Talking With: Jim Cleamons (Part One)
Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons has a history with the Lakers that runs back to his rookie season in the NBA, when he was L.A.'s #1 pick in the '71 draft and was a reserve guard on the '71-'72 title team. He'd go on to have a nine year career with the Lakers, Cavs, Knicks, and Bullets. His long relationship with Phil Jackson goes back to the '78-'79 season, when they were tammates in New York. As a coach, Cleamons joined Jackson's staff in Chicago for seven seasons, then again in Los Angeles during the threepeat years. After a trip to New Orleans to work with Byron Scott, Cleamons came back to L.A. and Jackson's staff last season. He also has head coaching experience, with the Mavs from '96 into the '98 season. To say the least, he's seen a great deal over his 35+ seasons in professional basketball.
I had a chance to talk with Cleamons last week at the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, on topics ranging from his tenure as a player and how it helped shape him as a coach, working with PJ and how the staff operates, and issues on the current squad from Kobe to how they'll have to adjust without Drew.
Click here for the audio (Download jim_cleamons_1.mp3), and below for some quote pulls (Note: What comes beneath the jump isn't a full transcript. Call it a highlight reel).
On how good timing, hard work, and luck all play in to success and winning:
"Without a doubt it's a combination. The period of time I was born, the people who crossed my path as teachers, as teammates, the competition that I've had to play against and compete against, and the friends that I have as a result of this game. It's all important. It's all been, really, a highlight to me. Nobody else will probably ever really care, but it's part of my experience and a legacy that I very comfortable about, because it is my experience."
You were a rookie guard on the '71-'72 championship team, which was stacked with great players from Wilt to West to Goodrich, with Jim McMillan, Elgin Baylor for part of the time, and on and on. What was it like to be on that team?
"They were my teammates, and I caught a lot of grief, but there wasn't a lot of hazing. There were rookie duties that I was expected to fulfill, and I did what I was supposed to do... They taught you the ropes. Those things to me weren't monumental. This was what I had to do to become a teammate, and it was part of how you were accepted... because on the other hand of it, when you start talking basketball, I had Flynn Robinson on one side of me, Leroy Ellis and John Q. Trap on the other, and we sat down at the end of the bench and we'd talk basketball for 48 minutes... because they wanted me to know what was happening..."
"...During timeout, KC Jones, who was an assistant coach, he kept a little three-by-five card, and he'd write little things down. I was a point. I always enjoyed learning the game, so I'd go up to KC and ask what he was writing down. And he'd write it down before the timeout, and the timeout would come, he'd hand it to Coach Sharman. Coach Sharman would review it, then they'd step into the huddle. I wanted to know what he was writing down..."
"...I would just sit back and just marvel at the knowledge that my teammates had, and they were willingly sharing it with me, so I could become a good pro. That's just the way the game used to be passed on. In this day and time it's not passed on that way. Guys don't share as readily, because being a veteran sometimes you try to hold on to spots or positions, and don't share..."
Could there be a better lab than watching and learning from a team like that? You won 33 in a row, so obviously good things were happening.
"What has to happen is that the people who were involved had to care about what they're doing, and their responsibility to the game on one hand, because it's the future generation that you're training... And you have to have people willing to learn... One of the things about that team was that our second unit used to beat up on that first unit, and that first unit had a lot of All Stars...
"...Coach Sharman told me early in the exhibition season, "You're not going to play very much." And I looked at him, because I'm accustomed to playing. At Ohio State, I averaged 38 minutes a game. I said, "I'm not going to play very much?" He said, "Yeah. I've got a veteran team. They've earned the right to play in front of you. Your job is to keep a notebook on all the guards that you're going to compete against, and get to know them and how you're going to defend them." Their strong points and weak points, and so forth and so on, and to come hard and play hard every day in practice. So if I'm going to be judged by those things, I'm going to give my coach what he asked for. So I practiced hard. And sometimes that didn't endear me to my teammates..."
"...but we played hard (the second unit), and the vets just kind of sloughed it off until we started talking about how we were kicking their butts everyday in practice. And it wasn't bragging, it was fact... And the vets must have started to realize that they weren't winning that many games in practice, and lo and behold, that's when things really got good, because they were a competitive bunch...
...Somewhere during the middle of the season, our games got really competitive. And we had our best games- and you're talking about a team that went on to win 69 games- we had our best games in practice. And when that happens, you know you're on a good team..."
"...that's what made that streak last, and that's why that streak won't be broken, because guys don't have that passion for the game..."
How does playing on a team like that shape the rest of your career, as a player and a coach?
"We did it so easily, I always felt that number one, this was the way basketball should have been played. We shared the basketball. You're talking about Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and for the first month of the season, Elgin Baylor, but we shared the basketball. And that's the way I thought the game should be played. No matter who your "star" is, you share the basketball..."
"...It perpetuated what winning was about. These were the principles that if you wanted to win, you adhere to. If you don't violate these principles in your game and in your life, you will eventually win. It gave me something to always be pointing to to get back, if the principles weren't violated. And guys were willing to buy into the principles. That is difficult in this business, because a lot of guys have their own agenda, and don't want to sacrifice for the common good of the team, because they have personal agendas they want to address first and foremost..."
"...You have to try and find people who are unselfish, so that they will understand that in winning, the ultimate sacrifice is giving. The more you give, it'll come back to you. Players don't believe that, but if you give, somehow the karma that works in life, it finds it's way back to you and you have more than you started out with. But the greed in this business and in society in general often spoils the very positive things that can happen if you're willing to share."
More to come later.