Toward the end of Luke Walton’s nine-season stint as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers, injuries started to bother him, specifically his back.
It was around that time when then-Lakers head coach Phil Jackson began inviting the sidelined Walton to sit in on some of the coaching staff’s meetings because, Walton said, “Phil saw that I was a little on the depressed side.”
But it was at those meetings where Walton started to truly consider the possibility of one day becoming a coach.
“Phil told me the story about how he got started with an injury and his old coach had him hang around, so it kind of triggered some thoughts in my head,” Walton said Tuesday at the Lakers’ practice facility, where he was introduced as the team’s new head coach.
“But when you’re playing and you’re young, you don’t ever think about anything but playing. You think you’re going to play forever. That was kind of the first time that it hit home — that this thing is going to come to an end.”
So ever since his playing career ended in 2013, Walton said he has been thinking about coaching. He became a part-time assistant with the Lakers’ D-League team, the D-Fenders. Then he was hired as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, where he spent the past two seasons before joining the Lakers as the 26th head coach in the franchise’s history.
“Even without realizing it, when you play, you kind of develop the person you are and the coach you would be by what you believe in, what you see,” Walton said. “A lot of that comes from previous coaches.”
Walton has been coached by University of Arizona legend Lute Olson in college, by Jackson and has coached alongside Steve Kerr of the Warriors. Walton has learned plenty from them, which he said will help him transition into his first NBA head-coaching job.
“There’s a ton of [influences], but, one, we have to love to compete,” Walton said. “We have to love to compete. We have to love to win. By doing that, you have to love the process. You have to love the details of the game. You have to hold players accountable. They have to want to hold themselves accountable.
“To me, you succeed as a team as a coaching staff when you can give your players more and more freedom. And even though that may look like you’re doing less coaching, that means that they’re taking ownership for what they’re doing. When they’re taking ownership, they get mad when they mess up and you have to make it fun for them.”
Speaking specifically of Olson and Jackson, Walton said, “Lute was huge on the details of the game. He would stop practice 35 times in one day. Until you got something correct, he was going to continue to stop it. On the other side, coach Jackson was brilliant with the overall picture and the flow of the game and how one play can affect the next six minutes, and it was completely different than coach Olson but both incredible lessons.”
Walton compared himself to Kerr, in a way.
“If you were generally going to describe coaching styles, Steve and I would be very similar, which is part of the reason he hired me,” Walton said. “We had a phone conversation and he asked me three questions, and he told me all three of his answers were the same for those questions, so he offered me the job over the phone. So we see the game very similar. Obviously the way we interact with players is very different. There’s times in timeouts when I said ‘Steve, we should do this’ and he’ll be like, ‘No, I want to do this.’ So there’s differences you can get into, but for the most part, I think we’re cut from the same type of cloth.”
Walton said he won’t necessarily be breaking clipboards, as Kerr has been known to do.
“No, but it was impressive, though, wasn’t it?” Walton said, referencing a recent incident in Game 1 of the Finals. “He’s taken down two or three of those things.”
Though the 36-year-old Walton is now the youngest head coach in the NBA, he said there are advantages to his youth.
“Experience is great in any job in this world,” Walton said. “I think that Steve and other coaches have proven that [experience is] not a necessity to succeed, but it’s definitely something that’s important. I know that I can relate to the young players. I did it up in Oakland for the last two years. I think it’s because I can understand what they go through. I try to put myself in their shoes when there are difficult things happening. These will be strengths and advantages, but that all doesn’t fall on me. That’s on the whole staff that we have here. In putting together a staff, you try to find different people that are good at different things. We’re going to do that here, and I think we’ll have all bases covered by the time it’s said and done.”