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As a young star at Wake Forest, Chris Paul would listen to his coach, Skip Prosser, raise his name over and over. Here's how David West played the game. Here's how David West worked. Here's how David West acted.
"David West," Chris Paul sighed on a cell phone Thursday. 'He was all I ever heard about."
Prosser had moved to the ACC out of the Atlantic 10, but his heart was forever with a self-made player who stayed four years at Xavier and made himself the National Player of the Year. A different breed of college coach, the late Prosser was a sincere, self-deprecating high-school history teacher who never played the part of the used-car salesman. When a kid connected with Prosser, it spoke something of his soul.
"When Coach Prosser first got to Wake, he kept telling me about the young guy he got there," West said Thursday. "And I know the kind of guy that Coach recruited."
Once Paul had been drafted to the Hornets in 2005, West had already been part of the worst team in the NBA. New Orleans had won 18 games. Hurricane Katrina had chased the franchise to Oklahoma City. The prospects of climbing into the Western Conference's elite felt like scaling Everest.
For West, he was still waiting his turn on the Hornets bench. New Orleans had an old sage, P.J. Brown, starting at power forward. He took time to teach West to be a pro. Once Paul arrived in his third season, Hornets coach Byron Scott moved West into the starting lineup. They clicked. Part of it was the connection to Prosser, part of it was childhoods spent growing up in small North Carolina towns, and part of it just was just two young players resolved to transform a loser into winner.
These days, Paul is unstoppable, a force of nature that has the Hornets on their best start in franchise history at 21-11. He has that gift of elevating everyone in his presence, which is why after one season with West, with the rest of basketball still suspicious, Paul told him, "I wouldn't want to play with another power forward in the league."
Deron Williams had Carlos Boozer? Good for him, Paul insisted. He watched the way that West worked, the way he never cared about stats, about credit, about anything but what Scott kept preaching for the long run. He watched it all and knew that they didn't need to get him his Boozer, because they were developing one at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds.
"All we've talked about the last few years here, is 'Close the gap,' " West said. This was a mandate to creep closer and closer to San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix. One by one, they're climbing over teams and delivering notice. This goes for West, too.
As discreetly as West's disposition, he's playing the ball of his life, scoring (19.3 points) and rebounding (9.6) at career-high clips.
"He's going to be a 20 and 10 guy," Paul said. "Anything less from him and he knows I'm going to be upset."
Around West, the talent has slowly and surely assembled. It is no coincidence that West's offensive game has blossomed – Paul calls him, "The 17-foot assassin" – because Peja Stojakovic and Mo Peterson are deep perimeter threats. Tyson Chandler has developed into a menace in the middle that they expected back with the Bulls. Yes, the Hornets’ bench is killing them and general manager Jeff Bower needs to be active on the trade front because there are too many teams with too much depth in the West.
Payroll is always a concern with the cash-strapped Hornets, but Bower has done a marvelous job constructing these Hornets with a small scouting staff and limited resources. Bower has turned the Hornets into one of the can-do franchises in the sport, a culture that commands his locker room.
Before he gets too busy making deals, he warns, "One of our strengths of our group has been shared experiences and that's worth something."
Here's what Bower is talking about: The toughness bred into these Hornets across several seasons of nomadic basketball. Between New Orleans and Oklahoma City, they've been torn between two towns, two homes. When they played four home games in New Orleans a season ago, they had to travel into town the night before like the opponent. Essentially, they were away games. No one in the NBA has had to run a franchise out of moving boxes, like they've done from Charlotte to New Orleans, New Orleans to Oklahoma City.
Nevertheless, the Hornets don't make excuses. They make progress.
Now, they're back in New Orleans and the market, the economy, makes those empty seats tougher on a team that's closed within one game of the first-place Spurs in the Southwest Division. These vagabond Hornets have a fantastic spirit. This goes to Scott, a hard-ass, truth-telling coach and trickles to Paul and Chandler and, yes, West, who is the X factor in a conference of potent power forwards.
The accumulated mettle of these Hornets has lot to do with a 12-5 record on the road, best in the conference on the way into Golden State on Friday night. "We don't complain about situations," West said. "We handle them."
West is the one Hornet still around to remember a playoff season, an '04 run with Baron Davis as a teammate. Funny, but West remembers what they were saying about him in those days. Few had much faith in the possibilities of four-year college players in the pros. He doesn't get indignant because they said he wasn't tough enough to play down low, nor athletic enough to play outside.
So, West listened and learned, worked and worked, and got a little lucky when Prosser, the late coaching angel, delivered him a heavenly point guard. Together, they traveled to North Carolina to bury their old coach this summer. They play the game, the way Prosser lived: with sincerity and resolve.
"I was one of those guys who needed four years of college, and I was so lucky to have really good veteran guys when I got into the league who taught me to be patient, to learn to play the game, learn to act the right way," West said. "I learned that if you're willing to work in this league, there are no limits on you."
The Hornets are closing the gap in the Western Conference, and so much of it surrounds the development of the one player who was there when this team was the worst, when the climb was the steepest. Chris Paul had been hearing about David West for a long, long time, and maybe this is the year when everyone else finally does, too.
1. Every so often, there are books about the game of basketball that command you to set them on the most select shelf. Here comes one more, The Assist: Hoops, Hope and the Game of Their Lives by Neil Swidey (Public Affairs, $26).
