Ken Berger, CBS Sports (http://www.cbssports.com/nba/writer/ken-berger/24723463/for-many-nba-assistants-the-road-to-glory-is-well-traveled)
Sometimes, you pull stuff out of a storage unit that is covered in five years of dust. Your wife, if you’ve somehow managed to keep one, immediately assigns these belongings to a corner of the garage, and then, to craigslist.
Sometimes, you forget where the storage unit is. This happens when you’ve had 10 home addresses in 10 years, or during those occasional two-year stints when you have no home address at all.
You celebrate Christmas dinner at Denny’s five years in a row. Not the same Denny’s; that would be unbearable. One year, you order up the Moons Over My Hammy in Yakima, Wash. The next, you might go for the Grand Slamwich in Sioux Falls, S.D., or the Lumberjack Slam in Ft. Wayne, Ind.
No matter where you are living or not living, there are two items you never embark on a road trip without: scissors and tape. You know from experience that there’s no guarantee the court is going to have 3-point lines.
You do all of these things because you love basketball like it is part of your own flesh, and because all you have ever wanted to do or thought about doing is coaching it.
It is a deeply connected fraternity, a traveling circus in which paths cross, criss-cross and re-cross — from the CBA to the CBL, from the D-League to the USBL to the Fill-In-The-Blank-BL. Your life can be summed up in a can of alphabet soup, which is fitting when that’s all you can find to heat up in the hotel microwave at 3 in the morning.
The minor-league pipeline is becoming a popular breeding ground for NBA coaching talent, with Gates and several friends, foes, mentors, proteges and co-workers from his extensive travels getting long-awaited opportunities. All told, 56 coaches have been called up to NBA benches from D-League benches alone — two in 2013 and six in each of the past two offseasons, with a few more deals in the works before training camps open this week.
Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger made his mark as one of the most successful minor-league coaches in the sport before replacing Lionel Hollins in Memphis in 2013 — following in the footsteps of former minor leaguers such as Phil Jackson, George Karl and Flip Saunders. Quin Snyder, hired this summer by the Utah Jazz, is the only other current NBA head coach with D-League coaching experience.
NBA head coaching jobs are the holy grail of the profession, with the highest-paid leading men with president titles making between $7 million (Stan Van Gundy) and $10 million (Doc Rivers) annually. (Gregg Popovich, who agreed to an extension with the Spurs this summer, lives in that neighborhood, too.) Last season, the average head coaching salary in the NBA was $3.05 million, according to industry data.
But when Gates left his $100,000-a-year job as head coach of the Idaho Stampede to join the Kings, the reward for finally making it to the NBA was a 50 percent pay cut. This with a D-League championship and multiple coach-of-the-year awards on his resume.
By Gates’ estimation, it took him nine years of minor league coaching to finally make $50,000 in a single year — which was still shy of the tech salary he turned down when he graduated from Boise State.
“My choices were, I could be an intern assistant coach with a CBA team, and basically, I think it paid $1,000 a month,” Gates said, “or take a full-time job at Micron Technology at $55,000 coming out of college. I remember calling my dad and telling him I was going to do the basketball thing and he hung up on me.”
Entering his fifth season as an assistant for Monty Williams in New Orleans, Gates doesn’t have time or energy to be bitter when he sees former players like Jason Kidd, Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr get plum head coaching jobs with no coaching experience. Fisher (Knicks) and Kerr (Warriors) each got a base salary of $4.25 million a year when they were hired this summer, according to industry data. Kidd went straight from retiring as a player to one year as head coach in Brooklyn to a $4 million-a-year deal to coach the Milwaukee Bucks — after orchestrating a power play with Nets ownership.
“That stuff doesn’t bother me,” Gates said. “If there is a day when I can become a head coach, great. But I’m not going to spin my wheels and get frustrated at it. When somebody comes along and wants somebody like me, I hope I’m at the front of the line.”
When you’re a coach, you focus on coaching first; everything else is secondary. Unfortunately, sometimes that includes family.
Gates and his wife, Robin, are the parents of 3-year-old triplets. Perhaps the longest-running family tradition in a coaching household is looking at the schedules for whatever leagues you’re coaching in at the time — minor-league coaches often work in multiple leagues in a single calendar year — to find out where you’ll be on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.
“We put our hands in the middle and say, ‘One-two-three Gates,’ a lot,” Gates said. “You DVR a lot of games. You put your kids to bed as much as you can. You use FaceTime a lot. We’ve gotten really good at FaceTime.”
They’re all connected by the memories and the journeys — and by the career paths of fugitives. Joerger was Ticknor’s assistant with the Dakota Wizards in Bismarck, N.D., of the D-League. (That team has since relocated to Santa Cruz, Calif.) Joerger replaced Ticknor as the head coach in Bismarck; Ticknor later replaced Joerger in the same job.
Gates was Ticknor’s assistant with the Rapid City Thrillers of the IBA (which later merged with the CBA). Ticknor now works for Joerger in Memphis.
And so on.
“I was married in the morning and coached a game that night in Sioux City, Iowa,” Ticknor said. “Actually, I remember we lost that game, and so does my wife. She always says that’s all I remember about the honeymoon.”
By the time Ticknor’s son was 10, he’d already lived in 10 different houses or apartments. The family is based in Chicago, where Ticknor’s son works an actor and his wife is a school superintendent. They make it a point to get together at least once a month during the NBA season — sometimes, only for a few minutes after the Grizzlies play the Bulls at the United Center before heading to the airport.
When Ticknor was coaching in Bismarck, his longtime friend, legendary South Dakota high school coach Fred Tibbets, died. Tibbets’ son, Nate — now an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers — was the head coach of the Sioux Falls Sky Force at the time.
“We bused the whole team to the funeral,” Ticknor said. “That’s how strong the fraternity is.”