The Player-Coach


Jason Kidd’s first season as Brooklyn Nets head coach bears a striking resemblance to a role that has been defunct for decades. 

Late last year, I wrote about the increased usage of small ball in the NBA thanks in large part to the unconventional coaching tactics of Don Nelson. After retiring from the World Champion Boston Celtics at the end of the 1975-76 season, Nelson was quickly offered to run the rebuilding Milwaukee Bucks as the team’s head coach and general manager. Although Nelson is now revered for his out-of-the-box approach to coaching the game, the concept of a retired player immediately running a team on the bench without any previous coaching experience was, in fact, a regular occurrence in professional basketball. The practice even predates the advent of the NBA in name as the league was previously known as the BAA (Basketball Association of America) from 1946 to 1949.

From then until the end of the 1950’s, 27 different people had served as a player and head coach simultaneously. The list varies from forgotten names like Nat Hickey with the Providence Steamrollers and Bones McKinney of the Washington Capitols to future Hall of Famers like Alex Hannum and Red Holzman. The tactic was, like most moves in the 1940’s and 50’s, an innocent way for teams to save money by paying one person to play for and coach the team. In an age where basketball was still an upstart sport generating minimal revenue in the United States, what better person to draw up the team’s plays than a player whom his teammates already trusted? The first player-coach in the league’s history was Ed Sadowski, who went 3-9 with the Toronto Huskies. The first truly successful player-coach was guard Buddy Jeannette, who won the 1948 BAA Championship with the Baltimore Bullets.

Beginning in what is considered by many the dawn of the National Basketball Association in 1950, plenty of notable names have taken on the role of suiting up to play on the court while calling the plays at the same time. The success rate, however, was not always the same. Bob Cousy came out of retirement to be a player-coach for the Cincinnati Royals in 1969-70, but the team finished 36-46. Before playing for Holzman’s World Champion Knicks teams, Dave DeBusshere coached and played for the Detroit Pistons at the age of 24. But outside of the fact that DeBusshere went to two All-Star Games while coaching the team, his three seasons in Detroit were pretty forgettable. The Saint Louis Hawks, a formidable team at that time, had five of them in the 50’s and 60’s with Hannum, Slater Martin, “Easy” Ed Maccauley, Bob Pettit, and Richie Guerin. Although plenty of these men went on to have legendary careers either as players or as coaches much later, the name that has become most synonymous with player-coach throughout history took a stab at it in 1966.

Bill Russell coaches the Boston Celtics in the huddle. Russell played for and coached the Celtics to two straight NBA titles in 1968 and '69.
Bill Russell coaches the Boston Celtics in the huddle. Russell played for and coached the Celtics to two straight NBA titles in 1968 and ’69.

After winning nine NBA Championships under Red Auerbach as the leader of the Boston Celtics on the court, Bill Russell was hand picked by Auerbach to succeed him and become the first African-American head coach in NBA history. After losing to Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967, Russell led the team to two consecutive NBA titles in 1968 and 1969, the last of which was against Wilt and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Forum in a game 7. After a tearful interview celebrating in the locker room and walking off triumphantly, Russell never played again. Although Russell was more than special as an NBA Champion, his success as a head coach gave the green light for other African-American players to get a chance at coaching. Even his arch rival Chamberlain signed with the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors in 1973 as a player-coach before the Lakers sued him and only allowed him to coach the team (The Conquistadors went 37-47 in his only season there).

Two African-American players who got the opportunity as player-coaches in the NBA post-Russell were Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens. Attles had played for the Warriors since their Philadelphia days in the 1960’s as the team relocated to California. As a San Francisco Warrior, Attles was given the job as player-coach during the 1969-70 season to replace George Lee. He served both roles for two seasons before retiring as a player and taking on purely the head coaching duties as they moved to Golden State. Attles went on to coach the team for 14 seasons, including an NBA Championship in 1975. Attles became the first black coach since Russell to win a title. The next name on that list was Lenny Wilkens, who had already had a legendary playing career with the Hawks and Sonics.

