernandez said.
But good work and a good reputation can keep people on board, and in Hernandez’s case, being close with players was a huge boost.
“It’s a players league, they will be the first ones to say, ‘I’m not working with this guy anymore.’ And then they will get somebody else.”
Brown recognises the weight being a part of Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree carried when he joined the Sixers.
“There’s a respect that that program has in many different sectors of sport or business that put me in good shape,” Brown said.
“I think when you come from under that roof, people I believe wanna learn what you’ve learned. I think that that background with San Antonio with Pop and RC Buford helped me tremendously.”
Perhaps the one of the biggest advantages of coaching in the NBA is there’s room for growth. Upward mobility is a possibility.
Hernandez would like to become a head coach one day. Silas is sceptical of how many head-coaching positions will be available this offseason, but says he would “love” to explore them if they were.
Stafford-Odom isn’t sure how soon the NBA is to having its first female head coach, but she believes it’s “close.” Her experience, temperament, and friendship with several NBA stars could help her get there should she re-enter the NBA picture.
Griffin also hopes to one day become a head coach but he won’t rush the process. To Griffin, working hard and doing things the right way can only help him.
“I don’t believe in going maverick and just trying to get ahead on your own by any means. There’s a right and a wrong way to go about it. And like I said, you let your work, job, and your commitment do the talking. It will open doors for you.”