Lakers Q&A: Jim Cleamons expresses interest in coaching at collegiate level
This is the first post of an occasional series that features a Q&A with a member of the Lakers organization. Below is the transcript of a recent conversation with Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons, who's in charge of game preparations for contests against Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, New Jersey, New Orleans, Toronto and Oklahoma City.
Phil [Jackson] remarked at the beginning of training camp that with his expectation that this would be his last season, his hope would be that one of his assistants would be considered to replace him. Would that possibility interest you?
I would be flattered, but I'm at the age where I've got my own bucket list. In all honesty, my bucket list does not include being the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
What's on your bucket list?
I would like to become a head coach in a nice college environment. I want to go back to where I started. I want to pass on the knowledge I have as a player or coach to the next generation. I want to teach them a way to play. I'm not saying I have the penicillin cure for all, but I've been blessed to be around some outstanding coaches and teachers. I know a system that works incredibly well. I want to leave that with the next generation to follow. A collegiate setting is what I'm looking for.
What do you draw from your experience at Dallas? [Finished with a 24-58 record in the 1996-97 season, 28-72 overall before being fired 16 games into the 1997-98 season]
The thing I learned in Dallas is I can coach in this league. It certainly wasn't the best situation. I had a young basketball team. But the thing I learned is I can coach in this league. Oftentimes, you sit on the bench and you think you can coach and you want to coach but until you get the opportunity, you're never quite certain. That's the one thing I take with me about the Dallas situation. My coaching staff and I know how hard we worked. We didn't have the luck to have management understand the obstacles we were facing and bear with us and walk down that path with us a little bit until we got a roster and we got people that would understand what we were trying to do and give us the time.
I go back and look at Mike Krzyzewski's career. People forget his first two or three years at Duke, he wasn't successful at all [he went 13-29 his first three seasons coaching the Blue Devils from 1980-1983]. But he had a chancellor and athletic director who saw what he was trying to do and knew they were on the right path. Ironically enough, when I interviewed for the job in Dallas, I told the owner [the majority owner was Ross Perot Jr.] right then that I have a five-year plan. Year 1 and Year 2 would be rather lean, but then after that I thought as you build your foundation, you learn, grow and assemble players through draft and trades who have a more keen and acute understanding of what you're trying to do, your performance would become better. But they didn't grant me that time. That's the bittersweet pill of the business that we're in. The thing I also realize is that situations that aren't the best sometimes force you to grow. I'm thankful for the opportunity that the Mavericks gave me. I think I definitely grew from that situation.
Both your time as an assistant with Chicago and the Lakers and your head coaching gig in Dallas involved the triangle offense. If you got a head coaching position at the collegiate level, is that something you'd run?
I think I'd run a lot of things. There's a lot of things there. When we first started running the triple post in Chicago, people didn't think it would be successful. There are 30 teams in this league and there are 30 teams in the league that run a piece of the triple post. It is a system, but you don't have to run it verbatim. Imitation is one of the sincerest forms of flattery. You look at your team and if your team can run it, you'll run it. But you don't have to run all the little nuances. You can certainly teach enough good basketball to use that as your basis to let people know where it came from and it promotes teamwork.
With your history playing for Ohio State and being in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame, would your ultimate hope be coaching in that state?
The thing I look at is once again is the opportunity to help young people grow. I think that's the most important thing a coach can do. You're not trying to be a father figure or a big brother. But to be in the formative years of the adolescence of young men, it's great to see them grow. There are 30 teams in the NBA and say every team has 15 players. Some of them do. Some of them don't. 30 times 15 -- how many jobs are out there? But what you can talk to young men about is the opportunity to become better people and building a better community and better world and matriculating back to the neighborhood you came from and bringing knowledge back to there. What you're doing is like Johnny Appleseed. Rather than touching 15 guys, to have the ability to be blessed where you can coach eight, nine, ten, 15 years and those guys go back to their communities and you've done what you're trying to do. You're not only teaching them to be better athletes and basketball players, but better people. That's what we need. We need coaches to teach how to work through problems and how to have a great work ethic that gives them the discipline to take those tenets back to their communities and classrooms and families and help to build a better world.
What sparked your interest in coaching the Chicago Condors [of the now-defunct ABL] after your departure from Dallas? After I left Dallas, I still had the urge to coach. The opportunity to coach women came along. I never coached women but I accepted the opportunity. I actually had a wonderful time. The biggest thing I enjoyed about it was the women I had in talking to other coaches that crossed over from the men's side to the women's side is that women who play at that level have an eagerness to want to learn the game and a dedication that is not seen on the men's side. The men's side -- we're kind of jaded in the sense that they think they are good and they all think they have a game. The women are more dedicated athletically and they really want to be taught the game. So it was a wonderful experience from my side of it because you had people who were eager to learn, wanted to learn and who were dedicated to the profession.
