The Artists of Coaching, Part I

Coaching basketball is not all about teaching technique, understanding rules, imposing organization on human relations or applying the lessons of statistics to problem solving.  Coaching basketball is also an art which reflects how personal style and creativity can shape the most beautiful game and its players on and off the court.  

Most coaches are like visual artists – they bring a distinct style to their craft.  Their personal style embodies a philosophy of coaching and approach to basketball translated through an internal rhythm – a personal feel for the game and its people.  The coaches’ creativity is expressed in how they use their resources and knowledge to lead others. There style is seen in how they impose themselves on a game or an entire season.  For example, where the court is a canvas and the game clock is a series of fluid borders, the players can be seen as everything from fine brushes and palette knives to colorful paints; player rotations can be viewed as bold strokes of color; and the beauty or distorted horror of end-game decisions can be seen in the foundation sketched earlier by a coach on his practice pad or practice court.  A coach can be a master artist (as John Wooden) or one who paints by the numbers, or even better, a sloppy fingerpainter who just makes a plain mess of everything.

Contrary to what some think, coaches (and artists, for that matter) matter as they lead, inspire, teach, and create an environment for personnel to thrive.  Too many fans and self-appointed experts discount the importance of the coach’s impact on the game, largely because it is difficult to quantify beyond wins and losses.  For now, there are no commonly used statistics to explain the relationship between Kobe’s shooting percentage and Phil Jackson’s decision-making, but no stats are necessary for an “expert” to know that Jackson’s role is essential to the many championships won by Kobe and Michael Jordan. Yes, the coach matters, but not merely as a technician and leader who simply directs traffic or gets out of the players’ way and “lets them play.”  

The coach matters as a creator, as in artist and upon close examination and comparison the most notable NBA coaches are similar to the greatest artists in history.  Certain coaches resemble specific artists in their philosophy, temperament, style, master works, approach to their craft  or in some cases public persona or physical characteristics.  This two-part series further explores the relationship between basketball and art by matching ten of professional basketball’s most recognizable coaches with their creative counterparts in the art world.

We begin by matching the true classics:

1. Red Auerbach is Leonardo DaVinci


“That Smile Is What Does It.”

As a coach with only one losing season in 24 years including high school, Red Auerbach (1917-2006) is the basketball equivalent of Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519) or perhaps DaVinci is the artistic equivalent of Auerbach.

DaVinci, who created great paintings and sculptures and designed architectural projects, has been described as “the lynchpin of the High Renaissance, with a dizzying array of talents embracing art and science.” He has been lauded for his “mastery of clear organizational and arrangement of groups and his understanding of perspective.” The description also fits Auerbach perfectly. Like DaVinci, a man of many talents, who was also a chief surveyor, engineer and map maker, Auerbach was Mr. Everything for the Celtics.  While winning  nine (9) NBA titles, Auerbach “controlled every aspect of Boston’s franchise, coaching the team by himself, signing free agents, trading and waiving players, making draft picks, scouting college players, driving the team’s bus on road trips, handling the team’s business affairs.”

DaVinci is noted for being innovative in capturing human emotion and expression in his masterworks.  Auerbach was the master psychologist.  His focus was on winning through personal development of each and every player.  As a result of his bombastic, larger than life image, the aspect of Auerbach that is taken for granted or ignored is ability his to deal with people and to treat each person as an important part of the whole. In his recent book, Red and Me, detailing his friendship with Auerbach, Celtic great Bill Russell wrote: “He was there to coach men, and he knew the responsibilities and functions of coaching men. He was tough as hell on us when he felt we needed it. . . .But even when he was being tough on us, he always asked for our input. In fact, what most people never knew about Red was that he respected that everyone on the team knew as much as he did.”


The Last Championship Team  meets The Last Supper Crew

Russell further described Auerbach as a man with a mathematical, calculating mind (not unlike DaVinci who was a mathematician) but with a flexibility that allowed Russell to block shots at will when the common belief was that a good defender should not leave his feet.  Auerbach did not try to make a  player’s style conform to some established notion of how basketball should be played. Red was not wedded to some false notion about “fundamental basketball” being the best way to play.  For example, Red did not like Bob Cousy as a baller before he was practically forced upon him.  However,  once the fancy dribbler joined the team, Red refused to change Cousy’s style and simply demanded that any pass he threw, whether from between his legs or on the bounce, be catchable.  He allowed his players to thrive as individuals within the team.

