Avery Johnson

On how to be an NBA coach.

Evan Smith: Let’s talk about your new book, Aspire Higher. I guess it can be described as a self-help book.

Avery Johnson: I wanted to help people who are in-between. We are all in-between. We are in-between as fathers. We are in-between as husbands. A kid in school—he’s in between grades. Some people are in between jobs. I wanted to help all of those individuals to go to the next level.

ES: So it’s a book for everybody—not just potential athletes?

AJ: Yeah. It just so happens that an athlete, a former athlete who’s now a coach, has written it. But it encircles all walks of life. Everybody can get something from it. The CEO who’s trying to stay on top. The young pastor who’s trying to get his church going. A Little League baseball coach. A schoolteacher can not only get something out of it for herself, she can read chapters to her students. So many young people are rushing their lives without enjoying today. A lot of what I talk about in the book is savoring the moment.

ES: Are you savoring the moment? You’ve now been coaching the Dallas Mavericks for a couple of years after a long career as a player. Are you happy with how things turned out?

AJ: Oh, I feel great. But if you talk to coaches who’ve been doing it much longer, it’s not only about enjoying what you’re doing. I also enjoy the people I work with—the players I get a chance to teach and coach, to help get better on and off the court.

ES: Tell me about the transition from playing to coaching.

AJ: It’s all about leadership. It’s all about managing. It’s not about “Okay, I was a player, and now I’m a coach.” What happens with leadership is, one, you have to be confident. Just because you played the game doesn’t mean that you’re confident enough to be a coach. And you have to know how to communicate. You have to know how to communicate your vision to fifteen other men. You have to paint a picture. That’s not the easiest thing to do.

ES: It’s not just about skills. Because if that were the case, Michael Jordan would be a head coach.

AJ: Magic Johnson would have been a great coach if it was just about skills. He wasn’t a perfect coach, right? In addition to confidence and communication, it’s about caring about your players. Your players have to understand that you sincerely care about them more than winning. They’ll run through a wall for you if you show them on a day-in, day-out basis that you care about them, that you care about their families, that you care about their emotions.

ES: Give me an example of your showing your players that you care about them as people.

AJ: I’ve watched Jerry Stackhouse’s son.

ES: You mean you babysat him?

AJ: Yeah, I allowed him to sleep at my house so Jerry and his wife could go out to dinner. I don’t know how many coaches would do that. What also happens is, I send all of the wives and girlfriends flowers at the start of every season. Every Christmas I send something. Every Valentine’s Day. Just to let them know they matter.

ES: You seem to understand the particular pressures on the loved ones of a pro athlete.

AJ: Let me describe it to you like this. The worst thing that I’ve seen in my life is a pastor’s kids who become angry with the church or angry with God because they feel the church or God took their father away from them. Dad was always at church, always ministering to people, always trying to make other people’s lives better. In my life, I say, I don’t want that to happen. I want my children to know me. I want to be able to go home. I want to be able to cook for my kids. I want to be able to take my kids to Dave & Buster’s and SpeedZone. I want to be able to go to basketball practice with Avery Junior. I want to be able to go play tennis with my wife and take her to dinner. I live, eat, sleep, and dream basketball, but I have to manage my time so I can have a presence in my family.

ES: Do you have to compartmentalize it so that when you’re with your family, the basketball piece shuts off for the moment?

AJ: You try to. It sounds good on TV, but you can’t always do it. My wife will tell me, “Your body’s here with me, but your mind is on the other side of town.” There’s something to that. But she understands how to give me my space, and I understand when I really need to be Dad.

ES: Your family lives in the Woodlands, a suburb of Houston. Why there as opposed to Dallas?

AJ: What happened was, I moved around so many times in my NBA career. I had to find somewhere that we could call home. No matter what was going to happen to me, we needed a destination. The beauty of this whole thing is that our destination ended up being only three hours south of Dallas. It couldn’t be an easier commute. Fortunately, I negotiated a deal with a company called Marquis Jet, and my contract has allowed me to get home very easily.

ES: You fly back and forth at a moment’s notice?

AJ: Anytime. It’s a thirty-minute flight, and we live fifteen minutes from the airport. There are times, if we have the next day off, when I’ll go home after a game. I’m able to bring my kids to school in the morning. I’m able to spend the whole day with the family. And, boom, I’m back at the office by eight-thirty that night. Sometimes my wife comes up by herself. Other times she’ll bring the kids, because on the

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