Having just coached Dallas, it's conceivable to feel you don't want to coach a team in the ABL. What does that speak about your mindset and how you view things?
Well, I hope I'm not a rare individual. But I truly enjoy the work that I do. I'm a teacher by profession, not only as a sport but I was educated as a teacher. I look at the 94-by-50 rectangle as a large classroom. The players are students and it's up to us to pass on the knowledge we have so they can not only be better basketball players, but hopefully better people.
Phil has said your ability to communicate with players is a distinguishable quality that you bring. What's your approach with that aspect?
I've been extremely fortunate to have had what I consider outstanding coaches and teachers my entire career, from my first coach as a child up until a point of time I retired from the game. I thought I had people who cared about me, not only as a player but my day-to-day life. That experience and their caring nature has had lasting effects on me because that's the exact way it should be. You look at the opportunities that we've had. No. 1 -- I went to college. No. 2 -- To earn a living for over the last 40 years. The sport in itself has been very good to me. Not because of the fact I was the best player, but because I dedicated myself to become not only a good player but I think a better human being because it's a team sport. We often said when I was growing up that basketball and life are a lot alike. When you end up having an opportunity to earn a living and be a part of a team, you realize it's more than you.We say it in a lot of different ways, "Don't worry about yourself. You worry about a teammate and let a teammate worry about you." So many lessons you learn about in sports can be carried into your day-to-day life even if you may not be an athlete.
I had a wonderful athletic career. But the better teams, if they don't somehow get it in the beginning, they get it in the end that it's bigger than they are as individuals. Even the teams we had, such notable personalities in Los Angeles, I was a rookie with [Wilt] Chamberlain, [Jerry] West and [Gail] Goodrich and Elgin Baylor until he retired. They never won a championship. But the year I came, I think, along with Coach [Bill] Sharman and KC Jones, their experience with Boston and other teams, the message was don't worry so much about yourself. It's tough to be a good teammate if you worry about yourself first. The same thing happens in life. We become very myopic. We worry about our existence. But in society as a whole, if you look at it, you become better people if you worry not only about your household but also your neighbors. That translates itself into your communities. Then you worry about your community and you worry about your schools in your community. You worry about the quality of life with where you live and where you do business. That translates itself to a community as a whole into your city and that translate itself into your country, nation and state and then ultimately the world.
Basketball is kind of the same thing. I watched basketball grow when I was a child with the Olympics. In 1960, the United States won the gold medal with Jerry West, Oscar and Jerry Lucas. They came to mind when I was in Columbus, Ohio and Ohio State won the national championship that year with Lucas, [John] Havlicek, [Mel] Nowell. All of this is about one sports. Basketball. Oscar Robertson was at University of Cincinnati and they didn't win the championship and Oscar left and Cincinnati won two years in a row without Big O. They played Ohio State and they beat Ohio State two years in a row. Why? Because they played as a team.
My whole existence around sports has been the team aspect. How do you build a team? You build a team with solid individuals and that becomes who you are and your identity. Not necessarily your personal identity, but the identity with the team. When you start talking about team, you start talking about success. When you start talking about success, it gives you something to build on. But it all starts with taking yourself out of the equation because you have good people around you. You have good, solid people around, it begins to permeate itself in every thing that you do. That's the way I was taught and I believe in it and I'm going to take it to my grave.
You brought up your time with the '71-'72 Lakers team. During that 33-game winning streak and the championship run, what was the common denominator in the day-to-day approach in ensuring that consistency?
At first, you got on a roll. I don't think any of us at the beginning knew where it was going to take us. After about game eight, nine or 10, there became a little buzz where we were on a streak and we hadn't lost. Guys started taking the pride and didn't want to lose. Once we had surpassed [Milwaukee's 20-game record from Feb. 6, 1971 to March 8, 1971], it was like, 'We got the record. But let's keep extending it.' Each game became a new challenge. But the challenge wasn't not to lose. It was to find a way to win the game. There were a few one- or two-point games and a couple in overtime. But you could see there was this little snowflake that started down the avalanche and it became a life of its own. The guys became very proud of the fact we hadn't lost in a month and a half -- 33 games is a long time.
