Lionel Hollins has a message for his Memphis Grizzlies. And when he delivers it, there’s no finessing — he goes right to the sledgehammer. A seemingly meaningless preseason loss to Chicago has irked Hollins, a coach who obsesses over improving the little things. His players appeared to be out of shape and failed to execute plays to his liking. And he expected a team coming off of consecutive Game 7 playoff losses and returning much of its core rotation to be a little more motivated. The truth is, the Memphis Grizzlies haven’t earned the right to coast yet.
And so today at practice, his players are running. Their goal? Dart to the far baseline of Memphis’s practice court and back within 10 seconds. That’s bad news for the 7-foot-2 Hamed Haddadi. He’s the first Iranian to play in the NBA, someone who grew so quickly as a teenager that he had trouble finding shoes that fit. If he were just four inches shorter, Haddadi probably wouldn’t have a roster spot in the NBA. Still, he’s an oddly popular figure with Memphis fans — a hustler who usually finds a way to contribute whenever Hollins feeds him a couple of minutes. He’s easygoing and quick with a smile. His teammates like him. But when they’re racing down the court, that’s when he seems overmatched. Haddadi doesn’t run he lumbers.
And now he’s late. During Hollins’s drill, Haddadi finishes after all of his teammates and the allotted 10 seconds.
“I’m tired of your bullshit, Hamed,” Hollins says. “I’m tired of your laziness. Come on. You can be mad at me all you want, but I don’t give a fuck. Be mad at me, but do what you’re supposed to do.”
Hollins curses a lot, but those expletives carry no more weight than anything else he says. (He jokes that he picked up the habit from his mother and grandmother, two strong women who raised him in Las Vegas after his parents divorced when he was 3.) That certainly doesn’t stop Haddadi from being irritated; he can barely hide it. As Haddadi retreats from the court, frustrated, Hollins is certain he hears him swearing under his breath. But Hollins has made his point — he wanted the reserve center to know that he could have made the 10 seconds and chose not to.
For Hollins, nearly every NBA player enters the league with a ceiling — save the LeBrons, the Howards, the Durants. Everyone comes in expecting to be an All-Star with a 15-year career before realizing that All-Star nods and long careers are the exception, not the standard. Identifying your niche early — that’s the key to hanging around. For Haddadi, that means hustling, rebounding, blocking shots, and doling out high-fives. Hitting that 10-second running goal will help him later in the season, maybe in a playoff game when Marc Gasol is battling foul trouble and his team suddenly needs him. Those 10 seconds might make the difference between the Grizzlies losing a third Game 7 or making the Finals. It’s improvement by increments.
A coach is more than just a coach: The best ones are mentors, disciplinarians, negotiators, orchestrators, psychologists, strategists, pragmatists, and idealists. A coach’s job, Hollins believes, is to see and hear everything but not to react to everything he sees and hears. Hollins knows it’s in his job description to recognize personalities and personnel, to realize when to push the gas and pump the brakes. He can look at his players and know what they’re thinking because he once stood in their place.
Once upon a time, Hollins won his first (and only) championship as a point guard for the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, in just his second professional season. Those Trail Blazers looked like a dynasty in the making; at 23 years old, Hollins was too young to fully appreciate it all before it was gone. Portland’s core crumbled the following season after Bill Walton fractured his foot, derailing a 50-10 Blazers team that seemed destined to repeat. The late David Halberstam chronicled that lost dynasty in his legendary book The Breaks of the Game, which chronicled the 1979-80 season, right after Walton’s departure, when injuries and salary gripes doomed the team. Here’s how Halberstam described Hollins heading into that season:
Though he made noises during the summer that had been critical of [Portland Coach Jack] Ramsay and some of his methods, and though there were contract problems with him as well as with [Maurice] Lucas, Hollins arrived in excellent condition For Lionel Hollins was in many ways the prototype of the best of modern professional athletes, more talented, more creative, better educated and, at the same time, more sensitive and delicate emotionally, than an older generation. The normal wounds of professional athletic life — those incurred on the court, those caused by what the coach did or did not do, or by that which was published — lingered long with Hollins.1
This is the third time I’ve mentioned this book in a Grantland story — for good reason. It’s that good. Bill Simmons best explained the impact it can have as a writing tutor: “Breaks of the Game was the first big-boy book I ever loved,” he wrote. “Within a few pages, I came to believe that he wrote the book just for me. I plowed through it in one weekend. A few months later, I read it again. Eventually, I read the book so many times that the spine of the book crumbled, so I bought the paperback version to replace it. Through college and grad school, as I was slowly deciding on a career, I read it every year to remind myself how to write — how to save words, how to construct a sentence, how to tell someone’s life story without relying on quotes, how to make anecdotes come alive. It was my own personal writing seminar.”
