By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com
VIDEO: Lang’s D-League Debut
DES MOINES — “Did you bring a suit?”
Iowa Energy coach Nate Bjorkgren looked me in the eye, ready to pass judgment on my ability to make the unprecedented leap from journalist to NBA Development League assistant coach. The room was dark except for a projector shining stats against a wall. It was almost as if I was in an interrogation room in a spy movie.
In four hours, the Energy would host the Tulsa 66ers in a game with playoff ramifications. At 25-17, the Energy had a shot at winning their division. The last thing Bjorkgren and his team needed was a distraction on their bench.
The thing was, I honestly felt like I could handle being an assistant coach, at least for a night. I’ve spent almost 15 years covering the NBA, and a lifetime playing and observing basketball at all levels. I coached a church league team for a few years and won a few titles by employing an aggressive zone defense and an offense best described as “let the best player take all the shots.”
The chance to be part of a real, professional game as a bona fide assistant, though? It was something I’d never considered. But it seemed like a great opportunity to pull back a curtain to a larger audience.
Honestly, I don’t know much about the D-League. My ignorance is not born from some misguided elitism, though. I watch NBA games seven nights a week. I don’t have time to view much of anything else. I don’t tune in to college basketball games, either, or hockey or “Scandal” or “Dancing With The Stars” or “@Midnight” or … well, pretty much anything, at least from October through June.
And, so it was that a lifetime of accumulated hoops experience led me here, with an invitation from Bjorkgren and the D-League in hand, to an undecorated auxiliary locker room in the basement of an arena in the middle of Iowa.
I was prepared. My suit hung in a stall just a few feet away. We had a video crew in tow to record the entire experience.
I was as ready as I would ever be.
Iowa Energy Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)
I. This is Des Moines
Downtown Des Moines is a mixture of small-town Americana and ongoing urban renewal. Old buildings along the banks of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers are being repurposed into sun-filled loft apartments. The hipsters are here, transforming long-abandoned buildings into coffee shops, cafes and arts and entertainment spaces.
The economic backbone of Des Moines is a thriving insurance industry — it is rated the third-largest insurance center in the world. There are so many insurance companies downtown that running into Cliff Paul wouldn’t be surprising.
That’s not all Des Moines in known for, though. The exposed brick wall at Java Joe’s here is covered with photos of glad-handing political figures, a reminder of the importance of the Iowa caucuses, the kickoff to the presidential race every four years.
The Iowa D-League franchise was founded in 2007, and in 2011 the Energy won a D-League title. They play in the Wells Fargo Arena, a beautiful facility that holds almost 17,000 people. The Energy are well-supported — they have set several attendance records, including drawing over 14,000 to a Finals game in 2011 — and generally average several thousand fans a game.
Part of the challenge of life in the D-League is that franchises are forced to endure an itinerant existence. Teams fly commercial, and because D-League squads are mostly based in smaller cities, commutes usually require at least one connecting flight. (For what it’s worth, the players I spoke to were unanimous in their belief that no commercial airplane seat should be able to recline at all.)
The Energy have offices at the arena, but because the facility is booked regularly for a variety of events, they can’t always practice there. On this weekend, for instance, they had to hold practice at Grand View University, a small school located a few miles from downtown.
I arrived in Des Moines on the morning of Friday, March 21, a day before the Energy were to play the 66ers. When I finally found the gym at Grand View, Patrick Jacobson, the team’s public relations and marketing director, met me carrying an armful of Energy gear, which he dropped at my feet. If I was going to be an assistant coach for the weekend, I was going to at least look like a coach. All I needed was a whistle.
The only people inside the gym when I arrived were Bjorkgren and forward Moses Ehambe. Pretty much immediately, Ehambe trotted over and vigorously introduced himself.
Bjorkgren stood a bit over 6 feet, his shaved head reflecting the gym’s fluorescent lights. Because the Energy had finished a game just 12 hours earlier (a 129-128 home win against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants), Bjorkgren told me that the morning’s practice would be a light one. The guys would get up a few shots and do some easy stretching. The session would be about maintaining and recovering.
