Legacy Shaped in Northwest Takes Hold in Brooklyn
BY HARVEY ARATON, NEW YORK TIMES
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When the end was near, when Lionel Hollins could no longer continue a decades-long tradition of talking basketball with Jack Ramsay, he still made calls to him, the old coach in South Florida. A friend of Ramsay’s would answer and ask Hollins to record a message.
In the last one, a day or two before Ramsay died in April at age 89 after a long struggle with cancer, Hollins got right to the point.
“I love you,” he said. “You were a father figure for me, much more than a coach.”
With the N.B.A. regular season upon us, let us note that Derek Fisher, the Knicks’ new coach, isn’t the only one in town extending a legacy, from Red Holzman to Phil Jackson to him. In Brooklyn, where Hollins has replaced Jason Kidd, he brings a vintage stamp, too, as a disciple of Ramsay, or Dr. Jack, a Hall of Famer who coached in the N.B.A. for 21 years.
As a starter on Ramsay’s championship Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, Hollins — like Fisher, a southpaw — led a group of swift guards. Bill Walton triggered fast breaks with textbook outlet passes. Maurice Lucas provided the muscle. Ramsay’s Blazers were the old (1970s) Knicks of the Great Northwest, another quintessential unit working, it seemed, telepathically.
“We had very skilled players who understood how to pass, when to pass and who were willing to pass,” said Hollins, 61, whose Nets will open the season Wednesday night in Boston. “Jack Ramsay was just a great orchestrator, and I think our team for him was the perfect storm, the perfect team.”
One championship is no dynasty. Nor, for that matter, is two, the number of titles Holzman’s Knicks won with Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the others whose jerseys hang in the Madison Square Garden rafters as reminders that none have been claimed since. But as Hollins said of those Blazers: “The I.Q. was incredible and the couple of years we were all together it was a beautiful thing to be part of. Learning the nuances, the details, that’s what Jack harped on.”
Sound familiar to the language currently spoken these days at the Garden? Other than that second Knicks title in 1973, Ramsay’s Blazers paralleled Holzman’s Knicks in how they subdued in the 1977 finals a Philadelphia 76ers team of uniquely skilled individuals — Julius Erving, George McGinnis and Darryl Dawkins (compared to the 1970 Knicks’ takedown of the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West).
As it was with the Knicks and the oft-injured Reed, Portland’s eventual sorrow and unstitching began at center, where Walton’s congenitally fragile feet short-circuited a second run the next season and perhaps a dynastic era. Those Blazers still became the stylistic standard for every Portland team that followed, including the Clyde Drexler-led Blazers, who lost in the finals of 1990 and 1992 (as did Patrick Ewing’s Knicks of 1994 and 1999).
Holzman and Ramsay, longtime admirers of each other, are gone now. The old Knicks lost their power forward, Dave DeBusschere, 11 years ago at age 62, and Lucas died even younger, at 58, in 2010. Hollins recently flew to Portland for a dinner for Lucas’s foundation. Walton was there. So were the former Blazers Lloyd Neal and Bob Gross.
“When we all see each other, there’s no get-to-know again, never have to get reacquainted,” Hollins said. “What we had we had, and we knew it and it never ends.”
In conversation, Hollins gives the impression of a self-assured man, trying to sell only the ideals of collectivism and effort. He promised not to preach to the Nets about his championship past.
“I don’t like to get into the we-did stuff because this is their time,” he said. “It’s not about me, about what I did when I played. I don’t even like to talk about Memphis with them.”
Such recent history his players should know: how Hollins took a long-moribund team and coached it to the Western Conference finals in 2013, only to be let go in a decision related to organizational finances and philosophy.
“You go through the whole gamut of depression, anger, hurt,” he said. “Then you come to grips with it: I did all I could do. That was their decision; had nothing to do with me.”
Hollins was a candidate for the Los Angeles Clippers job until Doc Rivers shook loose from the Boston Celtics. Hollins sat out a season, stayed in touch with Ramsay, whom he would visit in Florida, waking early for breakfast and hours of basketball talk.
On the day of Ramsay’s funeral last spring, Hollins was in Washington, interviewing for the Minnesota Timberwolves job. He debated whether he should postpone the meeting and board a flight to Florida. He did not, and during his recent Portland visit he and his former teammates discussed how none of them had attended, given how far and wide they were spread, how long Ramsay had battled cancer and how many times they had told him how much he had meant to them.
“It was all so unreal that he was gone,” Hollins said. “He knew how we felt.”
In Hollins’s case, he had delivered his last phone message, thanked Ramsay for being the kind of male role model he had so lacked as the child of a broken and impoverished home. The best way to celebrate Ramsay, Hollins thought, was to get another job and to pass along “life lessons that helped me become successful,” the belief that some life mentoring must be part of the coach’s job description because players “live in such an insulated world,” and many will never grow up.
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In late June, relaxing at home, Hollins’s son-in-law read him an alert he had received on his smartphone.
“He says, ‘Jason Kidd just got permission to interview with Milwaukee, he went and wanted to be president or something and they told him no,’ ” Hollins said.
Hollins saw right through Kidd’s machinations with the Nets. “That’s got to be a setup,” he told his son-in-law. “Nobody goes in and makes a move like that unless they have a safety net.”
Kidd was on his way to the Milwaukee Bucks. Hollins was in New York the next night, dining with Nets General Manager Billy King, who, in fact, was blessed with the chance to redo the Kidd publicity stunt in which he handed the league’s most expensive roster — a supposed title contender — to a novice last season.
In Hollins, the Nets can at least be confident they have hired, unlike Kidd, a full-fledged adult.