The Blazers traded Hollins to Philadelphia midway through that season, and it’s hard to finish Breaks without assuming Hollins had manifested into something of a coach’s headache. More than three decades later, he’s matured into a capable coach respected across the league. “He’s a man’s coach,” says John Nash, a former general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers. “That’s why all his players love him.”
The following day, the 59-year-old Hollins gathers his players at midcourt before the start of practice. He looks every bit the ex-NBA guard, like he could still run point at a few rec league games if he wanted. Hollins shepherds a talented roster with eclectic personalities — to say the least — a blue-collar team that represents a blue-collar city. The huddle includes Rudy Gay, a quiet and smooth player; Tony Allen, a disruptive defense-first pest incapable of hiding his emotions; Zach Randolph, a powerful low-post force despite being traded three times in his career; and Mike Conley, a point guard who’s coming into his own after Hollins advocated for his poorly received (and lavish) contract extension.
Hollins made his point yesterday. Today, he expects his roster to respond. Brakes pumped. He apologizes to Haddadi,2 but not without repeating his disappointment about yesterday’s drill. “Time goes fast,” Hollins tells his team. “I’ve been out for 30 years. I remember when I was 21, 22. My kids are that age now.”
“It happened,” Haddadi later says of the incident and subsequent apology. “I’m here with him five years now and he’s always like that. He just wants me to work harder. Sometimes, I want to work hard. Sometimes, his way isn’t evident. So, he gets mad at me. I’m used to it. I push him away and I’ll just work harder.”
Hollins tells his players about Eric LeGrand, a Rutgers defensive lineman with an NFL future until he suffered a severe spinal injury. “Look at Darrell [Arthur],” he continues, motioning to Arthur, a capable reserve big man who suffered a broken fibula in September while attempting to come back from a torn Achilles. “Three times, he’s had an injury. We don’t know what our bodies are going to do. Every day, we need to work hard, get better.”
It’s advice that Hollins would offer his younger self. Once “the prototype of the best of modern professional athletes,” as Halberstam wrote, Hollins retired from the NBA at just 31 years old, the same age at which Steve Nash won his first Most Valuable Player award. Hollins’s entire body was breaking down — his knees, his feet, his hands, you name it. Younger point guards like John Stockton and Isiah Thomas were zipping by him; he couldn’t stay in front of them anymore. And he was exhausted by the rigors of those seasons, especially the travel. With today’s doctors and less rigorous travel, Hollins could have extended his career by another five years. In the mid-’80s, he would have been just another broken-down veteran trying to hang on.
Hollins made his only All-Star appearance at the age of 24, one year after Portland’s championship season, and expected Portland to rectify his paltry contract (one of the league’s bigger bargains at the time). Even though the Blazers had already taken care of teammate Bobby Gross, they hesitated with Hollins, who had rushed back from a knee injury for what seemed to be an unappreciative front office.3 Hollins became one of the first NBA players to grouse about his contract to a newspaper, pointing out the injustice of being vastly underpaid. He became frustrated with Dr. Jack Ramsay, because he felt the coach had rushed him back prematurely. Hollins told Ramsay all of this before making his frustration public. Teammate Maurice Lucas had also been griping about being underpaid, so Portland finally just cleaned house — trading both of them to the Eastern Conference for young players and picks. Less than three years after winning the ’77 title, the three best players from Portland’s budding dynasty were gone.
Hollins says, “I had a knee injury that I was complaining about since February and everyone said, ‘It’s nothing.’ And then I’m getting ready to go home at the end of the season and the doctor all of a sudden says, ‘I think we need to take a look at you.’ They take a look and they operate and I’m in a cast from my thigh to my ankle. Now I’m a bad guy because I can’t play and I want to get more money. It wasn’t as big of a deal as it seems because I played and I was going to do what I needed to do.” Hollins also added: “I don’t even think about that time anymore from that perspective. I’m a big Trail Blazer fan. Because everybody has grown up from that time. We were all young. We were all saying and doing things you do out of naiveté and immaturity.”
Hollins entered the league at a crucial time, just a decade after stars like Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, and Jerry West had fought the reserve clause and for the right of players to explore the free market. By the end of the 1970s, dozens of players were making more than Russell ever made in one season. Hollins believes the players from his era were more responsible than today’s players — they went to college for three or four years, learned how to listen, learned how to operate within a larger framework. Today’s players, he believes, aren’t nearly as competitive. They want to be handed roles instead of earning them. That’s why Hollins cares so much about that 10-second drill — every piece is part of a much bigger puzzle.