“A lot of our shootaround time and our practice time is more geared toward us,” Bjorkgren said, “toward our team, making our team right, making sure we know the plays, making sure we know what we’re going to do on defense. Yes, we scout the other opponent very much, but it’s more of making sure our team is right just because of all the changes that take place.”
There are three assistant coaches on the Energy staff (Bruce Wilson, Deane Martin and Tyler Marsh) as well as Dylan DeBusk, who is the basketball operations assistant. Once the team arrived, the five coaches spread out among the nine players and worked on shooting drills. A few players rotated near midcourt doing stretches with athletic trainer Keith Walton.
I knew a few names on the Iowa roster from their various stints in the NBA or at high-profile college programs — Curtis Stinson, Kalin Lucas, Glen Rice Jr., Austin Freeman, Josh Boone. I spent a lot of time talking to swingman Larry Owens, a rangy scorer in his fourth D-League season. He’d had a few short trips to the NBA over the years, but for now he was in Des Moines hoping to uncover a path back to the NBA.
Bjorkgren had only recently found his way back to Iowa. Born in Storm Lake, Iowa, Bjorkgren had worked as an Energy assistant coach in their inaugural season. In 2011, Bjorkgren was hired by the Golden State Warriors as coach of their D-League team, stationed first in Bismarck, N.D., then in Santa Cruz, Calif. Last summer, Bjorkgren returned to Iowa to coach the Energy.
Coach Bjorkgren addresses the Energy (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)
II. ‘The world of the D-League’
The NBA established the D-League in 2001, although it was initially called the NBDL. The league began with eight teams; today there are 17, with another coming next season. Fourteen of the D-League’s 17 teams are a single affiliate of an NBA team, which means they work directly with an NBA team’s front office and ownership. The Energy are one of the three D-League teams that remain independent. As such, the Energy are aligned with five different NBA teams — the Bulls, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Wizards. Instead of having one franchise to report to, Bjorkgren has to juggle relationships with five.
“I went to a number of different training camps, so I get to take bits and pieces of every NBA team that we’re a part of this year and kind of incorporate that into our system,” Bjorkgren said. “Last year we were a one-to-one affiliate of the Golden State Warriors, so that when assignment players came down, I was able to run the plays that were part of Coach [Mark] Jackson’s playbook. So it made it easy for those assignment players. That’s how it prepares me as a coach: I get to see the ins and outs of the NBA and how teams handle things differently.”
VIDEO: Take an all-access look at the 2014 D-League Showcase
The easiest way to explain the D-League is to call it the NBA’s minor league, though it definitely does not operate the same way as, say, baseball’s minor leagues. One way the D-League definitely is a minor league is the salaries. According to an agent I spoke to, the D-League has three salary tiers: $25,500; $19,000; $13,000. On most teams, two players are paid at the top tier, two players occupy the second tier and the rest of the team makes the minimum. The per-team salary cap in the D-League is $178,000 per season, which is a little less than Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez makes for playing one NBA game. While all the D-League players are provided with housing, transportation, insurance and a travel per diem, the financials are a sliver of even the rookie minimum NBA contract (which this season is worth a bit under $500,000).
“That’s just the world of the D-League,” Energy forward Othyus Jeffers said. “You know what you’re getting yourself into. We could fuss about the things the D-League don’t have, we could say great things about the D-League, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. You gotta roll with the punches. Everyone knows we don’t get paid. Everyone knows the travel is very tough. But you still have to perform.”
For many players, signing with the D-League is a calculated risk. Leaving for an overseas gig during the season is financially unfeasible due to the standard buyout figure in the D-League contract, which is around $45,000, double or triple the entire value of most contracts. Players may hope to supplement their D-League income by playing overseas after the D-League season, but many leagues run concurrently, making that impossible. If a player wants to make more money than the D-League offers, he could choose to pursue a gig overseas — though with financial crises in many countries, basketball contracts aren’t as sizable as they were even a few years ago. Playing overseas also brings up the whole out-of-sight, out-of-mind conundrum.
“You’re not close to your family but pretty close, instead of being overseas,” Owens said when I asked about the advantages of playing in the D-League. “And just being in front of GMs, scouts. You’re in front of GMs or scouts every night, whereas overseas they have to fly over there for a specific person. So just being around them is a good experience.”
