ESPN: Joe Prunty takes the lead for Britain
BY MARK WOODS, ESPN
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- The anthem begins inside the Tivoli Arena. Joe Prunty stands to attention, adjacent to his colleagues and players, their eyes collectively transfixed by the flag above.
Inside the arena, only a handful of traveling supporters provide accompaniment. Great Britain's head coach is unable, just yet, to add to the volume. "I've got the beat," he admits, "but I don't know all the words." In a foreign land, wearing the colors of an adopted country, each day brings a new chapter in the education process.
Newly hired as an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets, Prunty is a veteran of NBA benches, from San Antonio -- where he began in the video department before a promotion to join Gregg Popovich on the bench -- to Dallas, Portland and Cleveland. Two weeks ago, Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd made Prunty an offer to join the Nets' staff.
In almost 14 years in the league, Prunty has learned from among the best, designed strategies, received and dispensed wisdom, and carved enough of a reputation for player development and teaching that he has never spent long amid the ranks of the unemployed.
Yet not once has the 48-year-old Californian been granted an interview for a head-coaching position in the NBA, almost an anomaly among those from the Popovich coaching tree. This summer alone, Prunty has watched former coworkers Brett Brown (Philadelphia) and Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta) become head coaches.
But Prunty received a shot across the Atlantic as head coach of Great Britain for EuroBasket 2013, which began Wednesday and runs through Sept. 22. About a month of exhibition play preceded the tournament.
"When I reached out to the players here once the decision had been made to hire me," he says, "one of them asked me: 'Why did you decide to do it?' I said, 'Because they asked.' This is a great honor. So it wasn't so much a strategic thing. British Basketball came to me and said, 'Do you want to go through an interview process and see how it works out?'"
It was a lengthy procedure, conducted jointly by a recruitment agency and the U.K. federation's own performance staff. "There were numerous stages of interviews, going through the detail, asking for details," he says. "This process was extremely extensive in time and detail. It was never about me getting better. Sure, I know that's part of the equation, but it was really about the excitement of the opportunity."
Once the contract was signed, he prepared to take a step -- a leap of faith -- into the unknown. His only personal experience in Europe was working at the NBA's annual Basketball Without Borders camp during a stay in Turkey.
After other established European coaches (including his current assistant, Israeli Guy Goodes) were also linked as possible successors to Houston Rockets assistant Chris Finch for the lead job on the Great Britain staff, many in the United Kingdom questioned why Prunty had been chosen and what insight he might bring.
Different rules, different systems, different game.
With ample time to kill following his dismissal (along with the rest of Byron Scott's staff in Cleveland) at the end of last season, Prunty sought to fill in any gaps in his knowledge, just as he had always done. So he studied, he queried, and he delved into his contacts in search of those who had already blazed the overseas trail.
"I reached out to other guys I know," he says. "Like Brett Brown, who has had a lot of years with Australia, like Nate [McMillan] with Team USA. I didn't speak to him recently but I've talked a lot with [Mavericks GM] Donnie Nelson about his experiences with Lithuania. Del Harris about China. That was invaluable. I came in hopefully with a good feel for what was involved." But, he adds smiling, "There's nothing quite like doing it for yourself."
The advice was to embrace the novelty, to enjoy new sights and new sounds, whether on a sideline or sidewalk. His first stop was London. He took a stroll to Big Ben, rode the London Eye, admired the grandiose Houses of Parliament.
His passport now has stamps from Finland, Greece, Spain and Slovenia, places he might never have otherwise passed through. Regretfully, too often he admits, the travel schedule has closely resembled that of the NBA: bus to hotel, hotel to arena, arena to airport, flight to next destination -- with little chance to catch a breath in between.
"The other day, someone asked me, 'What's Europe like?' I said, 'There are some incredible hotels and gyms and arenas,'" he says. "You don't get a whole lot of time to spend out there, but when you can, you take those walks. You go down the street, you find a cobblestoned path somewhere. Or you find a little corner that has a new nuance, something you've not seen before. That hour can rejuvenate you. And all the people I've talked to told me not only would I enjoy the experience, but I'd get to help other people too, and that's certainly been true."
Some feel, sympathetically, that Prunty has been a victim of misfortunate in his international debut. Although Britain performed creditably at its home Olympics last summer, it arrived in Slovenia for EuroBasket without its three stars. Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls had planned a summer off, long before the medical problems that curtailed his playoffs. Portland Trail Blazers forward Joel Freeland, following a problematic NBA rookie campaign, decided it would be better to work out alone rather than testing himself in competition. And former NBA journeyman Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a true beast in FIBA play, simply stayed away.
The man who would have been their coach for the summer surely must have wished they had signed up for national duty, rather than leaving him with a collective of unproven prospects and vets from the midrange Euro league -- right?
"I don't look at it that way," Prunty says. "We've got guys who are playing professionally around the world, plus some guys who have just finished college but at an elite level. For example, our point guard, Andrew Lawrence, just finished at College of Charleston, but he has been on the team before.
"That's the fun part of basketball. Every day is different. It's not like other jobs. I remember being on a back-to-back once, and one of the guys in our travel party asked me, 'Does the NBA feel like Groundhog Day?' I said, 'Absolutely not.'
"Because I promise you, at some point during this game, you will see something spectacular that you probably haven't seen before. And at that moment in time, you'll go, 'Wow.' That's basketball. Whether you're with an Under-16 team, a men's team, the Euroleague Final Four, an NBA game, a college game, or a playground somewhere in the world, you'll see something that will be incredible to watch."
Prunty savored Wednesday, no doubt. With Great Britain a huge underdog in its opener with Israel, Prunty's team came from nine points down with 3:01 remaining in the fourth quarter to force overtime -- and pulled out a 75-71 victory. Great Britain was propelled by an 18-point, 13-rebound haul from former Duquesne standout Kieron Achara.
"It's clearly the best EuroBasket victory I've ever had," the rookie coach said with a grin. "But that's the beauty of EuroBasket. I'm really proud of the guys and the way they battled. Our guys stayed composed under some very difficult circumstances."
He will hope for more happy occasions in Slovenia before he returns to the United States, packs up his belongings, and moves his wife and young son to New York. Back to the NBA. Back to being one voice among several on the Nets' bench.
One day, perhaps, he will get to do what he is doing here, and be the first among equals, as a head coach in his own right in the NBA.
"If you're asking me would I like to do it, the answer is yes," Prunty says.
"But I'll take care of the things that will prepare me to be in that position. Which is this."