Nine current NBA head coaches also played in the league. They range in experience from Billy Donovan’s 44 games with the 1987-88 Knicks to Steve Kerr’s 910 games with six teams.
Staying in the sport they love at the highest level is one thing. Playing it is another.
Retiring as a player is one thing. Giving up pickup basketball is another.
NBC Sports Chicago interviewed seven of the nine coaches about their post-playing career pickup basketball histories. Only one of those seven, the Wizards’ Scott Brooks, said he still plays fullcourt, pickup basketball regularly.
The wistful tones of those who no longer play — almost always not by their choice — resonated throughout these tales. The love of basketball, whether coaching it or playing it, remains strong.
STEVE KERR, Golden State Warriors coach, 54 years old, 910 games over 15 seasons, retired in 2003
I retired when I was 37. I picked up tennis and I played a lot, like three or four days a week. And I played pickup basketball every Sunday. And I played basketball all the way until I was about 45. And I was grinding. I was going hard on the tennis court and in pickup. When I turned 43, literally in the same month, each knee kind of ran out of cartilage. And I could feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s no cushion in there anymore.’ I had a scope done by our team doctor in Phoenix. I was GM at the time. I remember thinking, ‘All right, I’ll get a scope. And I’ll be fine.’ I wake up and he said, ‘The scope went well. We cleaned it up. But you gotta stop playing basketball.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you gotta stop playing basketball and tennis. You just don’t have any more cartilage.’ I was devastated. My whole life, I played. There was so much wear and tear from my playing days and my post-playing days. Seven years of flying around the tennis court, my body just wore out.
I actually enjoyed the pickup ball more than the NBA because I was finally the most talented player on the floor. I could actually cross somebody up and get to the rim. I’d be like, ‘What just happened?’
But you miss the feeling of the freedom and the flow and the energy. You start making some shots and you’re running and you get this incredible workout and at the end of the games, you’re just exhausted but in an incredibly satisfying way. And then you go home and throw the ice bags on the knee and watch football or something. I miss that. Now it’s all non-impact stuff — yoga, elliptical. I have to avoid any of the pounding.
SCOTT BROOKS, Washington Wizards coach, 54 years old, 680 games over 10 seasons, retired in 1998
We play every gameday on our home floor but the sideways fullcourt. It’s 'old man' full.
In the summertime, I probably play two to three times a week. I love it. Every Saturday morning, I go to my son’s old high school gym, and he calls about 10 of his high school buddies and I beat the crap out of them. I’m an old man game now. I post up. I foul. I set illegal screens. I’m basically Charles Oakley out there.
(Injury could) happen to me. I’m just willing to take the chance. If I don’t do that, I’m going to be pretty heavy. Plus, I like the interaction with other guys on the court. You bond with your coaching staff and your video group.
Nothing replicates a run. I do yoga, elliptical and play pickup. If you can invent a treadmill where you can fall and get up and take charges and set screens, I’ll do that. I just love the physicality of the sport. And I love the competition. I love to do something where I’m going to know if I win or lose and know those results in the short-term.
RICK CARLISLE, Dallas Mavericks coach, 60 years old, 188 games over five seasons, retired in 1990
The last pickup game I played in was in 2000. This was a pretty compelling thing to observe if you’re any kind of historian. It was me, Derrick McKey, Chris Mullin and Larry Bird against Al Harrington, Jonathan Bender, Jeff Foster and Zan Tabak. We played a three-game series. It was tied 1-1. In the third game, Bird came off a screen on the right side, caught and shot a 17-footer high above Jeff Foster’s outreached hand. The ball went straight up in the air and straight through the basket without touching the rim at all. Larry and I looked at each other and basically said, ‘We’re done with this after today.’ The game-winner will probably never be able to be topped. Plus, physically, playing against those guys, Foster was so strong and so dynamic that it was dangerous being out there. Larry and I both realized it. That was the last time I ever did it. And I’m positive that was the last time he did it too. I was 41 at the time.
I still do some stuff where I work with players on the floor. But I don’t play up in pickup games. It’s very dangerous.
You do miss the competition. You miss the creativity of getting on the court and being able to play with like-minded players. You play with experienced guys and the things you can create offensively just off your feel for the game is a lot of fun. But you have to move on from that. Because it is truly very dangerous unless you’re conditioned for that. And if Scott (Brooks) is still playing, that means that he’s playing pretty consistently and he’s in condition for it. He’s in great shape. I’ve seen him. But for my friends in their 40s and 50s, I don’t recommend it. You’re playing with fire. You get on a court with guys who are higher than your level, stuff happens really fast. I’ve seen and heard of too many major injuries happening.
