BOISE, Idaho – He is sitting in the lobby of the Hampton Inn, just off the breakfast buffet bar. Outside, the street is cold and quiet. As confessionals go, this is fitting for a Boy Wonder who lost his way. Quin Snyder, 41 years old, runs his fingers through his hair, stiffens his shoulders and uneasily goes back to the University of Missouri.
"Maybe I tried to do it too quickly," Snyder said. "When you're young, you don't see the pitfalls."
There are a lot of reasons that Snyder had to leave Missouri a year and a half ago, that a fast-track coaching career careened out of control. Mike Krzyzewski had minted him as one of coaching's rising stars a decade ago. Snyder was smart and driven and produced of the perfect pedigree. He was a favored son of the Duke dynasty. He wanted it all and chased it hard and something – blind ambition, arrogance, fame and fortune – something drove the smartest kid in the gym to too many unwise choices.
As it turned out, those reclamation-project players at Missouri turned Snyder into a project himself in the NBA Developmental League. Five years ago, Snyder was within 40 minutes of the Final Four. Now, he's waiting to go upstairs to watch tape for the next morning's game against the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
As candidates go for teaching the San Antonio Spurs' way in its minor-league affiliate, the rookie coach of the Austin Toros seems an improbable choice. Spurs vice president and coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have constructed an NBA dynasty on the belief that there are no quick-fixes, no short cuts, no compromises; that character counts. The Spurs are a model of professionalism and performance. When you're hired, you're legitimized.
Basketball's most respected operation believed Snyder was the best choice to teach and mentor its young players. On precious matters of basketball, they make judgments free of concerns over public perception and political correctness. San Antonio doesn't do charity cases.
"If you look at our entire staff, starting with Pop and myself, there are none of us that you would've pulled from the lineup and said, ‘There's a pedigree for success in the NBA,' " Buford said.
Even before the Spurs purchased the Toros this summer, they pushed Austin ownership to hire the deposed Missouri coach. So far, Snyder has honored San Antonio's faith. The Toros have come out of the D-League Showcase this week with a 14-6 record and first place in the Southwest Division. Buford is thrilled with the way the Spurs' 2005 first-round pick, France's 6-foot-11 Ian Mahinmi, is progressing, the way the shuttle between Austin and San Antonio has moved seamlessly for call-ups.
As a college coach, Snyder issued thick, glossy reports for players on everything they needed to develop as players and students. He had a staff for everything. He had so many innovative ideas, so much possibility, and yet it all started to go to hell when troubled recruit Ricky Clemons, convicted of choking a coed, drove his ATV up the chancellor's front lawn. Eventually, Clemons ratted out the program on tape in jailhouse confessions and landed Mizzou NCAA sanctions.
Snyder never needed to take the risks he did at Missouri. Sometimes, he had too much talent, too little chemistry. The longer Snyder stayed over his seven seasons, the more chaotic the program turned.
"There were a lot of ways that I was very well prepared for that job and, wasn't in some other ways and I don't think I understood at Duke," Snyder said. "I had never recruited junior colleges at Duke. There were some blind spots for me.
"But as you step away from it, you're able to see it more clearly. When you're in fight-or-flight mode for almost three years, it's hard to think what you should've done in that fight because you've got another one in front of you."
After leaving Missouri in 2002, he dropped out of basketball for a year. He has a JD/MBA degree. He's no gym teacher. He didn't need to coach. Still, Snyder couldn't shake the game. Privately, he has told friends that he has no desire to return to college basketball. Right now, he'd be a fool. For him, Austin is a most fortuitous landing spot. The blessing of Buford and Popovich gives him second-chance credibility, the way that Duke made possible a Big 12 coaching job at 32 years old.
"He's lived what happens when you skip steps and it goes wrong for you," a long-time associate said. "I think it's made him more resolute about the character that you need to have for success. Because of what happened (at Missouri) he's even more invested in Popovich's belief system."
For Snyder, he's been afforded a staggering support system by D-League standards. Dell Demps, the Spurs' pro personnel director, immersed himself in re-creating the Spurs culture in Austin. Demps and Buford hired Mo McHone, one of the best minor-league coaches in basketball, as director of basketball development. They gave Snyder an assistant coach, Roy Rogers, with an NBA playing and D-League coaching background. They gave him one of the most talented rosters in the D-League. Mostly, the Spurs gave him this mandate: Mentor in the pros the way you did in college.
"There are these great competing forces here," Snyder said. "To me, that's the challenge of the whole thing. For players, you have this survival component. There is this instinct of self-preservation that goes with the challenge of trying to get them to play together as a team, to value the team.
"You try to get them to understand that they can get to where they want to go by doing it this way."
During the summer, Buford led his Toros staff on a trip to Cleveland to visit with Indians general manager Mark Shapiro and his front office.
"We tried to study how successful minor-league programs in other sports, especially baseball, had used it," Buford said. "The trip to Cleveland was really empowering for us."
Through it all, Snyder found himself revitalized. The D-League is where you can find out about the truth about coaches, and where the coaches can find out the truth about themselves. This is where you can find out what happens when all the things the profession worships – the rollover contracts, the rock-star status – get stripped away. Sometimes, the job comes down to this: After driving eight hours overnight from a loss in Fort Wayne, Ind., who gets his team to play hard in Des Moines tonight?
