Rare is the assistant coach dismissal that makes actual headlines, because in NBA circles assistants are usually only let go when a head coach gets the axe. On top of that, assistants usually aren’t allowed by teams, in an informal fashion, to speak on record with the media – so you rarely get a glimpse into behind the scenes machinations, even if there is fire beneath that smoke.
Even rarer is watching as an assistant coach is dismissed midseason, and pretty much unprecedented is what happened to former Memphis Grizzlies assistant Barry Hecker last spring. In between Games 2 and 3 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder, Hecker was fired by Memphis. At the time, then-Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said the reasons for the separation were “nothing for public consumption.”
Seven months later Hecker is disagreeing with Hollins’ assertions, on record. In a talk with Sporting News columnist Sean Deveney, Hecker went into long detail about his surprising and abrupt dismissal, one that came soon after the assistant engaged in a back and forth with a series of fans in Oklahoma City during Game 2 of his last series.
According to Hecker, a “6-4, 250”-pound fan was standing up (“they stand up a lot there in Oklahoma City”) and blocking the assistant coaches view. In the discussion with Deveney, Hecker claims that he respectfully approached the fan to encourage him to sit down, all full of polite language and “sirs,” only to be rebuffed by the large fan and several other younger ones even after Hecker identified himself as an assistant coach.
The deposed assistant told Deveney of the criticism he received even though he “was not even at fault,” and that it led to a contentious meeting between the assistant and head coach Lionel Hollins. Uneasy feelings had been brewing all season between the two, and the confrontation between the fans and assistant seemed to be the final straw for Hollins. From the Sporting News:
Hollins had heard about what happened on the sideline in Game 2, and called the Thunder to apologize. Rather than getting right into the game plan, Hollins asked what happened in Oklahoma City. “I know (Hollins) like a book,” Hecker said. “And I was like, ‘Oh s---, here we go.’”
Hollins and Hecker argued. Finally, Hecker said, “I stood up and said to him, ‘Lionel, you don’t want to hear the truth. You don’t want to know what the hell is going on.’ Bottom line is, I said, ‘I am tired of the bull----, I am just going to walk out of here right now.’ I never said quit or anything.”
But Hecker did walk out of the meeting, and as far as Hollins was concerned, he had quit. Hecker, though, walked to Grizzlies human resources and complained about the treatment he had been getting, requesting mediation with Hollins.
There would be no mediation. The Grizzlies canned Hecker soon after. The Grizzlies went on to win the series against the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder, before losing in a sweep against San Antonio in the second round.
Throughout his interview, Hecker (who is not employed by an NBA team, currently) describes a fractured Grizzlies franchise, one that endured an ownership, front office, frontcourt, and eventually coaching staff overhaul all over the course of the 2012-13 season. Hollins did fine work in leading the Grizzlies to 56 wins last season, but he criticized the deal that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto midseason, and according to Hecker chafed at the insinuation that former assistant (and current head coach) Dave Joerger was the architect behind the team’s West-best defense.
“I told Lionel two years ago, I said, ‘Lionel, this (guy) is going to get your job one day if you don’t watch yourself,’” Hecker said.
Though it was a confrontation with Hollins that put Hecker out of a job, he still has no clue why Lionel was let go in favor of Joerger over the offseason.
“Why would you hire a guy with no wins in the NBA and get rid of another guy who took you to 56 wins?” Hecker said. “Just from a strict business standpoint, why? They were afraid of Lionel, because they couldn’t control Lionel. … Joerger, because he had worked it so hard, they felt comfortable with him. They said they didn’t need Lionel, they could just hire (Joerger). He was taking all the credit, basically, anyway.”
Shootin’ from the hip, this guy!
It is admirable that Hecker would defend the work of Hollins, even though we recognize that by extension he’s defending his own work as assistant coach. An “outside source” (that is to say, “not Hecker”) in Deveney’s report tells of a strained midseason relationship between the two stemming from Hollins apparently being harder on Hecker because the two have worked together for 20 years.
The Grizzlies are in an odd situation because of the largesse of the previous administration, which handed massive deals to Zach Randolph (spot on), Marc Gasol (good move), Mike Conley (no problem there) and Rudy Gay (holy lord). The deal sending Gay to Toronto offered some payroll relief, but because the team did not want to pay the luxury tax yet again it was hamstrung in adding depth to an already-thin roster.
Injuries to Marc Gasol and Quincy Pondexter have made things worse for Memphis, a team that is relying on grit and grind and the respected coaching work of Joerger (who has been lauded by his players this year) to eke out a 9-10 record.
It’s true that dumping a leading scorer and 56-win coach seems a bit rash, but the Grizzlies front office understands how this league works. They understand that the team was at its peak in 2010-11 when a younger Zach Randolph was at his NBA-best, and that they only really made it to the third round last year because Vinny Del Negro coached the Los Angeles Clippers then, and Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus.
Did Hollins deserve to go? Nah, he didn’t “deserve” to, but we understand why both sides decided that it was best to move on. Did Hecker deserve the axe? As of right now, we’re only hearing one side of the story, so it wouldn’t be right to put Hollins and the Grizzlies on full blast for their curious dismissal.
We do like hearing Barry Hecker talk on record, though.
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