May 31, 1983, was a huge date in NBA history. When his Philadelphia 76ers finished off a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, Julius Erving — Dr. J to those who basked in his legend — became a champion for the first time in his seventh NBA season. Sharing the glow of the Larry O'Brien Trophy that night, though, was a 26-year-old forward who had just completed a long-delayed rookie season in his sport's pre-eminent league. The cameras and microphones may have been in front of Erving, or perhaps that season's MVP, Moses Malone. But no one smiled any brighter than did Marc Iavaroni.
Twenty-four years after reaching basketball's promised land, Iavaroni has found his way to Memphis — as a rookie head coach.
Over the course of 12 NBA seasons — the last six here in the Bluff City — the Memphis Grizzlies franchise has had three winning seasons, one All-Star, and exactly zero playoff victories. From paying Bryant Reeves — remember Big Country and his career-ending back woes? — not to play, to watching this year's draft lottery implode in Jerry West's face, it's hard to find a pro basketball team more snakebit than the local outfit. (Even the often-lampooned L.A. Clippers won a playoff series in 2006.) But there is one number where the Grizzlies rank near the top over the last dozen years: eight head coaches.
That number will grow to nine when the Grizzlies open the 2007-08 season on October 31st at FedEx Forum. Having resisted such suitors as the Seattle Sonics (a team that landed one of those prize draftees in Kevin Durant) and Orlando Magic (a team with a burgeoning superstar in Dwight Howard), 51-year-old Marc Iavaroni will be calling the shots on the Grizzlies bench. Having spent the last five years as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns — a team that averaged 59 wins over the last three seasons — Iavaroni became the most popular "up-and-coming" candidate for an NBA head-coaching vacancy last spring. So how — and importantly, why? — is Marc Iavaroni now coaching the Memphis Grizzlies?
Among his suitors, Iavaroni describes Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and former president of basketball operations Jerry West as showing "the most sincere interest by an organization that wanted me to come and be successful, and impact the community. It was a tremendous honor for me to be considered. Jerry wanted me to be here and was willing to do anything in his power to get me here, and give me the best chance for success."
The players Iavaroni will inherit — and those gained over the summer — also played a big factor in Iavaroni making the Bluff City his new home. "There's youth," he stresses. "There's athleticism. We have veteran leadership. We have got to form a lot of partnerships, and one of the first elements to this is communication between the staff, the general manager, the business side, and the team. Within the team, the veterans really have to pull the rookies along."
As for all those Pau Gasol trade rumors, file them under the category of "Elvis lives."
"I met with Pau [in Spain] three days after the press conference [announcing the coach's hiring]," says Iavaroni. "I wanted him to know he was our guy. Everything that was in the past, is in the past. I wanted to get a feel for him, and for him to get a feel for me."
Other than the summer heat that welcomed him to Memphis, Iavaroni is starting his new career with very little familiar from his days in the Arizona desert. He and his wife, Caroline, have three teenage sons, each of whom has shown a proficiency for music (the oldest is enrolled at Arizona State on a music scholarship). Iavaroni describes what might be called a family shuttle between Phoenix and Memphis once the season begins, with his younger sons attending school in both areas.
Having been a self-described "late bloomer" on every level of basketball, Iavaroni is comfortable shuttling, as his NBA career didn't begin until he'd already served time as a graduate assistant coach for the University of Virginia (his alma mater) and played a year overseas in Italy. Through all the shuttling, Iavaroni gained direction from the men who would shape his careers — first as a player, then a coach — on the hardwood.
Iavaroni counts Terry Holland (his UVA coach) and Pete Newell (famed for his Big Man Camp) among many basketball influences that steered him down a successful NBA path, both as a player and coach. "People have gravitated toward me who share a passion for the game of basketball," he says. "I wasn't the greatest player in the world, but I was going to play with a lot of passion, and be very, very competitive. I got close to all these people because I love the game, and I love to compete.
"If Terry Holland had not hired me as a grad assistant, I probably would not have had a pro career. I had been cut by the New York Knicks. [At UVA] I practiced with the varsity, and ran the jayvee practice afterwards. Because of that, I stayed in shape. I was practicing with a team good enough to make the Final Four [in 1981]. The next year I played in Italy, and the year after that, I landed in Philadelphia."