VIDEO: Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger spent several seasons as an NBA D-League coach
At least 32 D-League players have been called up to the NBA this season, a total of 41 times. For a player who still qualifies for the minimum under the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, that 10-day contract is worth about $43,000. Which is a nice bonus for a player earning less than half of that over the 50-game D-League season.
“I always tell our guys and tell people, the D-League is an investment league,” said Bjorkgren. “If you come here to the D-League and you have a great year and you work hard, number one you can get an NBA call-up. Or maybe it turns into a Summer League invite, maybe it turns into a training camp invite. So good things can happen out of the D-League.”
The idea rings true for coaches as well; getting to the NBA is just as valid a goal for them. This season, there are 18 coaches on NBA staffs that have D-League experience . That’s mostly assistants, but that number also counts Memphis head coach Dave Joerger, who formerly served as coach of the Dakota Wizards.
“As a coach, this is my seventh year in the D-League,” Bjorkgren said on the Hang Time Podcast. “What I do is I focus everything during the year on my players and helping them get jobs. We’ve had a good year of call-ups — we had Diante Garrett get called up to the Jazz; Jarvis Varnado got called up to the Bulls and is now signed with the Sixers; Othyus Jeffers got called up the Spurs and started a game.
“So, I pour all of my time into the players. And then when the season’s over, once May comes around, May and June, then I’ll start thinking about myself again. You know, maybe there will be some job that opens up or some shuffling will take place, and maybe there will be an opportunity for me. But right now, I just try to do everything I can for the players, because they’re playing really hard for me.”
Practice? Practice. (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)
III. Scouting the opposition
On the afternoon of the game against the 66ers, just as fans who were at the Iowa Wild hockey game began leaving Wells Fargo Arena, I found a parking spot close by, on the corner of Park and Fifth. Once inside, I wound my way through a series of unmarked hallways and finally found the Energy locker room. A door just inside was marked ASSISTANT COACHES.
This was where I belonged. Apparently.
Inside the spare space, tension already was building. It felt as though we were racing against the clock on the wall, which was ticking down until tipoff. Bjorkgren’s assistants gathered around a folding table waiting for his arrival. As the four assistants pecked at their keyboards, returning emails and checking the latest stats, occasional conversation dotted the silence. Our discussion hit on everything from the latest NCAA tournament results to the proper usage of the word “schadenfreude.”
Through the open door, the banging and clanking of the arena crew was audible as they transformed the arena floor from hockey to basketball. Just as Bjorkgren entered, a barking dog ringtone echoed through the room. Coach Bjorkgren pulled out his iPhone and stepped back into the hallway to take the call. He returned a moment later carrying an energy bar and a bottle of Gatorade.
Because there aren’t really advance scouts in the D-League, video scouting is done mostly through the game broadcasts, which are all streamed live and archived on YouTube. DeBusk fired up his MacBook Pro and attached it to a portable projection system. A slight crisis erupted when the arena’s WiFi signal waned, though it quickly returned. The beige wall in the front of the room became our big screen, and we started sorting clips of different Tulsa players. Bjorkgren called out last-minute alterations for the day’s scouting report.
IV. A new language and culture
There is a basketball language that coaches and players use that is nearly impenetrable for all who are not basketball lifers. I’ve watched and played basketball nearly every day of my life since I was a child, yet I felt like a freshman stumbling into a grad-level class.
“When they go horns or even sometimes if they’re in floppy, watch for him to be involved in wide pindowns.” Or perhaps: “We’ll stunt on the backside and make adjustments through.” In this room, the phrase “BS action” was not a coarse joke — it was a reference to a ball screen. Among coaches, this is lingua franca.
Because this is the D-League, we had to double-check a few video clips where players were wearing different numbers in different games. The coaches weren’t even certain who would be in Tulsa’s starting lineup. Eventually, though, 20 minutes of clips were culled down to a playlist just under eight minutes long.
“At the beginning of season we might watch about 12 minutes of video before a game,” Bjorkgren said. “But this late in the season we’re trying to keep it between seven and eight.”