Practice begins and the roster divides into three teams. The starters wear white jerseys, the second team wears blue jerseys, and the third team wears red jerseys. Hollins wants to see how Jerryd Bayless, a new acquisition, fits as a shooting guard with the first team, swapping him for Allen. The results are immediate — Allen isn’t happy. He complains about injuring his toe while going too hard on a drill, although he’s really just sore about playing with the reserves. Hollins recognizes the damage and quickly aborts the experiment, placing Allen back on the first team. Allen’s toe miraculously improves. The practice continues. Just another day in another long season.
If you think of every NBA team as a seesaw, the plight of a coach starts to make sense. Everything has to be at equilibrium at all times, no side higher than the other. Even the smallest choice can have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster. Ramsay taught Hollins to coach every person on his roster, from the maxed-out superstar to the training camp invitee. Hollins can yell at Haddadi because he’s coached him for four years — in that time, he’s found it’s the best way to reach him. At some point, he’ll yell at every player in front of the others to show that he has no favorites. But he can’t talk to Gay or Randolph in the same way he’ll talk to, say, Wayne Ellington. As team leaders, they’ve earned a little extra respect. Conley spent significant time in Hollins’s doghouse, developing a thicker skin than most — today, he’s budding into one of the leaders of the team. O.J. Mayo didn’t handle Hollins’s doghouse as well. He plays for Dallas now.
Tony Allen is someone Hollins doesn’t mind pulling from games whenever Allen crosses the line between rugged and reckless. When it happens, more often than not, Allen will curse at Hollins on his way to the bench. And more often than not, Allen will later approach Hollins and tell him that, in hindsight, Hollins made the right decision. Allen personifies this Grizzlies team better than anyone: He plays with a chip on his shoulder, he’s tough, and he’s a little bit crazy — in a good way.
The majority of Memphis’s practice is defense-oriented. The Grizzlies pride themselves on thriving during ugly games, pounding the ball inside to Gasol and Randolph, then using Conley and Gay to create on the perimeter if the defenses sag. Defensively, Allen and Conley live in the passing lanes and wreak havoc with inexperienced perimeter players. Few teams have a higher ceiling than Memphis — just ask the Spurs, who were smoked by the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. Randolph bullied them in the paint, Memphis ratcheted up their defense, and the team became just the fourth 8-seed to advance to Round 2 (doubling as the first series win in Grizzlies history). The following round, Memphis took Oklahoma City to seven games. Last spring, they lost in seven again, this time to the Clippers.
They’ve never been healthy in the playoffs — Gay missed the 2011 postseason with a shoulder injury, and both Allen and Randolph nursed knee injuries last spring. Ask a Memphis player which seven-game ouster hurts the most and you’re bound to get two different answers. Allen still considers the 2011 Clippers an inferior team. Gay is still bothered by the 2010 Thunder series he had to sit out. Conley still thinks about that huge lead the Grizzlies squandered to the Clippers in Game 1, when their 27-point lead evaporated in nine minutes and irrevocably changed the series. Hollins has gotten over both defeats. A team can get better by adding splashy free-agent additions, yes. But they can also improve internally, growing individually and as a unit. That continuity, Hollins believes, is the key to Memphis’s success.
Hollins grew up during the civil-rights struggle and, although he became an elite athlete who made a good living, he hasn’t forgotten those divided times. He says he used to feel nervous speaking before crowds, feeling like he belonged. Once, he asked his uncle, Curtis Adams, how he knew he was equal to everybody else. Adams was the valedictorian of his high school, one of the best athletes Hollins ever saw, and a mailman for 36 years. Adams responded that he was smarter in the classroom, ran through everyone on the football field, and jumped over everyone in basketball. Why would he think he was inferior? That conversation stuck with Hollins.