As a 26-year-old rookie, Iavaroni was a starter for the 1982-83 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers, generally considered among the ten best teams in the game's history. The other starters included a pair of Hall of Famers (Erving and Malone) and a pair of All-Star guards (Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney). With Iavaroni averaging 5.1 points and 20 minutes a game, those Sixers went 65-17 before winning 12 of 13 playoff games, including that sweep of the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
"They were looking for a Kurt Rambis type," says Iavaroni. (Rambis was a tough, scrappy forward who helped the Lakers beat Philadelphia in the 1982 Finals.) "That was the formula at the time. They had superstars, but they needed a guy who was egoless and didn't need to score a lot of points to be valued. Again, I've always had someone who has been an advocate for me."
Cheeks — the point guard for that 1983 championship team and now head coach of the 76ers — chuckles at memories of a young player who quickly recognized the role he'd play for a star-studded team. "Marc did his job," says Cheeks. "He was starting, which was good for him. He banged a little bit, would usually get a shot or two at the top of the key, and he just always did his job."
Can there be similarities between Iavaroni's rookie year as a player and his rookie year as an NBA head coach? Cheeks, for one, is convinced Iavaroni's personality, coaching instincts, and even empathy will be a hit in Memphis.
"Last year," reflects Cheeks, "we were in the midst of losing 12 straight games, and Marc called and left me a message: Hang in there, you're doing a nice job, it'll turn around. That was pretty nice, as he was going through his own season [with Phoenix], to think about me."
Erving heaps even more praise on his old teammate, and appreciates Iavaroni as much for his human qualities as for his value as a basketball player. "[Marc] is one of the better human beings I've met in my lifetime," says Erving. "We have a lot in common, both of us having grown up in Long Island. He's a dedicated professional to the game of basketball, and the game of life."
Having fallen off the NBA radar for three years, Iavaroni was rediscovered during a summer league in 1982, when a 76ers official liked his game even more than a Philadelphia draft pick he was scouting. Once in an NBA training camp for good, it didn't take long for Iavaroni to endear himself to his most famous teammate.
"There was so much fate and destiny that played a role in Marc becoming a 76er," reflects Erving, "as opposed to coming out of college as the hot-shot All-American. He knows the mentality of a role player. That's very valuable when it comes to employing people, and getting the most out of their talent.
"Marc followed the game plan, and allowed us to get the most of our starting lineup. Any scoring you got out of him was an added bonus. And he was such an intelligent player that he could employ his own judgment on how best to add value at the start of a game. He had an air of confidence, but was a team guy from day one."
According to Erving, the Grizzlies not only made the right call in hiring Iavaroni to coach their team, but helped plug a gap in the coaching fraternity. "Marc's way overdue [to be a head coach]," says Erving. "Timing is everything, but he's been qualified a long time. Let's put it that way."
Iavaroni describes his transition from player to coach — he last played in the NBA in 1989 — as seamless, even natural. "Motivationally, it was very easy," he says. "I was doing that as a pro, working with younger players. I'd go back to Charlottesville, Virginia, every summer, for my own benefit, but invariably I'd end up working with other players. Try this, try that. That was our bond [as players]. We wanted to be better craftsmen. I was already teaching. And I liked it.
"The hard part was getting good at it, doing it the right way. I had a lot of epiphanies along the way. Jim Larranaga hired me at Bowling Green [in 1992] and I wasn't doing a very good job."
Iavaroni has little tolerance for negativity, be it in the form of a player's conduct or the manner by which a coach teaches, and he credits his days at Bowling Green for bringing this into focus. "You have to learn how to communicate in a positive way," he emphasizes. "You can be right on the money, but if you're negative, your audience is going to dwindle. You've got to find a way — like all successful people — to turn a negative into a positive."
Is there an Iavaroni style — an Iavaroni philosophy — Memphis fans can expect to see when the Grizzlies take the floor this winter? The new coach turns to a native son for his answer. "I heard a great quote once from Elvis Presley. They were saying, 'You do a little blues, and you're a little like this guy, a little like that guy. How would you describe your style?' Elvis said, 'No, I'm not like any of those guys. I'm totally different.'