While we were meeting, the players arrived and took to their own pregame rituals — getting taped, taking some shots. Owens ran up the arena stairs to the concourse to buy a hot dog. Around 5:30 p.m., the players squeezed into the film room. The clips rolled in order as Bjorkgren narrated. The assistant coaches piped in here and there.
At 50 minutes until tipoff, everyone gathered on the court for some loosely organized stretching and drills. The soundtrack blaring over the PA system was inexplicably heavy on the solo works of O.D.B., which the players seemed to enjoy. At one point Rice Jr. took a seat on the scorer’s table. He leaned over and noticed the PA microphone unattended, so he pushed the red button below it and bellowed, “HELLO DES MOINES!”
Eventually we headed back to the locker room, where the coaches ducked into an office and suited up. With 19 minutes on the countdown clock, everyone gathered in the main locker room for Bjorkgren’s pregame speech.
For the most part, it was just Bjorkgren giving reminders to the Energy. D-League teams play each other eight or nine times in the regular season — many more times than NBA teams see each other. As Bjorkgren ran through the 66ers’ presumed starting lineup for a final time, he would single out an opponent and say something like, “Play him as if you don’t need help. It’s there if you need it, but play like you don’t.”
The last thing he told the players was this: “Every game we play is a step. Tonight, let’s take one more step.”
No “rah rah” stuff. Just one professional reminding other professionals about the job at hand.
“Motivation is a big part of it,” Bjorkgren explained. “You have to stay creative as a D-League coach. I’ve got guys in their 30s, I’ve got guys that are rookies, and everything in between.”
For the final pregame ritual, we huddled up for a prayer delivered, perhaps fittingly, by the man named Moses (Ehambe). He spoke for a long time, touching on everything from commitment to excellence to injury prevention. When we finally broke with a unison “Amen,” his teammates immediately questioned his timing, specifically wondering why this apparently unusually long prayer occurred the one night cameras were in the locker room. For the next few minutes at least, everyone called Ehambe either “Rev” or “Kirk Franklin.”
The players jogged out onto the court for their layup lines. The coaches let them get ahead, and then followed them out. DeBusk handed me Bjorkgren’s dry-erase board to carry, so I wouldn’t be empty-handed. DeBusk and Marsh urged me to walk out first. I did, slapping the hands of Energy fans along the way, but not without first checking over my shoulder to make sure the other coaches hadn’t stayed behind.
The Energy line up for the National Anthem (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)
V. The game, at last
After the National Anthem, it was time for introductions. The 66ers were starting the same lineup the coaches suspected they would, which meant no last-minute adjustments. As the lights went out and the music blared, Martin and I stood to the side, talking quietly as the circus raged around us.
Just seconds before tip-off, Ehambe jogged over, leaned in close to me and said, “Hey Coach, just wanted to tell you I really like your shoes.” The wingtips did look good.
Once the game started, I was in uncharted ground. The details were particularly vexing. What, for instance, was I supposed to do with my cell phone? Do coaches have their phones in their pockets during games? I figured it would look odd if one of the coaches was checking Twitter during timeouts, so I slipped my phone inside my jacket and resisted the impulse to check it until we were all done.
Bjorkgren had assigned me the first seat on the bench, with Martin sitting between us. Being so close to the action gives you the ability to spot things you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Just minutes into the game, Rice Jr. pulled up for a jumper and came down limping. I saw him mouth the words, “My toe!” As he limped to the other end of the floor, Bjorkgren plopped down on the bench and asked aloud, “What happened to Glen?” I said, “I think he hurt his foot or his toe.” As it turned out, he had re-aggravated an old toe injury and had to come out of the game.
While we sat on the bench, Bjorkgren worked the sideline, pacing back and forth. All of the other coaches had tasks to do and stats to track. I had no such assigned duties, so I spent the first half jotting down notes about the experience, trying to look like I was doing something official. I’m guessing I was the first professional basketball coach to use a Moleskine notebook on the sideline. Mostly, I slipped into a housekeeping role, moving chairs around, kicking towels out of the way and attempting not to step on anyone’s toes. Literally, in Rice Jr.’s case.