There were some games where we could've just folded over. Those days you talk about travel. We had to take the first plane out of town. Some days were long where you played three days in a row and you had a day off and you played four in a row sometimes. The schedule was much more rigorous than it is today. But the fact is, you started something and it almost became a badge of courage and one you were really proud of. When it came an end to Milwaukee, they gave us a whupping [Jan. 9, 1972 in a 120-104 defeat to the Bucks]. They were on top of their game and we were coming into their house. They spanked us that game. Once again, I tell people the two things I would bet on. One, it's something involving myself. If I think I'm going to do something, I say I'll bet you on that. The second is that 33-game winning streak. That won't be broken. It's going to be a while.
Winning 72 games out of an 82-game season is pretty awesome. It took them a while to get on that same vein. The vein is to refuse to lose. When you have guys who are dedicated to perfection and obsession where you know in a sport you're never going to play the perfect game, but what you try to do is do the best you can do each and every time out. When you have a team that basically feels the same way, you got a special group. That group got off to a good start and they in their minds, in their hearts and souls didn't want to lose. They're probably kicking themselves now because they let a couple of games slip. But those games that they slipped and lost, they dusted themselves off and got back in the race. That's exactly what they did. They learned from it and got back in the next game with the same focus. They slipped up, but then reclaimed it and got it back started up again.
With how many championship teams you've been on, is the Lakers' current situation typical toward getting back to another title? Or is this more alarming than usual?
It's not alarming. Anytime you're competing at this level, you have to realize the other team has a lot of pride. We're not the darlings of the media by any stretch of the imagination. But we are the defending champions. You come into town and there's a lot of hype and hoopla. With the pride the other team exhibits, they don't want to go home defeated. They come emotionally prepared to give it their best shot. It's kind of a joke. But the reality of it is we pack the opposing arenas. They come to watch us play.
A lot of venues, attendance is down. The guys realize there is a buzz in the building that isn't normally there. They know why. They want to send their fans home with a good feeling so they'll come back and bring the same energy to cheer for them and not for us. The Laker fans show up in droves and we got the opposing team's fans showing up. The energy carries our opponents to a higher level and that helps them. Fans have to realize they have an impact in the game with the energy they bring, and it gets your adrenaline flowing.
Going back to when Phil first hired you with the Bulls, I read a story that you had initially thought he was just calling to ask you about a college prospect [Cleamons had coached Youngstown State from 1987 to 1989].
We talked on the phone the day he got the job. I had been out recruiting. I didn't have a tape in my car so I was listening to sports. It came over that Doug [Collins] had been fired and Phil had been named his replacement. I was coming in from a day of recruiting in Youngstown, Ohio. My phone was ringing. It was ironic that Phil was on the phone. I told him I was just listening to the radio and congratulated him for the job. That's when he told me he had a spot on his staff. He couldn't guarantee me anything, but he wanted me to come in and interview for the position. I was surprised and at the same time honored. I had not thought about coaching in the pros. I made up my mind after my pro career that if I got back into coaching, it would be at the collegiate level. I thought that coaching in the professional level wasn't necessarily a stretch, but I saw myself more as a teacher and a mentor as opposed to my idea of coaching professional basketball and just keeping things organized.
Guys at this level believe have they have so much talent and know everything that they don't need to be taught anymore. So I wanted to get to a level where I thought I would benefit more in how to play the game and leave more of an impact at that level.
What's been the common thread working for Phil with the Bulls and the Lakers?
I'm extremely fortunate to have an immediate superior who allows, I'm speaking for all of us when I say he allows us to do our jobs. I think that we have a mature staff. Because we've been together with him for a long time, we know what our expectations are. Each one of us is self motivated and very competitive in our own right. When you have a boss that understands what it takes to do the job and then allows you the latitude to do your job, it's not like you're going work every day.
Your juices are fueling your fire and you have someone who appreciates what you do. It becomes a very easy workplace. We want success, but the success comes from us as a coaching staff working together as a solid unit and passing on our ability to interact as a team to the players and see how they interact with a team. We have a coaching team and playing team with one common thread. That's to be successful and work hard. You're not going to win every game. I think each one of us has been around to know that the curve is bell-shaped, up and down with peaks and valleys.
Through it all, if you believe in what you do and how to do it and you come to work each day with the proper attitude and vision with the willingness to say that I'm going to work hard and continue to enjoy the work, the success will be sure to follow.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers coach Jim Cleamons watches the team practice a day before the 2009 NBA Finals at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Cleamons played for the 1971-72 Lakers team, which won an NBA-record 33 consecutive games and an NBA title. Credit: Los Angeles Lakers.
Photo: Bulls Coach Phil Jackson celebrates with Michael Jordan after winning his fourth NBA title as a coach. Jackson was named the NBA coach of the year following Chicago's 72-win season in 1995-96. Credit: Beth A. Keiser / Associated Press