"I enjoy the relationship with players," says Iavaroni. "When I sense a connection, and that a player is willing to do things to address their passion for the game, that is what brought me into coaching. It's a connection. I want to work with people like that, and to put them in touch with other people like that."
Among the challenges Iavaroni takes on as a coach are the complications of communicating with a group of talented men, each with his own goals and objectives, but with a larger mission drawing them together. "If individual needs ever get in the way of what the group is trying to do, you lose that connection. And we can't let that happen. What I don't like is when I feel like I haven't chosen the right way to reach somebody, and that I'm not listening well enough to their message, and they're not hearing my message. And we can't come to some kind of agreement. That's not always possible.
"You can't be bigger than the game, and you can't be bigger than your players, or they're not going to play for you."
The 2007-08 grizzlies will have a new look that has nothing to do with the man calling defensive sets or in-bound plays. While Memphis missed out on the twin prizes of the 2007 lottery (Durant and Greg Oden, who went to Portland), Iavaroni is pleased to have quicksilver point guard Mike Conley Jr. (the draft's fourth pick) and Serbian big man Darko Milicic (the second selection in 2003) making their Memphis debuts on his watch. Add these pieces to a puzzle that includes 2006 All-Star Gasol, former Sixth Man Award winner Mike Miller, and the at-times-electric Rudy Gay (an All-Rookie pick last season), and the Grizzlies seem closer to playoff contention than most 22-win clubs might dare to dream.
"We have enough athletic talent here to be really successful," says Iavaroni. "We have to make sure we don't stifle it, and that we have some structure to it, some accountability. Make sure people are communicating, and moving forward.
"I want people to see that we're passionate about the game, that we love to play basketball, to help one another. It's our responsibility to make sure our players have a passion, and want to do something special here."
The new coach recognizes somewhat of a logjam at the guard position. In addition to Conley and Miller (who can also play forward), the Grizzlies will need to find time for second-year point guard Kyle Lowry, veteran playmaker Damon Stoudamire, and free-agent signee Casey Jacobsen. "We have a good combination of cooperation and competition on the roster," says Iavaroni. "Guys need to feel competition. They're not just given a spot."
However his roster takes shape, Iavaroni is in a unique position as far as Memphis NBA fans are concerned. Unique, in that here is a head coach whose credentials will be established in Memphis, wearing the various shades of blue worn by the Grizzlies.
"We want to get to know the community in a proactive way," stresses Iavaroni, "not waiting till we win a lot of games and people jump on the bandwagon. This organization is going to take a leap forward in getting to know the people of Memphis and making them a part of the NBA experience."
In early august, the Grizzlies — specifically the Team Up arm of their charitable foundation — hosted a luncheon at FedExForum for local mentoring organizations. Shortly after noon, with a couple hundred people in the arena's grand lobby — many of them enjoying a complimentary lunch — Iavaroni joined Grizzlies television analyst Sean Tuohy for a short discussion/presentation on the importance of mentoring and outreach.
Even with wireless microphones, Tuohy and Iavaroni could barely be heard above the cacophony of lunchtime conversation. What ensued, however, was the kind of forced lull we've all experienced in a high-school auditorium when the principal has a message to deliver.
"May I have your attention, please," said Iavaroni into his mic, not raising his voice an octave. Pregnant pause.
"May I please have your attention a moment. If you can hear the sound of my voice, raise your hand."
The din of that lobby was entirely quelled. Tuohy had the good sense to step aside, to let the principal have his say.
"We don't want to waste your time," said the new Grizzlies boss. "And I know you don't want to waste ours. I'm here, not because there's something in it for me, but because I believe in this program. And I feel some of you can follow my lead as mentors in this community, because I certainly had mine.
"There are people in your lives," continued Iavaroni, "with a look in their eye. They're not only interested in what you do, but they're asking us to stop a moment in our daily lives and establish a connection."
Winning basketball games, unfortunately, isn't a direct product of sound leadership. There are too many Tim Duncans, Kobe Bryants, and Dwyane Wades out there to overcome. But if leadership is the first prerequisite for success as an NBA head coach, you might consider Marc Iavaroni not just connected, but firmly established.