During each timeout and between quarters, the players filtered toward the bench and the coaches gathered around the free-throw line. At the first play stoppage, I instinctively stepped toward the returning Energy players to greet them with high fives, only to realize this was a job for the other players, not the coaches.
Each break had a similar schedule. Someone hands Bjorkgren his dry erase board, and he writes down five sets of initials, the five players who were in the game at the moment. Bjorkgren asks Wilson how many consecutive defensive stops the Energy had recorded. He asks DeBusk for the rebounding differential, Martin for transition scoring and Marsh for a deflection tally. All of these stats are recorded on the dry erase board, and then Bjorkgren draws up an offensive play for the next possession while he walks toward the huddle. He then kneels before the players with a board full of information, presented for their consumption in the few seconds before the timeout ended.
During these huddles, I stood toward the back along with most of the other coaches, leaving room for the players to get close to Bjorkgren. During one timeout, one of the referees walked up to the rear of the Energy huddle and shouted, “OK, time’s up! Let’s go guys!” I don’t think Bjorkgren heard him, or if he did, he ignored him, because he just kept talking to the players. Maybe 20 seconds later, the same ref returned and, from just over my shoulder, yelled, “Hey, I said let’s go! Second warning!” I glanced down to the other end of the court at the Tulsa bench and saw that they were still huddled up, too, so I turned to the ref and did the best thing I could do in that situation: I lied.
“OK, OK, we’re breaking right now,” I guessed, hopeful that Bjorkgren’s internal clock was telling him that it was time to go. The ref nodded and jogged away, and maybe 10 seconds later the huddle broke.
During the game, we were all so focused on each possession that the ebb and flow of the game morphed into a big blur. Bjorkgren’s system of having each coach track a stat and using those numbers in each timeout turned out to be a good way to get instant, frequent reminders of how the game was going.
Othyus Jeffers dunks with authority (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)
VI. A sluggish first half
Things did not go Iowa’s way in the first half, but the Energy stayed in the game largely due to the efforts of Jeffers, who had 15 first-half points. Born and raised in Chicago, Jeffers was a terrific high school player despite enduring nearly unspeakable family tragedy — two of his brothers were murdered and, while in college, Jeffers himself was shot defending his sister. He attended three different colleges, finishing up at Robert Morris University, where Sporting News named him NAIA Player of the Year. Jeffers went undrafted by the NBA and signed a deal to play professionally in Iceland. While at the airport waiting to board his flight, Jeffers got a call informing him that the Icelandic state had essentially gone bankrupt.
He walked out of the airport and walked into a D-League career, immediately making a mark as an All-Star and Rookie of the Year.
“I didn’t come to the D-League with the same mindset as other players,” Jeffers told me. “I really didn’t know anything about the D-League. It was just something to do coming out of college. But I observe quickly. I went to Robert Morris — it was a business school — so I look at everything as, What am I going to do next? Every opportunity I had was, What am I going to do next?”
At one point during the first half, I leaned over and told Martin that Jeffers reminded me of an offensively-better Tony Allen: both guys are Chicago natives who are undersized but play bigger; both are versatile lockdown defenders who can defend several positions. Most relevantly, Jeffers has the same unstoppable grit and grind.
Martin immediately agreed. “O plays his ass off,” he said with a smile.
Jeffers ended up playing 46 minutes and finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, four steals and a turnover against the 66ers, defending everyone from shooting guards to centers. “He’s the best player in the D-League,” Bjorkgren said.
For whatever reason, Jeffers has played in just 35 NBA games over the last six years. An aspirational 6-foot-5, Jeffers seems like a classic ‘tweener — not a pure enough shooter to play the 2, too small to play the 3. Earlier this season, when the injury-riddled San Antonio Spurs signed him to a 10-day contract, Gregg Popovich joked about his possible impact: “What are you talking about? He’s a stopper,” Popovich told USA TODAY. “This guy, he’s the next Scottie Pippen on defense. You’ve got to be kidding me. We just uncovered a gem that nobody else knows about. You watch.” Jeffers got a start for the Spurs during a TNT game, but the Spurs eventually waived him a week into his 10-day deal.