After Hollins retired from the NBA in 1985, he bounced around as an assistant coach for Arizona State, Phoenix, and Vancouver, led the Grizzlies for 60 games as interim head coach during the 1999-2000 season (finishing 18-42 after replacing Brian Hill), and even spent time coaching in basketball’s underbelly with the Las Vegas Bandits and St. Louis SkyHawks. He slowly began losing faith that he would ever get another NBA head coaching opportunity. Just when he was considering the corporate world, Scott Skiles hired him as an assistant in Milwaukee in 2008. The Grizzlies handed him their head job one year later.4 Hollins crafted his coaching staff with people he respects and relies upon: David Joerger (an up-and-comer), Henry Bibby (the former USC coach and Hollins’s former Sixers teammate), Barry Hecker (a basketball lifer who coached with Hollins in Las Vegas), Bob Thornton (an excellent worker with post players), and Lloyd Pierce (a new addition, someone Hollins hired after being impressed by a video of Pierce conducting workouts). That group gathers around a conference table the next morning, flanked by a white board that lists the depth chart of every team. Hollins sits at the head, eating yogurt and wearing a faded green Yankees hat. The coaches discuss last night’s baseball playoffs before easing into the schedule for today’s open practice.
A year earlier, general manager Chris Wallace had traded Pau Gasol in a then-much-derided deal that would reshape the franchise’s future by landing the rights to his brother, Marc Gasol; draft picks; and salary cap flexibility.
“We can do however much we want to do,” Hollins says. “We have an hour, right?”
“What do you want to accomplish?” Joerger asks.
“Nothing,” Hollins replies. “Get everybody out of there without getting hurt. It’s more of a show. It’s more of a show of who they are. Why don’t we just play five-minute games?”
Everyone agrees. Hollins wonders who would get the most shots today in whatever scrimmaging they decide on. Without hesitating, Bibby knows the answer: “Tony Allen.”
“Aw, man,” Hollins laughs. “You took my guy. When we said scrimmage, all I could see in my head was Tony Allen shooting every time.”
The teams still need to be divided for the scrimmage, prompting another carefully detailed discussion about Haddadi. “Until Hamed starts playing hard,” Hollins says, “I want him to know if I had my druthers, he wouldn’t be on any team. I apologized to him yesterday, but I still told him I was mad at him. He just wants to float through and do nothing and hang out all day. That’s not happening.”
Someone makes the playful suggestion to turn Haddadi into an assistant coach and make him watch. “He makes more money than all you guys put together,” Hollins deadpans.
There’s detailed basketball jargon in the meeting — at one point, Hollins says, “The only way I like floppy out is if we dribble hand off the wing and let the point guard run off the triple and throw it back to him and let him be able to pick it apart” to a room of nodding heads. The coaches spend just as much time ribbing each other. Even if Hollins’s goal is to churn out quality people, ultimately, everyone’s jobs boil down to their devotion to a child’s game. At one point, Hollins has asked for another drill to add to the open scrimmage. Joerger offers one to his liking when Hecker chimes in.
“The one I like is you got three guys on the baseline ” Hecker begins.
“We’re not doing the one you like, we’re doing this one,” Hollins cuts in.
“But I want to show another one just in case ” Hecker starts again.
“Well, write it down and we’ll talk about it at the next meeting,” Hollins says. “Right now I want to move on. Give me a passing drill if you want to give me something, give me a fucking passing drill.”
“Let’s do five-strung,” Hecker says.
“You mean you don’t want to do the one where you won the championship in seventh grade?” Hollins jokes.
“You know there’s a lot of fundamentals [in there] that have lasted a thousand years,” Hecker retorts.
It’s all good-natured. The conversation drifts toward the Hawks, their opponent in the next day’s preseason game. Atlanta transformed its roster over the summer, most notably jettisoning star guard Joe Johnson to the Nets. “A lot of teams have changed their teams, man,” Hollins says. Soon the coaches are talking about other teams that have dramatically overhauled. Hollins believes the Warriors could be good, saying, “They’ve got a lot of depth. A lot of good offensive players. That could be one of the surprise teams.”
Bibby notices an advantage for Memphis in the influx of change around the league. “That’s why we can get off to a nice start with the veteran team that we have,” he says. “We can get off to a nice start where other teams are still trying to feel their way through.”
It’s the biggest advantage Memphis has: continuity, not just with the players, but with their coaching staff, too. Hollins moves on to divvying his minutes for the Hawks game. He plans on playing his starters (Conley, Allen, Gay, Randolph, and Gasol) for the first six minutes of the game, and maybe 12 minutes apiece in the first half.
“Let’s come back with the starters [in the third quarter],” he decides. “If they come back like they did last time, man, we’ll play them 40 minutes. If they go out and give me what they want, go out and execute, then they don’t have to play [anymore]. We know what they can do. That’s 18 minutes each.”
“If we were starting out the season tonight,” Bibby wonders, “what would it be in your mind, right now? Your lineup would be your starting five. Who are your other guys that you would feel comfortable with? Who are our guys? Who would come in for Mike if we had to start tonight? Who would come in for Rudy? You feel that yet? Or you don’t feel like you got it?”
