On how to be an NBA coach.
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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 weekends my son is a ball boy for the team.
ES: At what point did you yourself decide “I want to be a coach”? While you were a player or while you were growing up?
AJ: I was in college, at Southern University [in Baton Rouge, Louisiana]. I was 21 years old. My coach, Ben Jobe, allowed me to run practices. He’d let me come behind the scenes and do chalk talk with him.
ES: His idea or your idea?
AJ: His idea. I was hesitant at first. I didn’t know if I was ready. I wasn’t a mature person at the time. But he kept drawing it out of me, and once he did, I just ran with it. In practice I would say, “Coach, hey, let’s stop for a moment. I need to teach the players something.” Or “Hey, Coach, I’ll meet you in your office. I need to show you something about our defense, our offense, or this upcoming game.”
ES: Did you ever think to yourself, “This is really fun, but I’m not one of the guys anymore. Suddenly they’re looking at me like I’m too big for my britches”?
AJ: No. When you’re teaching a guy and you’re not trying to show him up, you’re a leader. In that sense, I didn’t really put on the coach’s hat. I was trying to be a great leader who happened to know a lot about coaching. It helped that I was the one who had the great summer job, who saved a lot of money and was the one buying the hamburgers when they were hungry.
ES: Why did you get into basketball as a kid?
AJ: I first started playing at age six on playgrounds around the city of New Orleans. Then, at age ten, a coach named Joe Armant discovered me. He asked if he could speak with my father, and I said, “No, you can’t speak with my father, and as a matter of fact, I’m not supposed to talk to any adults I don’t know and I’m not familiar with.” He kept after me, so I finally brought my dad down to meet this man because I told him somebody was harassing me about playing on some team. They met, and I ended up signing up. That’s how I first got introduced to organized basketball.
ES: Did you have any sense, at that age, of whether you were any good?
AJ: Oh, I knew I was good.
ES: Were you mature enough to say to yourself, “This is something I’d like to do someday”?
AJ: I said it at that age, but I didn’t know how to do it. I thought I would have to wait until high school to play on a team. And then I didn’t play much on my high school team. That’s what makes my story so powerful.
ES: How can that be?
AJ: I didn’t play at all in high school until the playoffs, when our point guard got suspended. Then I had the chance to play a little bit in the playoffs, and that’s how I got recognized by New Mexico Junior College, which offered me the only scholarship I ever received. I played for them for one year and transferred to Cameron University, in Lawton, Oklahoma, for a year, and then I went to Southern.
ES: Isn’t it amazing how things happen? If this person had not been suspended—
AJ: I would have never been able to play college basketball.
ES: You said earlier that you moved around a lot during your career. The word often used to describe somebody who plays for lots of teams is “journeyman,” and it’s not always positive.
AJ: It ended up being the best thing for me, because I was interested in coaching and I had a chance to play for a lot of different coaches with a lot of different philosophies. I was able to find out what I don’t like, and then I was able to pick things up from great coaches like Gregg Popovich, Don Nelson, Larry Brown, and Rudy Tomjanovich.
ES: Tell me some things you learned not to do.
AJ: There were situations in which players would come late to practices and coaches would tolerate it. There were times when certain coaches only disciplined players who weren’t the key players on the team. The great coaches disciplined the superstars and the role players. Nobody was off-limits.
ES: What did you learn from Larry Brown?
AJ: I learned about practice from him, because he really loved it. He believed in organized practice and disciplined practice. He believed practice was more important than the game. That’s where you won the game: in practice.
AJ: Discipline in every way. Discipline not only in practice but in games. You can’t let the details slip by. You have to be focused. Also, he was really good at dealing with players’ families.
ES: Rudy T.?
AJ: I learned from Rudy T. how to be a player’s coach. The players have to respect you but at the same time love you. He had that relationship.
ES: Don Nelson?
AJ: Offensive genius. He knows how to create mismatches on the floor.
ES: You knew Nelson as both a player and a player-coach. Was it weird that everyone knew you were being groomed to succeed him?
AJ: Nellie was the number one person who thought I had a future in coaching. He would actually take off games, and he’d allow me to be the head coach.
ES: No tension? I’m imagining it could be like All About Eve.
AJ: Zero tension. Nellie set it up that way. Mark Cuban wanted it. Everybody wanted it. So when it was time and Coach decided to resign . . .
ES: Speaking of Mark Cuban—whose name we haven’t even mentioned so far—what’s he like? Is he anything at all like the cartoon character the media make him out to be?
AJ: You know, he’s just a young guy who has a ton of energy and really loves the Mavericks, loves the game, loves the fan involvement. He’s a great innovator. He provides everything we need to be successful.
ES: As owners go, is he hands-on or hands-off?
AJ: He’s a little bit of both. I don’t think he’s as hands-on as people think. He almost never comes to practice—maybe once a year. He doesn’t travel with us as much as he used to. He doesn’t come to as many games. He used to never miss games; now he’ll miss ten to fifteen a year. He doesn’t call me every day.
ES: But he calls you some days.
AJ: Every now and then. We talk about managing people. We talk about how to take people to the next level. He never tells me how to do my job. He knows I’ve been in this business twenty years now, both as a player and a coach.
ES: Cuban seems like a guy who has a lot of confidence in himself, and yet here he has to accept the fact that you may know more about basketball than he does.
AJ: I’m not short on confidence either. But we make it work.
ES: What do you say to people who complain that Cuban is bad for basketball, that he’s too much of a show pony?
AJ: The Mavericks sell out every night. Our team is one of the most valued franchises in sports. Everything we do is first-class. Whenever he goes to arenas, everybody wants pictures and autographs. I think he’s been great.
ES: What about the basketball itself? During the time you’ve been associated with the NBA, the sport has changed dramatically.
AJ: Yeah. Franchises are worth more. Players make more. There’s a bigger emphasis on discipline. We have a serious drug-testing policy now. We have a lot of younger owners in the league. We have younger players.
ES: Are those younger players ready to be professional athletes? I’m thinking of Kevin Durant, who left the University of Texas last year after his freshman year, but he’s only one example.
AJ: I don’t think they’re ready. I don’t think anybody’s ready at nineteen to start making a million dollars, or two million, and have all the responsibility they have. They’re given so much at an early age, and they don’t necessarily know how to manage it. When I was nineteen, I was trying to pass a trigonometry test, right? This is a different situation.
ES: So what’s going to happen to the Mavericks this season?
AJ: We’re back again, taking another swing at the fences. That’s what I’m all about.
ES: What does the addition of Jason Kidd do to your chances?
AJ: Jason is a veteran quarterback. Not many times during the course of an NBA season do you have a chance to get one. He knows how to run a team. He provides a certain type of energy and presence that most of the championship-caliber teams in our league have. He does things on the floor that are not teachable. I feel he gives us a better chance to win.
ES: How much of a burden is it that you lost to the Miami Heat in the finals two years ago and got bounced from the playoffs in the first round last year by the Warriors, Don Nelson’s current team?
AJ: You know, there are some organizations that have never experienced the finals. For us, that was a successful season because we had players who had never been to the playoffs before, let alone the finals. Last year was more disappointing—not because we got knocked out in the first round but because we didn’t get back to the finals. Even if we had beaten Golden State and gotten knocked out in the next round by Utah, it still would have been disappointing.
ES: Was Cuban willing to accept the idea that you should be happy just making the playoffs?
AJ: Not at all. None of us were satisfied just making the playoffs. That’s why we took a hard look at our roster and made the necessary changes. And we’re in the thick of things right now. We have another great opportunity to get back to the finals, and we’re working morning, noon, and night.