For many NBA assistants, the road to glory is well-traveled
Ken Berger catches up with New Orleans Pelicans assistant Bryan Gates, whose circuitous coaching path meant he celebrated Christmas at Denny's five years in a row ... but never the same one.
BY KEN BERGER, CBS SPORTS
Sometimes, you pull stuff out of a storage unit that is covered in five years of dust. Your wife, if you've somehow managed to keep one, immediately assigns these belongings to a corner of the garage, and then, to craigslist.
Sometimes, you forget where the storage unit is. This happens when you've had 10 home addresses in 10 years, or during those occasional two-year stints when you have no home address at all.
You celebrate Christmas dinner at Denny's five years in a row. Not the same Denny's; that would be unbearable. One year, you order up the Moons Over My Hammy in Yakima, Wash. The next, you might go for the Grand Slamwich in Sioux Falls, S.D., or the Lumberjack Slam in Ft. Wayne, Ind.
No matter where you are living or not living, there are two items you never embark on a road trip without: scissors and tape. You know from experience that there's no guarantee the court is going to have 3-point lines.
You do all of these things because you love basketball like it is part of your own flesh, and because all you have ever wanted to do or thought about doing is coaching it.
"When I was in seventh grade, you had to write a little thing about yourself -- what you wanted to be," said Bryan Gates, who has lived this life in every minor league imaginable (and some that are unimaginable) before landing in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings and now, with the New Orleans Pelicans. "I put that I wanted to be an NBA coach. I've never, ever thought about doing anything else."
He paused for a moment and said, "By the way, I don't know if that's good or bad, either."
It is a deeply connected fraternity, a traveling circus in which paths cross, criss-cross and re-cross -- from the CBA to the CBL, from the D-League to the USBL to the Fill-In-The-Blank-BL. Your life can be summed up in a can of alphabet soup, which is fitting when that's all you can find to heat up in the hotel microwave at 3 in the morning.
"I've put a lot of TVs and VCRs on top of washing machines in hotels," Gates said. "Lots of 'em."
For Gates, the long hours, low wages and sacrifices culminated in July 2009 when he was standing on the court at Las Vegas Summer League. His phone rang. Then-Kings coach Paul Westphal was on the other end, offering him a job as an assistant on his staff.
Gates doesn't even remember if he said yes; from one coach to another, that part of the answer was a given.
"I think I just said thank you," Gates said.
The minor-league pipeline is becoming a popular breeding ground for NBA coaching talent, with Gates and several friends, foes, mentors, proteges and co-workers from his extensive travels getting long-awaited opportunities. All told, 56 coaches have been called up to NBA benches from D-League benches alone -- two in 2013 and six in each of the past two offseasons, with a few more deals in the works before training camps open this week.
Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger made his mark as one of the most successful minor-league coaches in the sport before replacing Lionel Hollins in Memphis in 2013 -- following in the footsteps of former minor leaguers such as Phil Jackson, George Karl and Flip Saunders. Quin Snyder, hired this summer by the Utah Jazz, is the only other current NBA head coach with D-League coaching experience.
NBA head coaching jobs are the holy grail of the profession, with the highest-paid leading men with president titles making between $7 million (Stan Van Gundy) and $10 million (Doc Rivers) annually. (Gregg Popovich, who agreed to an extension with the Spurs this summer, lives in that neighborhood, too.) Last season, the average head coaching salary in the NBA was $3.05 million, according to industry data.
But when Gates left his $100,000-a-year job as head coach of the Idaho Stampede to join the Kings, the reward for finally making it to the NBA was a 50 percent pay cut. This with a D-League championship and multiple coach-of-the-year awards on his resume.
By Gates' estimation, it took him nine years of minor league coaching to finally make $50,000 in a single year -- which was still shy of the tech salary he turned down when he graduated from Boise State.
"My choices were, I could be an intern assistant coach with a CBA team, and basically, I think it paid $1,000 a month," Gates said, "or take a full-time job at Micron Technology at $55,000 coming out of college. I remember calling my dad and telling him I was going to do the basketball thing and he hung up on me."
Entering his fifth season as an assistant for Monty Williams in New Orleans, Gates doesn't have time or energy to be bitter when he sees former players like Jason Kidd, Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr get plum head coaching jobs with no coaching experience. Fisher (Knicks) and Kerr (Warriors) each got a base salary of $4.25 million a year when they were hired this summer, according to industry data. Kidd went straight from retiring as a player to one year as head coach in Brooklyn to a $4 million-a-year deal to coach the Milwaukee Bucks -- after orchestrating a power play with Nets ownership.
"That stuff doesn't bother me," Gates said. "If there is a day when I can become a head coach, great. But I'm not going to spin my wheels and get frustrated at it. When somebody comes along and wants somebody like me, I hope I'm at the front of the line."
When you're a coach, you focus on coaching first; everything else is secondary. Unfortunately, sometimes that includes family.