"When the water goes out at the hotel before the game, if you can't shower, the whole team can't shower," Snyder said. "But I love that part of it. I do. And I love the anonymity. I wouldn't trade that right now. I'm in the moment a lot, which is awesome for me. That's always been a struggle. My mind races a bit."
Finally, he can take a breath and slow down. No more shortcuts, no more false gods of fame and fortune. This is the Spurs way now. For a coach, the credibility can be cleansing. For Quin Snyder, it's sheer salvation.
Webber, 34, is considering Dallas, too, but Mavericks officials are privately telling people they don't believe they're in the running. On the basis of pure need, the Lakers, who just lost starting center Andrew Bynum for at least eight weeks, makes the most sense. Webber passed on Los Angles a year ago in his Clemens-esque midseason return, but going back to his hometown Pistons is a difficult proposition.
The Pistons would need to make a roster move to clear room for Webber, and GM Joe Dumars still needs to convince himself that bringing the veteran back is worth costing some of his young forwards precious minutes.
2. For every player in the D-League Showcase who busted his back end to impress the overseas scouts and 30 NBA teams studying the event, perhaps no one did as much damage to his reputation as Josh McRoberts.
His body language blurted, "Why do I have to be here?" on Tuesday and Thursday night, one more in a string of performances that have left people in the NBA and D-League asking: Does the rookie out of Duke want to play basketball anymore?
McRoberts, a 6-foot-10 forward with impressive passing skills, needs to get over where he thought his basketball career would be and make the best of where it is. He was one of the top-five high school players in the nation, a freshman at Duke whom some executives believed would've been a first-round pick had he left school after one season. After a disappointing sophomore season, McRoberts turned pro and dropped to Portland with the 37th pick of the second round.
McRoberts, a cheerleader for the Northwest Division's first-place Portland Trail Blazers, treated his assignment to Idaho like a deployment to Baghdad. Despite playing just three games this season, McRoberts resisted the chance to work on his game in Idaho. To go scoreless Tuesday night in 31 minutes and come back with 2 of 10 shooting that included more airballs and mindless basketball insulted his teammates, coaches and a slew of scouts.
Most believe his two-year guaranteed contract was more a product of his childhood friendship with Greg Oden, than a testament of his talent.
"He'd better figure out fast that Oden will make some new friends," one D-League coach said.
When a player with a guaranteed contract comes down, he's an immediate target for players trying to make a name for themselves. They'll challenge him. On a nightly basis, McRoberts is getting humiliated in the D-League. "If you take away the name, the contract, the school, and just judge him on what you're seeing: He looked like the worst player in the building," one Western Conference personnel director said.
Said an Eastern Conference scout, who had watched him regularly at Duke, "If he keeps this up, he will be out of the league in two years. (McRoberts) better wake up before it's too late for him. It's a shame because he has some talent."
3. Benetton of Treviso, Italy, one of the magical names of European basketball, has secured one of the most intriguing young prospects in the world: Samuel Deguara of the tiny island of Malta, just off the coast of Sicily.
He is 7-foot-4, 220 pounds.
He wears size 23 sneakers.
He is 16 years old.
When discovered in his hometown of Valletta, Malta, Deguara had been walking three miles to the nearest gym for a chance to play basketball. Now, Benetton has him playing for its 20-and-under team and training in Treviso. The soonest that he could be eligible for the NBA Draft would be 2010.
"He has some very good potential," said Alberto Buzzavo, the Benetton assistant GM who played his college ball at the University of South Florida. "He has coordination and his skills are developing. He really works. He wants to play the game. Once everyone sees him this summer against true competition, I think there will be a big buzz in Europe."
4. Pepperdine has a recent history of turning to coaches with NBA pedigrees to fill its basketball job. Now, after Vance Walberg resigned Thursday, most believed former Golden State and Sacramento coach Eric Musselman would make himself a candidate for the job.
Not so, apparently.
Musselman is telling friends that he wants to do better. If so, he's dreaming.
In the past decade, Paul Westphal and Jan van Breda Kolff had the Pepperdine job. Westphal was fired and van Breda Kolff left to destroy the basketball program at St. Bonaventure with an academic fraud scandal. He's ended up where he deserves: out of coaching.
Back in 1994, a Florida Gators assistant, fresh off the Final Four, was devastated when his interview in Malibu didn't result in the job offer.
"It broke my heart," Spurs GM R.C. Buford said. "I wanted that job so badly."
A couple of months later, Gregg Popovich hired Buford as his top scout. Four NBA championships later, he's over it.
5. Perhaps the D-League has learned its lesson on hiring washed-up coaches like Jim Harrick.
After all, this is supposed to be the Developmental League. There are too many good young coaches like Joe Wolf, Reggie Geary and Bryan Gates to be wasting jobs on the likes of Harrick.
"Harrick thought he could come coach two hours a day and go home," one Eastern Conference scout said. "He found out this was real work, that a lot of guys in this league are chasing players every day of the year."
If someone believed Harrick would sell a seat in Bakersfield, Calif., they were kidding themselves. The arena was quiet enough for fans to take one of those tests that Jim Sr. and Jim Jr., made famous at the University of Georgia. After taking the job halfway through last season, a disastrous season this year caused him to resign three weeks ago.