My Dad was a warrior rec player. He was one of the all-time legends of my town growing up as a pickup player. He played into his mid-50s. He’s got two new hips. He has had one revision on a hip replacement. He had one knee replaced. I saw how it tore his body apart. He’s 89 now. And he would probably try to walk out and play in a game today if he could.
This game, and the competitive aspect of it, and the endorphin release you get from playing in a pickup game, it gets in your blood. You have to find things to do to replace that. That’s the challenge. I’ve gone on and I do different workouts. I still work to get a sweat and do things to keep my body feeling good. It’s not the same as playing. But you’ve got to do low-impact things so you have to feel good. I’ve become an avid Peloton person. That’s a great way to get aerobic work in. You just find things.
NATE McMILLAN, Indiana Pacers coach, 55 years old, 796 games over 12 seasons, retired in 1998
I used to play until 2009. I stopped that year because I was practicing with the team and tore my Achilles.
I was with Portland. We had a ton of injuries. We didn’t have enough guys to practice. We needed another body. I told my assistants, ‘I got it. I’m playing.’ We were playing 4-on-4. My team was winning — of course. We played an extra game. I should’ve stopped when I was ahead. I tore my Achilles in that last game. You realize that you should stick to HORSE and not trying to play 4-on-4 fullcourt.
You just love the game. During that time (after retirement), what you think is you still can get out there and do it. You look at guys like (Vince) Carter and you’re amazed he can still play competitively at the professional level with these young guys. But you come to a point where you realize it’s over. And for me, it was when I tore my Achilles.
I didn’t really miss it. Once I retired, it was over for me. I had given all that I could. My body was at a point where I had a lot of injuries towards the end. One of the worst things is to try to compete when you’re old or injured. When I decided to retire, I was ready. It was time. So I didn’t really miss it.
As I said, we were winning (that last game) before I got hurt.
LUKE WALTON, Sacramento Kings coach, 39 years old, 564 games over 10 seasons, retired in 2013
I played my last game two years ago. And it was fun. And it was worth it. But the next day it was very clear that there was no need for me to ever play fullcourt basketball again. Mentally, I’d still love to play any chance I could. Physically, it’s just not an option.
I miss everything about it — the competitiveness, the game. To me, basketball is the most beautiful, fun, enjoyable game there is. That’s why I played it my whole life. I miss playing. Coaching is the next best thing.
I do beach volleyball in the offseason.
MONTY WILLIAMS, Phoenix Suns coach, 48 years old, 456 games over nine seasons, retired in 2003
I gave up pickup. Actually, I didn’t give it up. My knee forced me to give it up. Every time I played it just kept blowing up. It’s humbling to not be able to get out there anymore, especially when you see (assistant coach) Willie Green dunking the ball and (assistant coach) Steve Blake shooting 3s. I look at myself in the mirror and see this gray goatee and I realize I’m older and I can’t do it. It bothers me. I love playing.
The last time I played fullcourt was last year in Philly. I just remember feeling so great about playing. But then the next day my knee blew up. I remember the physical therapy people in Philly. They were like, ‘Dude, it’s about time you stop doing that with the young guys.’
I still play some 3-on-3. But I’m hopeful I can get into a 48-and-over league here soon and play with some guys. But playing with Willie and Steve is probably not going to happen.
I don’t think it’s any one thing I miss. I just love the game. I like thinking about playing and what I could do. I love making a shot or blocking somebody or physically hitting somebody. I like the anticipation of knowing that I’m going to play. That drove me as a kid. Like on Friday, we’d meet up at the Rec. I was thinking about it all day Friday because I knew I’d have a chance to match up against older and better guys. That’s probably the thing I struggle with, that I don’t have the anticipation of playing anymore. That’s what drove me.
BILLY DONOVAN, Oklahoma City Thunder coach, 54 years old, 44 games, retired in 1988
I would probably say I was 35, 36 years old the last time I played. Getting out of bed and having issues with my lower back kind of ended it for me. I’ve actually thought about playing again. But I would just be a facilitator. Run and pass. No shooting or driving. Get everybody else involved.
I loved playing. It’s the greatest way to get exercise. When you’re playing, it’s something you’ve done your whole life. It was weird when I stopped playing because I had to find alternative ways to exercise. I always exercised, even when I finished playing (in the league), through playing pickup ball. I never went out and jogged. I just played fullcourt pickup ball. It was a great way to maintain a level of conditioning.
Not interviewed: Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni; 68; who played 180 games in the NBA and ABA and Clippers coach Doc Rivers, 58, who played 864 games with four teams and made one All-Star appearance with the Hawks. Carlisle and Williams both said they're fairly certain Rivers no longer plays.
Told that Brooks still plays, Williams smiled.
“I can see that. Scotty’s a gamer,” Williams said. “I can see Scotty knocking somebody out too. He’s as tough as nails.”
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