It was in Seattle in 1969 when the second-year SuperSonics gave Wilkens his first chance as a player-coach. While pulling double duty, Wilkens won the 1971 All Star Game MVP and coached them to a winning record in 1972. He was traded to Cleveland before becoming player-coach once against in Portland for the expansion Trail Blazers. Wilkens coached and played for the Blazers for two seasons before retiring in 1976 and returning to Seattle strictly as the Sonics head coach. The years of walking both lines as a leader on the court and on the bench was a great benefit to Wilkens in Seattle as the Sonics went to two straight NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979, winning it all in ’79. The ’79 Sonics share the distinction alongside the ’04 Detroit Pistons as the only two teams in NBA history without a bona fide superstar at their disposal to win an NBA Championship. Similarly, ’04 Pistons head coach Larry Brown served time as an assistant coach at North Carolina in the late 60’s before suiting up in the ABA as a player and coach. Wilkens went on to win 1,332 games as a coach, an all-time record that was eventually broken by Don Nelson.

Lenny Wilkens walks the sideline for the Seattle Sonics. Wilkens was a player-coach previously for Seattle and led them to an NBA title in 1979.
Lenny Wilkens walks the sideline for the Seattle Sonics. Wilkens was a player-coach previously for Seattle and led them to an NBA title in 1979.

As the 1980’s rolled around and the NBA surged in popularity during the Bird-Magic era, the role of players stretching themselves thin by doubling up as coaches became all but extinct, the last one being Dave Cowens for the Celtics in 1979. That extinction was made official in the 1984 collective bargaining agreement when a rule was instituted banning teams from using player-coaches to sidestep the newly introduced salary cap because coaches’ salaries do not go against the cap. Since then, the player-coach as it was known in the early days of the NBA was gone never to return, but there were plenty of scenarios in which a recently retired player would move on to holding a clipboard in the NBA. While the league got used to seeing well-dressed wise men like Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, and Phil Jackson walk the line, former players like Nelson, George Karl, and Paul Westphal were getting in on the coaching act almost immediately after playing their last games. There was one point where Mike Dunleavy Sr., who hadn’t played in a few years, had to suit up as a player for the Bucks during the 1989-90 season while serving as an assistant coach due to injuries. One season later, Dunleavy coached the Lakers to the NBA Finals.

It is obviously more than common for an NBA head coach to have played pro ball in his previous life because players are more willing to listen to a person who understands exactly what they are going through and how to obey their needs. I have mentioned before how brutal of a double standard it is to be a head coach in the NBA, a man who gets muted credit for winning and a lot of the blame for losing. No matter how great you were  or how closely removed you are as a player, the stigma that comes with being an NBA coach overtakes your persona in the eyes of your players and those who watch what you do. The role of player-coach may be ancient history, but that has been replaced with the more figurative title of being a “player’s coach” who has earned the trust of his players and liberates them in certain ways. That is why it is so rare and stunning to me when a former NBA great with no coaching experience at all puts on the suit and gives it a shot. This is far more frequent on the collegiate level, but the chances of great returns on the NBA front, where you are competing against the best of the best every night, can prove overwhelming. Within a matter of just one season, a so-called “player’s coach” can be depicted by impatient writers as a panicking overlord.

The closest I have seen to a player all but coaching a team as its czar on the court was Michael Jordan in his failed comeback with the Washington Wizards from 2001 to 2003. Doug Collins was the head coach only by name as MJ, as de facto general manager, constituted everything from what plays to run to which players to keep. Most players on the way out quietly transition over to become an assistant coach just as Avery Johnson did with the Dallas Mavericks under Nelson in 2002. Danny Ainge, one year into retirement, jumped back in to coach the Phoenix Suns in 1996 before eventually becoming the Celtics G.M. But the brightest shining example of a freshly hired coach whose reputation was purely based on his level of play was Larry Bird’s amazing three-year tenure as the Indiana Pacers head coach from 1997 to 2000. While Bird was a newbie in a suit, he was smart enough to hire Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter to run the X’s and O’s for his team while Bird whispered just the right words of wisdom to players like Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose. Without any type of preparation, Bird won Coach of the Year in 1998 and reached the NBA Finals with the Pacers in 2000 before leaving due to heart problems. The Pacers tried the same trick with another Hall of Famer sans coaching experience in Isiah Thomas but came back with lame results.