Gates and his wife, Robin, are the parents of 3-year-old triplets. Perhaps the longest-running family tradition in a coaching household is looking at the schedules for whatever leagues you're coaching in at the time -- minor-league coaches often work in multiple leagues in a single calendar year -- to find out where you'll be on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day.
"We put our hands in the middle and say, 'One-two-three Gates,' a lot," Gates said. "You DVR a lot of games. You put your kids to bed as much as you can. You use FaceTime a lot. We've gotten really good at FaceTime."
Coaches get really good at many things besides coaching, such as driving 800 miles round trip between Florence, S.C., and Westchester County, N.Y., for a road trip after the owner of the team -- the USBL's now-defunct Florence Flyers -- walked away. Gates' team played a Westchester team coached by John Starks and an Allentown, Pa., team coached by Daryl Dawkins. The 2004 road trip involved driving back and forth between South Carolina and New York three times.
"It was me and nine guys in a 15-passenger minivan," Gates said. "Some of the players quit. My big concern was, I wanted to find someone who could drive each trip so the players didn't have to drive."
Gates found a driver. "Local guy in Florence," he said.
"We hit a buzzer-beater in Westchester," Gates said. "Tyson Patterson came off and hit a shot and we won. It carried us home; carried us the 400 miles back to Florence."
On another odyssey as head coach of the USBL's Oklahoma Storm in 2000, Gates was staring at a season-opening journey that would begin in Enid, Okla., and include stops in Atlantic City, Long Island, Brooklyn and Florida. His assistant, Nick Nurse, hadn't yet returned from England, where he was coaching in the British Basketball League. An old friend and mentor, Duane Ticknor, agreed to join Gates on the trip.
The Brooklyn Kings played at Long Island University. The Long Island Surf played at the Brooklyn Boys & Girls Club. By the time they got there, Gates and Ticknor might as well have been in Bismarck.
"We played Brooklyn on Long Island and Long Island in Brooklyn," said Ticknor, now an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies. "We had to tape the 3-point lines down on the floor because they didn't know how to do it. Here's Bryan and I with tape and scissors, taking measurements."
On another trip, Gates and Nurse left Oklahoma with the team at 4 a.m. and drove to Wichita, Kan., for a flight to Newark, N.J. They won a game that night and allowed themselves a brief moment of celebration before heading back on the road.
"What a day," Nurse said. "We woke up and the sun was rising over the great plains of Kansas. We won a basketball game and watched the sun set over the Statue of Liberty."
They're all connected by the memories and the journeys -- and by the career paths of fugitives. Joerger was Ticknor's assistant with the Dakota Wizards in Bismarck, N.D., of the D-League. (That team has since relocated to Santa Cruz, Calif.) Joerger replaced Ticknor as the head coach in Bismarck; Ticknor later replaced Joerger in the same job.
Gates was Ticknor's assistant with the Rapid City Thrillers of the IBA (which later merged with the CBA). Ticknor now works for Joerger in Memphis.
And so on.
"I was married in the morning and coached a game that night in Sioux City, Iowa," Ticknor said. "Actually, I remember we lost that game, and so does my wife. She always says that's all I remember about the honeymoon."
By the time Ticknor's son was 10, he'd already lived in 10 different houses or apartments. The family is based in Chicago, where Ticknor's son works an actor and his wife is a school superintendent. They make it a point to get together at least once a month during the NBA season -- sometimes, only for a few minutes after the Grizzlies play the Bulls at the United Center before heading to the airport.
When Ticknor was coaching in Bismarck, his longtime friend, legendary South Dakota high school coach Fred Tibbets, died. Tibbets' son, Nate -- now an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers -- was the head coach of the Sioux Falls Sky Force at the time.
"We bused the whole team to the funeral," Ticknor said. "That's how strong the fraternity is."
By Ticknor's count, he's set foot in 37 countries. Gates once coached in Lebanon, where he and Jamario Moon counted up six or seven leagues in which they'd crossed paths. After landing a job coaching a team in Venezuela, Gates lasted only two weeks.
"They thought I was older," Gates said. "The older Venezuelan players were older than me and they weren't having it. Dave Joerger had the same thing happen to him in Puerto Rico."
In Gates' first game as a head coach -- with the Oklahoma Storm -- his point guard was Doug Gottlieb, now an analyst for CBS Sports. The opposing point guard was former boxer Roy Jones, Jr., who also owned the team -- the Lakeland Blue Ducks. Gates' first road trip as an NBA assistant with the Kings included the infamous Kings-Spurs game in which Manu Ginobili swatted a bat out of the air in 2009.
"To be honest with you," Gates said, "that bat got the crowd going." The Spurs won 113-94.
You remember the oddities and the game-winners and the celebratory meals at Denny's. But what you remember most are the moments you steal with your family. You guard those precious occasions more fiercely than you scheme for the opponent's leading scorer.
"My dad is a retired truck driver, and he'll tell you to this day that he's disappointed he wasn't home more," Gates said. "But honestly, I don't remember it that way. He always complains that he wasn't around, but I remember him there. And I hope it's that way for me."