After watching him, I’m not so sure Pop was joking. In the right system, with the right teammates, Jeffers could be a regular in the NBA. Until that day comes, Jeffers is one of the D-League’s most complete players, dominating competition while dealing with playing a step below the big time. During his down time, Jeffers said he was inspired by several business seminars offered by the D-League, and he has diversified his off-court business endeavors, including establishing a trucking company and opening a sports complex back home in Chicago.
“You got to have a goal or a plan. My plan has nothing to do with making it to the NBA, it’s just what happens. I don’t wake up every day saying, Hey, I have to go to the NBA. My plan is finish this, and move on.”
Curtis Stinson drives and hangs (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)
VII. ‘What you got, Lang?’
By halftime, the Energy were on the wrong end of a 51-42 score. As soon as the buzzer sounded, Bjorkgren made a beeline toward the locker room, directly into the coach’s office. The door closed swiftly behind him, either because he allowed it to or he forced it to. I was a few steps behind, walking alongside Wilson. Wilson had actually coached Bjorkgren for a season in college, so they had a long history together.
“Was Nate this intense back when you coached him?” I asked Wilson. He nodded.
Bjorkgren had been deferential and inclusive since I’d arrived, almost disarmingly so. He was cool and calm, but also clearly invested and in control. This moment, as we filed into the locker room, was the only time I thought he was close to losing that unflappable sheen. As I opened the door to go into the room, our cameraman gave me a look asking if he should follow me inside.
Even though Bjorkgren had been totally accommodating, in this moment something seemed … different. He felt like he was close to the edge, and I felt like I owed it to him to give him the chance to go over that edge for a few seconds if he needed to, without a camera in his face. After all, we were in town for less than 48 hours. He was trying to clinch a playoff berth.
Though we were down by nine, the first half hadn’t been a total disaster. The players were getting good looks; the shots just weren’t going down (1-of-9 on 3-pointers at the half). Loose balls just weren’t bouncing Iowa’s way.
Once all the coaches were seated, Bjorkgren went around the group asking his assistants what they’d seen that Iowa could improve upon in the second half. He was frustrated. I sat in the corner, trying to make myself invisible. And then I heard my name.
“What you got, Lang?”
I sat up and cleared my throat. I poked the corners of my brain for things that had not been mentioned. I didn’t have much wiggle room.
“Well,” I offered, “two things I saw. That big dude, the guy who came in at the end of the half, Kraft? Kleft?”
“Kreft,” Bjorkgren corrected me.
“Right, Jon Kreft. He’s killing you on the boards. Maybe we try someone different against him? And then the other thing is we just aren’t making shots. And I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault — we’re getting good shots. We just need them to start going down.”
Coach Bjorkgren nodded. “Good stuff,” he said. I wiped the sweat from my brow.
We stood and filed into the larger locker room with the players, who were sitting in chairs around the edges. Bjorkgren took his place at the front. That angry edge I thought I’d seen as we left the court had been tamed, at least for the moment.
“I don’t think we’re playing that bad,” Bjorkgren said. “And you talk about our turnovers and stuff — they’re not bad turnovers. So those will get better. Don’t stop running. Just some of those plays that didn’t bounce our way, they’ll bounce our way in the second half if we stick with it.”
Before we broke to head back to the floor, Coach pointed out the home team was down 10 rebounds, and I heard Jeffers audibly sigh in disgust. He seemed to be taking this as an affront, and I suspected — and hoped — that he was making this as a personal challenge.
Assistant Coaches Martin and Whitaker assess the options (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)
VIII. Coaching by cheering
The third quarter began with the 66ers seemingly making every shot they took. After Bjorkgren’s upbeat halftime message, this obviously wasn’t what he was hoping to see. Not even three minutes into the quarter, he burned a timeout with the Energy down 60-46. This time he didn’t wait for the coaches to feed him his usual stats . As soon as the players arrived he went into a more impassioned version of his halftime speech. I got boxed out around the edge of the huddle, so I strolled over and got a cup of blue Gatorade from behind the bench. For the first time I considered what the postgame atmosphere might be like if the Energy lost.