For the author, Swidey, this was a three-year journey with Coach Jack O’Brien and the Charlestown High School basketball program. There are no NBA players here, but a coach trying to navigate the narrow margins of coaching an inner-city basketball team at a suburban school that was the final battleground of Boston’s school desegregation years ago.
What makes this book so special is the staying power of the author with his subjects. Swidey beautifully illustrates that beyond championship seasons and scholarships won out of tough-love high school coaches, some kids make it. And some don’t. This isn’t "Hoosiers," this is life. You’ve never needed to hear of O’Brien and his players, Ridley Johnson and Jason White, to care deeply for them, but that’ll happen once you lose yourself in these pages.
This isn’t a great basketball book, this is great literature. The bouncing ball has always been the backdrop for some of the best writing, the best stories, out there. Here comes one more, The Assist, that goes on that shelf.
2. Here’s a little advice for those ex-stars who want to break into coaching:
Go read Sam Smith’s fantastic interview and column with Scottie Pippen, and tell yourself, “This is the surest way that I’ll never coach in the league.”
It sounded like Pippen had lost his mind. For all the reports that suggest that Pippen has lost money, this wildly entertaining rant did little to disguise his desperation. He wants to coach the Bulls, so he rips two of its best players, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich?
When he’s destroying the Chicago guards, he might as well be trashing the GM responsible for drafting them, John Paxson. You know, Pippen’s old Bulls teammate, the man charged with hiring the next coach.
And kill Scott Skiles on the way out? Ask what he ever did?
(Well, Skiles did win 50 games and sweep the defending champion Miami Heat in the playoffs last season.)
“Guys like Skiles have never been there,” Pippen said. “Can he give a motivation speech like someone who’s been in those games?”
Maybe not, but motivational speeches don’t win championships. And besides, Gregg Popovich was never “in those games,” and it seems like the Spurs have listened to his speeches.
Here’s the problem for Pippen: Despite the fact that he was one of the best players ever, the NBA still won’t let him start the season in the playoffs. So Paxson is probably thinking that he needs to hire a coach who can give the Bulls more than a speech before a big game, but a system, a style, a leader, that they can count on every day.
Pippen is right. Everything about his genius as a player suggests he could be a terrific coach. Nevertheless, he just killed his chances. Everything he told Smith in the column, he could’ve said privately to Paxson. When Rick Barry used to go on like this in the papers you understood it. What executives or owners took his calls?
But Paxson would’ve done so for Pippen. And the Bulls GM probably would’ve given him a shot to fill interim coach Jim Boylan’s spot on the staff.
Now? If Pippen really wants to coach, he’d better hope that Phil Jackson has a job for him in L.A.
3. League executives are forever keeping tabs on the crop of assistant coaches that’ll someday be head coaches. Here are few names that keep coming up when you talk to general managers and coaches.
Keith Smart (Golden State) and Erik Spoelstra (Miami) are being groomed under Don Nelson and Pat Riley to take over those teams. If Nelson hadn’t returned over the summer, GM Chris Mullin was ready to promote Smart, the Indiana Hoosier guard whose shot beat Syracuse in the 1987 NCAA title game.
Spoelstra is a young assistant with the Heat, whom Riley has suggested will be his replacement. Nevertheless, owner Micky Arison has reportedly been reluctant about Riley passing the torch to Spoelstra with the Heat in a state of disarray.
Tom Thibodeau (Boston Celtics): Finally, Thibodeau is getting his due as the architect of the Celtics league-leading defense under Doc Rivers. After more than a decade under Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston, Thibodeau needed to separate from his old boss to see that it wasn’t just Van Gundy implementing those systems.
Beyond defense, though, he was credited with a lot of Yao Ming’s offensive development in Houston. Coaches who’ve worked with him insist that he shouldn’t be pigeonholed as simply a defensive guy. He could be the assistant most in demand for a head coaching job, but a long run by the Celtics in the playoffs could fill up some jobs before he’s available to leave.
Monty Williams (Portland): Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford rave over Williams, who was with them as a player and staffer. Williams works for one of the best minds in the game now, Nate McMillan, and the Blazers’ success could have this 10-year NBA veteran on the fast track to a head job.
Mike Dunlap (Denver): An interesting hire for George Karl three years ago, Dunlap was a wildly successful Division II coach at Metro State in Denver. He had turned down several good Division I jobs through the years because he felt like the chance to work in the NBA would expand his knowledge of the game. He won’t get a job soon, but everyone who’s been around him raves about Dunlap’s grasp of the game.
4. When you talk to smaller-scale agents for NBA players, there’s a growing frustration with the bigger firms poaching their clients. As one agent said, “I wish our Players Association was as vigilant as the NFL’s is when it comes to policing this stuff. It’s like the wild west out there. Anything goes when it comes to taking one of your guys, and our Players Association doesn’t lift a finger to do anything about it.”
5. Just a year ago, NBA executives were discussing UConn’s 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet as a top-20 draft pick. After coming close to entering the 2007 draft, Thabeet returned to Connecticut. So far this season, several scouts have been unimpressed, with one comparing him to former Sonics No. 1 pick, Mouhamed Sene of Senegal.
“To me, he’s a Sene clone,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “He’s got bad hands, no offensive game, plays very erect. Yeah, he can challenge shots against some undersized college players, but I can’t see him being effective against stronger, more polished pro players. Just because you have a 7-foot-8 wingspan doesn’t make you an NBA player.”