Larry Bird coaches Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals. Like Jason Kidd, Bird had no coaching experience before joining the Pacers.
Larry Bird coaches Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals. Like Jason Kidd, Bird had no coaching experience before joining the Pacers.

Flash forward to today’s NBA, where players and superstars are cradled and protected more than ever from the dangers of criticism, and it seemed more likely than ever that we would see a player whom stars listened to take the hop right from a warm-up jacket to a suit and tie. That came to fruition last summer when Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King dropped a bombshell. Only a year into their new home at Barclays, King got rid of Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesmo as he searched for a new head coach. You knew the Nets were serious about winning when they took on more than $80 million in luxury tax by trading for Celtics greats Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to help lead a team that already had Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Brook Lopez. Then came the announcement that the coach who would lead these older souls into the 2013-14 season would be a former Nets great in point guard Jason Kidd.

Kidd had retired on June 3, 2013, after a one-year stint playing for the New York Knicks. After nearly 20 years as a Hall of Fame player who had gone to multiple All Star Games and won an NBA title with the Mavericks late in his career, Kidd was ready to hang up the jersey and call it quits. Little did we know that he wasn’t going to be out of the limelight for long, as he was named the Nets head coach only nine days later. It looked on paper like the matching up of Kidd with no coaching experience and a team as long in the tooth as Brooklyn would be this season was a recipe for disaster. It certainly looked that way early on as the Nets were 10-21 heading into the new year and Coach Kidd was already pulling out parlor tricks. Kidd’s intentional spilling of a drink in order to get an extra time out against the Lakers was so cheap and amateur that he was fined $50,000 by the league. Then came the reports that his lead assistant Lawrence Frank, a man who had coached Kidd in New Jersey for a dozen years, was reassigned to a far lesser role on the team after the two got into a heated argument during a team meeting in December.

But as the walls seemed to be crumbling down to the eyes of many, Kidd began to improve his coaching chops on the fly and the team reached .500 for the first time all season in early March. Joe Johnson has found a resurgence to his career as the Nets’ go-to scorer while Pierce, Garnett and Williams, while well past their peaks, have become steady leaders for guys like Mirza Teletovic, Shaun Livingston, Marcus Thornton, and Andray Blatche. The term has been used so often over the years that it has lost its meaning in some ways, but Kidd may be the first true “player’s coach,” a Hall of Fame player who can diagram plays in practice as one of the boys one minute while blowing the whistle the next. While Kidd has retained some great assistant minds like Joe Prunty, John Welch, and Jim Sann to fill in for Frank after his demotion, he has had a far greater learning curve as a head coach than Larry Bird did in Indiana or any other legendary player trying his hand at coaching.

Now that I think about it, it seems like a perfect match that Kidd, who was always a true leader of men on the court as a player, is now leading beloved veterans such as Pierce, Garnett, Johnson, and Williams in Brooklyn. Kidd was a man who was chosen by USA Basketball to play on the fabled 2008 Redeem Team even though his best days were long past him simply due to the fact that he was a vocal and spiritual leader for the team in many ways. When the Mavericks won the NBA Championship in 2011, Rick Carlisle called Kidd a coach on the court who always made sure the play drawn up went exactly right. Now, as the Nets wormed their way through a tight seven-game series win over the Toronto Raptors, Kidd is in for the coaching challenge of a lifetime as his team faces off with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. Who better to rescue the Nets’ superstar talents from the twilight than a player who seemed to play with an ageless consistency? The only thing Kidd seemingly hasn’t done for this team since 2014 is don a uniform. And believe me: If the NBA rulebook did not ban it, Number 5 wouldn’t be hanging in the rafters. He’d be dribbling the ball down the court himself, ready to take on the world again.