His calculating mind also worked on opposing coaches and general managers as he determined how to get his results by understanding situations and factoring in human behavior.  He knew how to get into the heads of opposing coaches, teams (is it merely legend that Garden visiting lockerrooms were intentionally cold or was it really that the Celtics were always too broke to pay the heat bill despite winning chips?) and individual players (like Wilt Chamberlain, who he befriended and respected greatly). 

Red is the appropriate name for a master artist such as Auerbach.  Before you know it someone will come up with a basketball based thriller based on Red called “The Auerbach Code.”

2. Phil Jackson channels Andy Warhol.


Phil Jackson’s artistic match is a little more difficult to determine because he is so willing to change styles and approaches in accordance with the moment and his available resources.  Jackson is so much the psychological technician that while the sum of his works suggest a classical Master, such as Michelangelo, his influence on the modern art of coaching and his commercial appeal make him more reminiscent of Andy Warhol, whose impact on modern art is monumental.  Warhol began his work as an illustrator of books in the 1950s. His first exhibit featured a work of 37 varieties of Campbell soup cans. The work and much of it that followed is considered a “commentary on the mass-produced and serialized aspect of U. S. culture” and “celebrity iconography.”  Phil Jackson while equally cerebral admittedly has an overblown counter-culture image.  Although he is vocal on social issues and has exhibited some intellectual disdain of pure commercialism and celebrity,  Jackson as a big market master has been more than willing to perpetuate such iconography as evidenced by his role in the creation of the Michael Jordan legend, which he has replicated in the form of Kobe Bryant.

Like Warhol, whose silk screen process used to create works required the critical input of assistants, Jackson’s success relies heavily on the influence of assistant Tex Winter and the triangle offense.

3. Pat Riley does Pablo Picasso


Picasso is perhaps the most influential artist of the 20th century known for his willingness to explore many styles, ideas and techniques as a painter, printmaker, sculptor and ceramicist.  Stylistically, Riley is similar to Picasso in his ability to explore many styles and techniques.  Like Picasso, co-founder of the Cubist movement, Riley is considered to be one of the founders of  a movement, Showtime an uptempo fastbreak game predicated on defense, ball movement and his Magic Johnson brush.   However,  it was the Knicks’ defense, not the free-flowing Showtime, that was confining and jarring like cubism.

Like Picasso, Riley’s focus, particularly with Magic as his point guard and James Worthy on the wings, was spacing to facilitate movement.  Cubism, a synthesis of African and Spanish art was all about “the search for space” and the creation of space through fragmentation. 

Also like Picasso, Riley’s masterful career can be separated into color periods: the blurred purple and gold (Showtime) period, his Black and (Orange and) Blue (Knicks Defensive Period); his red hot (Heat) period; the Green (with envy) period (when he displaced Stan Van Gundy as coach after Shaq joined the Heat).

Picasso was a long-time communist and once declared that his work was “communist painting.”  Although, Riley never declared such a political affiliation, it is certain that many of his players would have called his style “communist coaching”  because of his harsh, dictatorial and isolationists coaching methods. Riley relied heavily on creating a highly charged antagonistic environment in which he convinced his players to see the world as “us against them.”  He intentionally challenged players to be angry and edgy and view opponents (even friends) as the enemy. He  discouraged the type of fraternization initially displayed by Magic and Isiah during the season, which may have led to the overly public rift between the Midwestern former-buddies. Riley would even contact players, by letter, over the summer to psychologically prepare them for the upcoming battle.  However, Riley’s methods always eventually wore down his players and wore out his welcome in the locker-room. (Now you know where Byron Scott got his habits from).


Some may suggest that both Riley and Picasso instilled their work with sexuality.  In Picasso’s case it is obvious as much of his work relates to his many marriages and mistresses.  Unlike Picasso, Riley has maintained his marriage for over 20 years  and certainly could not have produced his work on the court or as an inspirational management speaker without his wife.  Still a young Riley, with his slicked back hair reeked of  a sexual Hollywood persona with that Michael Douglas-Gordon Gecko look as he pranced the sidelines.  His perceived slickness personified the Lakers and was actually, in retrospect, the cover for the book on the libidinous owner and frolicking players.

