Talking with: Jim Cleamons, Part Two
In the first part of my conversation with Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons, we talked a lot about his playing career, and how it impacted his development as a person and a coach. In the second, we'll spend more time on coaching itself, talking about philosophies, the people who have coached him, and how the Lakers' staff operates as a unit.
As before, keep in mind that the audio file has the complete interview, and what comes below are excerpts from it. To hear the entire thing, click on the audio link. Download jim_cleamons_2_coaching.mp3
On the role assistant coaches play in the coaching staff, which has seen so much continuity over the years, and has so much experience. What’s the dynamic?
“I think we all understand that we are a team of coaches, just like the players are a team on the floor. Our job is to help PJ prepare the team, and it’s unimportant who gets the glory… We revel in (that) fact, and are very competitive about the job that we do. It’s not a complicated system, but it’s a very good system of basketball that we teach. We don’t have an offensive coordinator or a defensive coordinator (as some teams do)… We kind of transcend all the little phases of the game, and PJ puts it all together. He is the spokesperson, and the face of our coaching staff…”
“…Sometimes I’m rather quiet, because having been a head coach, sometimes you need the information, but you also need to digest information. If there are too many voices that you hear, it gets you ultimately confused. Especially when all of us are saying almost the same thing. Don’t quibble, let’s just get it done…”
“…We all have different teams that we scout, and in our preparation will have these grandiose ideas, but they have to be applicable and practicable in order to get the job done…”
On Phil Jackson- his idiosyncrasies (the Zen factor, handing out books, etc.) and complaints that he doesn’t “coach” as much as others.
“If you’ve got to do all those things on the day of a game (jumping up and down, tossing the jacket, etc.) than you haven’t done things correctly in practice. I’ve heard that from a lot of different people. If you’re up ranting and raving, and trying to get your team to execute at game time, than you didn’t adequately prepare your team at practice time. Game time is too late to coach. You can make adjustments, but if you’re up trying to diagram and do this and do that and do the other, than it’s too late. Because once again, if you haven’t practiced appropriately or accordingly, at the last two minutes of a game, you’re asking a whole heck of a lot out of your basketball team to all of a sudden do things that they haven’t practiced. That’s like throwing paint on the wall- Something’s gonna stick, and some won’t… All that other stuff is for show.”
On coaching, prepping a team:
“…Sometimes you’re gonna get caught with your drawers down. A guy’s holding something that you haven’t seen before… hey, give him his credit. But by and large, we’re generally very well prepared, and our team knows what they need to do. Now if they don’t do it, than they first of all have to do it on the practice floor before they can do it in the game. In this sport, it’s repetition. It’s putting guys in the right spot in practice, and then the memory in game time comes back…
“…The games come so quickly, sometimes you’re not as prepared as you want to be, because (maybe) you have four games in five days, you’ve got two games back to back. Or you have other teams that you need to prepare for, and (one) team does something very special, and your guys can’t find the rhythm as to how to defend it. That’s why you also not only need athletes who can play the game, you need people who can think the game…”
How has PJ changed as a coach, or has he?
“He’s a lot more lenient these days than he when we first started out in terms of letting guys get away with certain things. But once again, it’s a different breed (of player) and part of the adjusting that you have to do as a coach is realize who it is you’re teaching… So you just have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s out here on the court in practice time, you play how you practice. That means take care of the basketball, take certain shots. There’s just appropriate behavior if you’re going to be a real good professional.”
So he’s found more balance between the yelling at practice and giving guys more space?
“Yeah. Which is good, because once again, once you have your own coaching style, you have to feel comfortable with who you are as both a person and a teacher. And I think he’s very comfortable with who he is.”
You coached in Dallas under tough circumstances. How do you look back on that experience, and would you like to have another chance to be a head coach in the NBA?
“I’m extremely hopeful that another opportunity will come my way. I used to work construction in the summertime, in between going to school. Earning my money. The construction workers had a saying, “It’s a matter of time.” I think if you do the right thing, and put your dues in and work, it’s just a matter of time. So I’m hopeful that it’s a matter of time until I have my own team once again. If it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen. But I’m hopeful.”
“(Dallas) was a good experience in the fact that I know I can coach. I know I can teach. But you need time. One year, I had 27 moves off my roster. It’s tough. Trying to get people to understand. Injuries, and management wanted to trade people. It was like a revolving door. But through all that, I was losing by two points, four points, overtime, double overtime. So I know I was doing something right, but I wasn’t winning enough games. But to stay competitive in that situation, you have to be doing some things right.”
Is it tough to be in your spot, when so much attention is paid to the “next hot assistant,” making experienced guys like you seemingly less attractive?
“I understand being the next pretty face on the block, but I also understand that with experience and longevity, you have to be doing something correctly, and it’s just my hope that an owner and general manager will look and see there’s some value. If they’re looking for someone who’s been through the fire and is tested, hopefully that’s the situation I’d like to be in.”
You’ve been coached or coached with an impressive list of people- Bill Sharman, Red Holtzman, KC Jones, Dick Motta, Bill Fitch, Phil Jackson, and on. If you could construct a perfect coach out of what you’ve learned from all those people, what would you draw from them? Obviously, they didn’t all do things the same way.
“You didn’t know my high school coach (Vince Ciccarello). My high school coach is also in the Ohio Hall of Fame. He could take his and beat yours, and turn around and take yours and beat his. That’s the kind of coach I think I am. You just have to be patient, but through it all you have to be steadfast. You have to have the principles I talked about in everything that you do… X’s and O’s, you can diagram X’s and O’s, but ultimately they have to turn into people. And good coaches always have good relationships with those around them. Because ultimately, the player has to have a belief in his coach and a belief in his system. And he has to want to do it.
And that wanting to do it, wanting to play for a coach, wanting to believe in his coach is ultimately what team play is all about. “Let’s do it.” Not “I’m going to do it,” but “Let’s do it.” So let the system prevail. In a team sport, you play for yourself, but more importantly, you play for your teammates…"
“…That’s a common denominator for most of those names. I played with some guys on that list, and I knew it was them first, and they knew it was them first. And on those teams, we didn’t do as much winning as we could have done… They were short term in their thinking…”
Keep an eye out for Part Three, in which we'll talk about Kobe and the development of this year's team.