Former HBCU Student Lindsey Hunter Signs on as Interim Head Coach of Phoenix Suns
Written by Roscoe Nance, Special to BlackAmericaWeb.com Thursday, 28 February 2013 17:14
Lindsey Hunter is in select company as interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
The former Jackson State point guard is just the sixth HBCU product to be head coach of an NBA team, joining Earl Lloyd (West Virginia State), Willis Reed (Grambling State), Al Attles (North Carolina A&T), Bob Hopkins (Grambling State) and Avery Johnson (Southern).
Hunter brings a ton of playing experience to his new position, having played 17 seasons in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago before retiring two years ago, but no previous coaching experience. He was a player development assistant for the Bulls during the 2010-11 season. The Suns hired him as assistant head coach for player development last August, and tabbed him to replace Alvin Gentry on Jan. 20.
Hunter says becoming a coach was a natural next step for him.
“Ever since I was a player," he says, “and being a point guard, I always felt that I had that instinctive feeling about teaching, directing and being responsible for a team. That’s just part of my makeup. Being obsessed with basketball the way that I am, it’s natural for me to be on this road. I said a long time ago that even if I hadn’t been an NBA player, I probably would be teaching school and coaching. I love to teach, and I love to be in the gym. That’s why God created me and sent me this way.’’
A lot of eyebrows were raised around the NBA when they hired Hunter, who was a finalist last summer for the Orlando Magic but had no coaching experience. Some of the most successful coaches in NBA history learned their craft through on the job training similar to what Hunter will go through.
Don Nelson, No. 1 among NBA coaches with 1,335 career victories, started with the Milwaukee Bucks a year after finishing his 13-year playing career. Lenny Wilkens, second to Nelson in career victories, began as a player-coach. Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to back-to-back NBA titles as player coach; Doc Rivers was the NBA Coach of the Year in 2000, his first season on the bench with the Orlando Magic after going into broadcasting following his playing career, and he coached the Celtics to their 17th NBA crown in 2008, and Larry Bird moved from the Celtics’ front office to the Indiana Pacers’ bench as coach in 1997, and in three season he led them to three playoffs berths. His teams reached the Eastern Conference finals twice and the NBA Finals once. The Pacers set a franchise record when they finished 58-24 in Bird’s first season, and he was named NBA Coach of the Year.
Hunter says being a finalist for the Orlando job “showed me that what I believe in and what I stand for holds true.’’ He sees no reason that he can’t have similar success to Bird, Russell, Wilkens and Nelson in spite of his lack of success given the knowledge of the game that he gained during his 17-year playing career.
“I get that all the time,’’ Hunter says of his lack of coaching experience. “I’ve been around basketball my entire life. This is what I’ve lived. It’s what I’ve been around. I consider it my personal experience. People may say, "You still haven’t coached. But it’s still my personal experience. It’s what I’ve been around. ’’
Hunter says his situation is no different than anyone else in any other profession who is entering the work force.
“For some players, it might not have been this way,’’ he says. “But for me it was just like going to college. You go to college, and you study to be in the field of communications. But until you have worked at it, you still have no experience. Still, it’s what you studied.’’
Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh has often said that playing 10 or more years in the NBA is like getting a PhD in another field. Hunter concurs with that school of thought.
“I look at it that way and even more so now with the way the league is trending with the young players,’’ he says, “and the way basketball is evolving with the young players. It helps me to be not so far removed from the guys so I can understand and relate where they are coming from and realize that the things we take for granted that should know, they don’t really know. It’s more of a teaching environment now than it’s ever been.’’
NBATV analyst Sam Mitchell, a former NBA Coach of the Year for the Toronto Raptors, is one who appreciates the challenges that Hunter will face. Mitchell became coach of the Raptors after just two seasons as an assistant coach.
“That’s a huge leap,’’ Mitchell says of Hunter’s transition from working with players to develop their skills and not having any responsibilities in regard to game strategy. Mitchell says Hunter’s assistant coaches will be critical to his success.
