Charge coach Jordi Fernandez shaped by his journey to Canton
To understand the ways of Jordi Fernandez, one must understand the journey of the Charge head coach.
BY JOSH WEIR, CANTONREP.COM
The ability to adapt is more than a desired quality for a head coach in the NBA Development League.
It is an absolute necessity.
From travel nightmares — imagine the possibilities for a 6 a.m. commercial flight out of Des Moines in the winter — to dealing with ever-changing rosters to reaching players whose main goal it is to earn their way off your team, D-League head coaches face unique challenges.
Into this picture steps Jordi Fernandez, the 33-year-old Spaniard who is in his third season with the Charge and second as their head coach.
After leading the Charge to a franchise record in wins and a fourth consecutive playoff berth last season, Fernandez is near the top of the D-League after beginning the season 5-11.
Much of this success can be attributed to the savvy personnel work of general manager Mike Gansey.
And much of it has to do with the calm-in-the-storm Fernandez, a man who never seems to allow obstacles to block his vision of the goal, a man who believes, as he put it, “If you have an opportunity, you’ve got to say, ‘Yes,’ then figure out how you’re going to do it.”
Fernandez, who is close to finishing his Ph.D. in sports psychology, seems to specialize in figuring things out.
Gansey handed a less experienced roster to Fernandez this season than last, and the Charge stumbled out of the gate.
Then they won 19 of their next 21 games, including a franchise-record 12 straight.
Through it all, Gansey says Fernandez did not change. He remained steady, hammering away with his principles and continuing to examine what his team needed.
“He’s just a worker,” Gansey said. “He’s so positive with everything he does. There’s always a goal in mind. It might be rocky at first. But there is a finish line. And he’s going to keep working.”
Charge rookie guard Quinn Cook, a D-League All-Star, describes Fernandez as “intense” and “laid back” in the same sentence, adding, “He has a style all his own.”
To understand Fernandez, one must understand his journey from Badalona, Spain to Northeast Ohio, a place he now considers home.
The guy who hand washed dishes to get by as a 20-year-old college student in Amsterdam, who didn’t speak a lick of English or Dutch when he got to the Netherlands’ capital, is the same guy who could be prowling an NBA sideline someday in the near future.
“Once I went through that year,” Fernandez said of the 2003-04 academic year, “I felt like I can do anything.”
Fernandez had little money and no place to stay when he went to Amsterdam, marking his first time outside of Spain.
He bounced around, living with a gay couple that was kind enough to open their home to him, at a student residency and with some people who were originally from Madrid. He even spent a few days in a Christian hostel, “which was pretty scary,” he adds.
He took classes to learn Dutch. English he learned on his own, he said.
Fernandez relied heavily on body language and facial expressions to communicate early on.
“Then the first time you have a phone conversation, you’re (expletive),” he said.
He got a job at a Spanish restaurant, advancing from dishwasher to server to manager. The pay wasn’t great, but the people there felt like family, which was good because Fernandez didn’t get to see his. This was before Skype and FaceTime.
Fernandez adjusted to his new world while attending school at Hogeschool van Amsterdam.
He calls the experience “very challenging.” But challenges are needed in Fernandez’s life.
“It was the growth of that experience, having to figure things out,” he said. “You don’t know how much you’re able to learn until you push yourself to the limit.”
The lessons learned in that transformative year have stuck with Fernandez, a guy who has been coaching since he was a teenager.
D-League players, who typically are not far removed from college, can struggle being on their own in a strange city. Fernandez can relate.
In addition to his Amsterdam experience, he taught in Norway. He coached in camps at Oklahoma Christian University in the summers of 2006 and ’07 — his first experiences in the United States. He also coached at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas during the summers of 2007, ’08 and ’09, paying for his own flights each time despite not having an abundance of funds.
He met Impact Basketball founder Joe Abunassar through former NBA player Rudy Fernandez (no relation), who was working with Jordi Fernandez at the time.
It was at Impact Basketball in 2009 when former Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown noticed Fernandez’s work with his son, Elijah, who now plays at New Mexico.
Brown liked Fernandez’s style and invited him to come to Cleveland for a week to work more with his son. Fernandez did not know if he had enough money for a flight.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll buy your flight,’” Fernandez said of Brown. “I was like, ‘Damn, this guy must be loaded.’
“He bought me a ticket, a rental car, everything. I spent a week there. LeBron (James) was at the facility with Chris Paul at that time.
″(Brown) spent a lot of time with me. He treated me like family. Took me out to dinner everyday.”
That grew to an invitation to work with the Cavs in training camp, then a job on the Cavs staff while also coaching Elijah’s AAU team.
Fernandez, who had coaching jobs lined up in Spain, couldn’t resist the opportunity. But it wouldn’t be easy.
“You’re at home and you’re doing well. Then you come to a different country and you start here,” Fernandez said, lowering his hand to represent the bottom. “It’s like you want to tell them, ‘I’m better than this.’ But you can’t. You’ve just got to show them.”
HOME IN NORTHEAST OHIO
Seven years later, four head coaching changes later, two general manager changes later, Fernandez still finds himself in the Cavs organization. He lives in Rocky River with his girlfriend Kelsey and their dog Eddie, an American Boxer named after former Ohio State running back and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George (Kelsey is a big Buckeye fan).
For Fernandez, coaching and teaching have always intertwined. It is not surprising then that he specializes in player development.
Young players such as Cook and Sir’Dominic Pointer have made strides this season with the Charge. Gansey also points to Alex Kirk and Brandon Paul, two guys who played under Fernandez last season and now are thriving in Europe. Paul, incidentally, plays in Fernandez’s hometown of Badalona, which is just outside of Barcelona.
It is a long way from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Canton, Ohio.
Who could have envisioned Fernandez’s journey?
Fernandez certainly didn’t. He didn’t even know what the D-League was when he arrived in the United States.
The long way is paying off. Despite his matriculation maybe taking a little longer than he wanted — he already had interviewed for D-League head coaching jobs when the Cavs sent him to Canton to be Steve Hetzel’s top assistant for the 2013-14 season — Fernandez appreciates the ride.
“I always thought my life would be around basketball,” he said. “When people say, ‘I would like to be a coach,’ that’s one thing. ‘I’m going to be a coach’ is different. I knew I’d find a way to be happy doing what I like. I took my time to figure it out.”
And as for his goal to be an NBA head coach?
“I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” he said, “But I’ll figure it out.”