It was during this timeout that I finally realized where I could make a tangible contribution. For more than a decade, I’ve had it drilled into me that whenever I’m watching a professional basketball game, I must remain impartial, particularly when I’m in the press box. There have been a few occasions when, despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t contain myself. When Robert Horry went nuts in Game 5 of the ’05 Finals in Detroit; when Ray Allen extended the ’13 Finals to a Game 7 in Miami.
But here in Des Moines, if I were to have any sort of impact, I decided I needed to throw aside those hard-learned lessons by being loud.
Most of the time, unless I wormed my way into the huddle to get a glimpse of his dry-erase board, I had no idea what plays Bjorkgren was drawing up, so I couldn’t opine on the finer points of each possession. I could, however, yell and cheer and clap and generally be positive. Yelling at Jeffers that he was doing a great job defensively might not tip the scales either way in the grand scheme of things. But it couldn’t hurt anything, either.
That was the moment I went from thinking of myself as a tourist and accepted that I was a full-fledged member of the Energy. I had been wearing their gear and hanging with the staff and players for two days. I was on the sideline, in the center of these flashing lights, the cameras, all this spectacle, getting sweated on every play. If I was going to do my best, and give the Energy my fullest effort, I had to acknowledge that I was no longer an impartial journalist. I was now a full-fledged member of the Energy.
More than anything else, my goal was to do whatever I could to help win this damn game.
Suddenly, things started going our way. The stops we were working so hard to accumulate began to add up. The rebounding margin got a little tighter. Rice Jr. returned from his injury and helped out on both ends. Jeffers, who had three rebounds at the half, grabbed five in the third alone. It all happened so quickly that it was hard to keep up, and as we headed into the fourth quarter, the Iowa En … — we — had tied the score at 77.
Tulsa guard Mario Little had basically been unconscious, draining threes from all over the place. Jeffers began hounding him and managed to slow him down a bit. (Little still finished with 31 points on 8-of-12 from downtown.) Kreft scored just two more points, Iowa point guard Austin Freeman entered and played solid minutes, Ehambe, Owens and Pat Christopher kept running the wings, and all those bad breaks started going our way.
Meanwhile, I turned into the verbal version of Kent Bazemore. Standing and gesticulating might be frowned upon from an assistant, but I could yell, so play after play I shouted names, told guys to watch for picks, even made a few passive-aggressive barks at the officials.
It wasn’t until there was about a minute left and we were up double-digits that I felt certain we were going to win. When Tulsa had a breakaway with just seconds to play, Bjorkgren hollered, “Let ‘em go!” to remind his players that, at least for this instance, perhaps there was one play where no attention to defense was required. Just this once.
IX. A victory like no other
The final buzzer sounded and it was over. We had won, 112-101. Finally. Thankfully.
The Energy players and coaches lined up in front of our bench and walked toward the 66ers’ bench, where we exchanged handshakes. Even though I was fully aware that my presence probably completely confound the 66ers — “Who is this guy?” — I made my way down the line, shaking hands and saying a perfunctory “Good game.”.
We went to the locker room and were told that we needed to return to the court immediately to take a team photo with members of the local Boys and Girls Club. I stood aside but was urged onward by the players, who were clearly having fun with my presence: “Come on, Coach! Let’s go, Coach! You’re part of this now!”
Back on the floor, as the Energy’s community relations staff herded us into loosely formed rows, I chatted with Bjorkgren about the win. That game-time edge everyone had been carrying had devolved into the afterglow of a win. I hadn’t expected to so thoroughly enjoy the experience. But here I was out on the court with the Energy, standing in my sweat-stained dress shirt, joking around and cutting up.
We all wanted to win; we all contributed in different ways. And it’s important to remember that the actual game was just a minor part of being a coach. These men are coaches 24 hours a day, every day; that a game happened to occur for a few hours on this evening was a minor part of the deal.
There was a satisfaction in that postgame celebration that is hard to match. I’ve seen the team I root for win close games, even had my favorite baseball team win a World Series. But standing there in the afterglow, being on the inside after a win … nothing tops that. That feeling of shared accomplishment is the high that fans and coaches and athletes keep chasing, day after day, night after night, season after season.
That’s what makes us tick. That’s what keeps us coming back for more.
(The Iowa Energy finished their season 31-19 and won the Central Division. They open the D-League playoffs on Tuesday against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.)