For Riley personally, if you count his teams as mistresses, it can be said he, like Picasso, also had trouble with relationships and loyalty.  To this day, it is still a sore point in New York that Riley parted ways by fax just for something a little hotter to trot in the Miami area.


4. Doc Rivers echoes Romare Bearden


Glenn “Doc”  Rivers’ coaching  is most like the work done by multi-talented artist Romare Bearden, who is best known for his beautiful and provocative collages.  As exhibited by his ability to create a surprise playoff team from a group in Orlando without the team’s All-star (Grant Hill) and with eight new players, Doc has exhibited an uncanny ability, like Bearden, to make great work from scraps.  Although, many will suggest that he was gifted a championship when Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale brought together Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, his mastery was shown in his ability to turn an unlikely young point guard (Rajon Rondo) and bench into a superb supporting cast for at least one championship season. During this current season, Rivers has been masterful in his effort to piece together another run at the O’Brien Trophy with an aging core of stars and misfit group of role players such as Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson.

Unfortunately, the lives of both Bearden and Rivers has been greatly impacted by racism.  While race plays no apparent role in Rivers’ personal basketball relationships, how he coaches in Boston is dictated by the racially motivated arson that engulfed his Texas home.  As a result of that horror on the family, while Doc coaches in Boston his family lives comfortably in Orlando where they have made a comfortable life. Whereever he coaches he is dedicated to keeping his family’s life as stable as possible.  Intensely the family man, Doc will travel home to Orlando after games to assure that he participates in his family life the way his parents raised him.  

Bearden, who was also a noted musician and writer, was a philosophy student at the Sorbonne and an athlete himself dabbling in professional baseball (Doc played youth baseball and won three consecutive league titles).   Bearden and his wife established a foundation to work with youngsters.  With similar sensibilities and interest, Doc majored in politics at Marquette and has been honored for his community work with youngsters, such work being an important part of who Rivers is as a person.  Famously, Doc took in Adam Jones, a young man with basketball potential destined to be unrealized because he was homeless before being adopted by the Rivers Family.  It is Rivers’ understanding of youngsters and people that allow him to coordinate seemingly disparate parts into an efficient and sometimes beautiful whole.


5. Mike D’Antoni = Jackson Pollack



After watching Mike D’Antoni  coach the Knicks for two years, there is no doubt that his coaching style channels the great abstract expressionist  Jackson Pollack. His offensive scheme, misleadingly dubbed “7 seconds or less” is perhaps the basketball equivalent to action painting, which involves quick gestural movements and sometimes manic speed as the artists splatters and drips paint onto a canvas.  Like Pollack did, D’Antoni works with great energy, concentrated emotion, and speed, though certainly Pollack was forced to wait more than 7 seconds for his paint to dry. A hyper D’Antoni moves around the sideline as though he is hanging over the canvas waving his hands to shape the game in his image — fast and feisty.

Prior to his death and upon the introduction of his innovative drip and splatter style to the art world, Time Magazine wondered aloud whether Pollack was a genius or fraud.  Early in his career critics failed to understand the combination of boundless freedom and exquisite control required in his very balanced and beautiful abstractions.  Similarly, since his stint with the Knicks, D’Antoni, who had been called an offensive genius by some, is facing scrutiny and skepticism for his absence of defensive structure and his break with settled conventions and rules of coaching. But just as Pollack needed a special blend of paints to get the fluidity and consistency he needed for his oversized creations, D’Antoni arguably needs specially manufactured ballers (like Amare Studmuffin and Steve Nash) to make his “great offense is a good defense” system work. If Donnie Walsh, D’Antoni’s version of  Peggy Guggenhiem (Pollack’s benefactor), is able to get him the players he needs, the Knicks’ coach may very well be remembered like Pollack as an innovative genius.

However, while D’Antoni has proven to be moody and snarky with reporters (no one can blame him), there is no indication that coaching the Knicks has driven him to the level of alcohol and depression that purportedly led to Pollack’s death.


D’Antoni thinks: “This Is How To Mess Up A Masterpiece.”

NEXT UP:  Greg Popovich, Don Nelson, Stan Van Gundy, Jerry Sloan, George Karl as Matisse and a bonus coach.


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