“The question is going to be is he secure enough and confident in what he wants to do. Sometimes you surround yourself with older coaches who can teach you. But you have to be careful in delegating responsibilities. Players gravitate to whoever makes the most sense. You’ve got to solicit advice. You got to listen. But you got to have a idea of what you want to do when you walk in the room. If you don’t, they will tune you out.’’
Hunter was a three-year starter for Jackson State, where he averaged 20.1 points after transferring from Alcorn State. He averaged 26.7 points his senior season. His big moment came in the first round of the 1993 NIT against UConn. Hunter scored 34 points in the second half against the Huskies and finished with 39 as Jackson State 90-88 won in overtime. Hunter scored eight of the Tigers’ 10 points in the overtime period.
The Detroit Pistons chose Hunter with the 10th pick in the first round of the 1993 NBA Draft. He was a member of their 2004 championship team that Larry Brown coached. He was also member of the 2002 Lakers’ 2002 title team. He says he increased his basketball knowledge immensely while playing for those Hall of Fame coaches, particularly Brown.
“The experience that I had with Larry Brown taught me that you stick to your values,’’ Hunter says. “You stick to your beliefs; you stick to your principles, and you go with it. You teach it, and you get guys to buy into what you’re trying to get them to do. You stick with what‘s right. That’s not just basketball principles; that’s life principles.’’
Andy Stoglin, a basketball consultant at Mid-South Community College in Memphis, Tenn., who coached Hunter at Jackson State, says Hunter’s eagerness to learn from Brown, Jackson and the other coaches he played for and his work ethic will make him a top-flight coach.
“He pays attention,’’ Stoglin says. “He wasn’t just out there. He learned that stuff. To me, Lindsey was a very average point guard when he played for me. He was a shooter. He learned to be a point guard in the NBA."
Stoglin says Hunter weighed about 165 pounds when he transferred to Jackson State. He bulked up to 195 because of his work in the weight room. He also says Hunter developed his left hand because his father tied his right hand behind his back and had him dribble for a half mile.
“He did the work,’’ Stoglin says.
Hunter was known as one of the most tenacious on-the-ball defenders in the NBA during his career, and he says he wants the Suns to develop a defensive mentality.
“The identity we’re trying to build,’’ he says. “That’s tough. For years, when [you] said Phoenix Suns, what did you think? You’d think offense. Me coming with a whole different mindset, it’s going to be a challenge. I’m positive and confident we’re going to get there. I see sounds every day. I’m going to keep pounding and grinding and keep working until that vision comes to pass.’’
The Suns got off to a hot start under Hunter, winning their first two games with him at the helm. They beat the Sacramento Kings 106-96 in his debut, and they defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, the Pacific Division leaders, 93-88 the next night. They have also beaten the Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies since Hunter took over, giving them wins against four teams that are likely to make the playoffs.
However, those were the Suns’ only wins in their first 10 games under Hunter, who has had precious little practice time since taking over. Eight of the Suns’ first nine games were back-to-back contests.
”I take it for what it’s worth,’’ he says. “I try to impart as much as I possibly can whether that’s at shoot around or off days when I get young guys in the gym. I’m there with them trying to impart all of the things I want to instill in our team. Every opportunity is a teaching opportunity. In this case we have to take advantage of them.’’
The Suns entered the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1968. They have fourth-best all-time winning percentage in league history and have made 29 playoff appearances in their 45-year history without winning the championship. They have missed the absent from the postseason the past two seasons and three of the last four. Hunter’s says his goal isn’t to just get the Suns back into the playoffs.
“We have a bigger goal than just to be competitive,’’ he says. “We have a bigger goal than to be a good team. We want to be mentioned with San Antonio and all those organizations that have maintained a level of excellence for a period of time. The reason they have been able to do that is because their foundation has been so solidified that it’s almost like a factory. That’s what we want to create. I’m asking a lot. To reach the level we want to reach, we have to expect excellence in every thing. They have to learn what excellence is in every area. It’s my responsibility to hold them accountable.’’