“The only thing I’m going with is to jump out the gate,” Hollins responds, “[in order] to win these games early. And I think that’s big. Everybody’s going to catch up 10 games, 12 games down the road. Everybody’s going to be even at that time, but if we can jump out the gate ”
A spirited debate begins about backups. It’s clear Bibby prefers players with more experience. “So what was the question for?” Hollins asks Bibby. “You already had your answer. You had the answer.”
“No, I asked you to answer,” Bibby says.
“You played for John Wooden,” Hollins says. “What did John Wooden say?” Hollins knows the answer: “He’d rather have talent over experience.”
“He was always about being in control,” Bibby responds.
“Timeout,” Hollins says. “Fuck this shit. Let’s watch this film and get ready for the practice. I’m going to play who’s going to play.”
The coaches watch a few clips of Atlanta sets, then head upstairs for their open practice. Memphis general manager Chris Wallace and Michael Heisley, the team’s longtime owner, have just finished a state-of-the-franchise session with fans before the team arrives. In a few days, the NBA will announce the sale of the team to communications magnate Robert Pera and some noteworthy minority investors, including Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake.
Heisley has owned the Grizzlies since 2000, dating back to the franchise’s time in Vancouver. He paid $160 million for the franchise, and the sale to Pera is expected to total at least twice that figure.
“I just believe in planning,” Heisley tells the audience. “I’m 76 years of age. I’m in good health. But I think the time to start passing the baton isn’t when you’re on your deathbed. It’s when the best opportunity comes up. And that’s why I’m [selling].”
Later, when Hollins introduces the team that afternoon at the open practice, you know who received the loudest cheer from the audience? That’s right Hamed Haddadi.5
Ross Wooden, Memphis’s basketball communications coordinator, offered as good an explanation as any for the audience’s affinity for Haddadi. Memphis, he explained, is a college town first and foremost, and always roots for its walk-ons. Haddadi is the Grizzlies’ version of a walk-on. His success is their own.
Sitting between Bibby and Joerger on Memphis’s bench, Lionel Hollins already seems to be in mid-season form, even if his players are a little rusty. He just watched Atlanta’s Kyle Korver flop on a 3-point shot, somehow drawing a foul, to Hollins’s chagrin.
“When you see the fine, you’ll know about it,” he tells official J.T. Orr.
The Grizzlies quickly fall behind 8-0. After two straight turnovers, Hollins rises to pace near the scorer’s table before relenting and calling timeout. The starters wind up on the floor for more than eight minutes — so much for those plans — and eventually rally back. (It’s worth noting that Allen becomes the team’s biggest cheerleader whenever he’s on the bench, yelling for Wayne Ellington and going over pump-fake moves with Marreese Speights.) Near the end of the first half, Conley darts through the lane and gets fouled by Lou Williams, drawing a complaint from Atlanta’s Josh Smith.
“I don’t know why you are complaining, Josh,” Hollins says. “You guys have shot 30 free throws.”6
Atlanta had shot 23 free throws at this point to Memphis’s nine.
“It was a good defensive play,” Smith replies. “He forced it. You were a good defensive player, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, but you guys have already shot 30 free throws,” Hollins says.
“I haven’t shot one,” Smith says.
“That’s because you’re shooting jumpers,” Hollins needles back.
The Grizzlies hold on for a 110-102 victory. As usual, Haddadi finds himself in the right place at the right time, grabbing seven rebounds in just 11 minutes. Hollins is pleased with his decision to leave Randolph in for extended second-half minutes; he dominated the Hawks much like he dominated the Spurs 18 months ago. It’s a pivotal season for Z-Bo — he’s 31 years old, the same age as his coach when Hollins retired, and he may have peaked in that Spurs series. The small-market Grizzlies owe Randolph and Gay more than $104 million combined for this season and the next two. If they start out slowly, thanks to the new luxury tax rules one of them could be traded. Unlike Hollins’s Portland team, these Grizzlies might be broken up because they were paid too much (not too little).
So it’s a make-or-break year for Memphis in every respect. When reporters ask Hollins to dissect the performance of individual players, Hollins struggles to single out anyone other than Randolph. He’s looking at the team as a collective unit, especially in the preseason. Mostly, Hollins is looking for those incremental improvements — whether it’s coming out firing from the opening tip or finishing a drill in 10 seconds instead of 11. The window might not remain open for these Memphis Grizzlies much longer. Once it slams shut, that’s it. Lionel Hollins knows that better than most.