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The Artists of Coaching, Part II

This article is the final part of the two part Photoshop essay series matching NBA coaches with the notable artists they remind us of in deed, temperament, style or life story.  In the earlier segment, Artists of Coaching, Part I, we saw Red Auerbach lead off as the great Leonardo DaVinci followed by Pat Riley with Picasso cool, Doc Rivers with Romaire Bearden skills, Phil Jackson with Andy Warhol career and impact and Mike D’Antoni with the energy of Jackson Pollack.

In this part, we take a look at Greg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy, Don Nelson, George Karl and Jerry Sloan. Certainly, you can see Don Nelson as wacky Salvadore Dali and Stan Van Gundy as the melancholy Vincent Van Gogh.  Enjoy and let us know what artists your fave coaches remind you of.

6. George Karl does it like Renoir

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Imagine Carl presenting players(Chauncey above, Lawson below) as Renoir paintings instead of numbered jerseys!

George Karl admits that he coaches to his personality – assertive and impatient. In coaching over 1600 games, including a sixth game elimination loss in the 1996 NBA Championships to Michael Jordan’s (and Phil Jackson’s) Bulls, Karl has preferred the up-tempo offense flowing from defensive pressure – although it usually seemed his teams were defenseless. His impatience and aggression is reminiscent of the work and style of famed impressionist Pierre August-Renior, who was known to create many works in a short time-span.

A description of Renoir’s work easily reads like a description of Karl’s coaching style (notes added): “Renoir’s paintings Karl’s offense and commentary are notable for their vibrant light and saturated color, most often focusing on people in intimate and candid compositions [remember his comments about new NBA coaches who never coached and his honest love – not – for Isiah Thomas]. The female nude was one of his primary subjects. [I know nothing about Karl and nudes]. In characteristic Impressionist style, Renoir Karl suggested the details of a scene play through freely brushed touches of color, so that his figures offensive and defensive sets softly fuse with one another and their surroundings.”

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Renior, who was prolific (like Karl) in painting thousands of pictures, at one point in his career rejected impressionism and began to mix his style with the classical technique in 18th century art. He concentrated more on realism and details and the distinctions between people and other elements in the painting. Similarly for this coach, the rise of Carmelo Anthony has encouraged the basketball artist in Karl to return to more classical notions of the distinction between offense and defense. In other words, you can now see his teams play more defense.

Karl had Moe but Renoir had Monet. Another curious parallel is the degree to which Renoir’s professional relationship with Claude Monet mirrors Karl’s relationship with Doug Moe. Back in the day, Renoir and Monet, another famed impressionist, would stand side-by-side and paint the same scene. Doug Moe, another former Denver Nugget coach who is also known for his run and gun offense, is currently an assistant coach on the sideline with Karl.


Most recently Karl resembled Renoir in his persistent dedication to his craft despite debilitating illness. Before being knocked out of the playoffs by chemotherapy, Karl battled and coached through illness that would sideline most people. Likewise Renior who suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, continued to paint by strapping a brush to his stubborn arm and altering his painting technique accordingly.

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Carmelo Got The Team; initially Karl got angst

7. Greg Popovich exemplifies Elizabeth Cathlett.

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Coach Pop is a sculptor with a extraordinary sensibility for handling people in every way.  Although he is considered a disciple of Larry Brown, a deconstructionist in that Brown beats down people and organizations to rebuild, Pop is known for molding what he has into winning material without the persistent emotional pounding to force conformity.  His talent for shaping organizations (he was Spurs GM) and larger than life (in size – Tim Duncan and David Robinson – and personality – Avery Johnson) men is reminiscent of the gorgeous work and style of sculptor Elizabeth Cathlett.

Cathlett is best know for her sometimes political but always provocative and beautiful work (prints and sculptures) depicting African Americans, especially women. Her sculptures are infused with African and  Pre-Columbian influences.  Her figurative work has an abstract sensibility that brings a unique emotiveness to her pieces.   Her sculptures do not usually contain random texture, but are most often smooth and shaped to emphasize the grain of the material from which the end product is built.  She tends to work with the grain and not against it to bring out the beauty within. She also designs her work to be clear, even through abstractions, and intellectually accessible to everyone.

Pop is very much like Cathlett in how he works and how he sees people.  Although, he is a military man – he played for and was an assistant coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy – and was an assistant for Larry Brown early in his career, Pop did not shape his teams by hammering players’ emotions and establishing autocratic relationships.    He chose an alternative method like Cathlett, who rejected a method of sculpting requiring her to pound her material into submission with her fist or mallet before hollowing it out.   After she moved to Mexico, Cathlett preferred a technique to sculpting which allowed her to shape the material in a more functional and pre-Hispanic method.   Similarly, Pop chose a more functional approach by building on and nurturing human relationships to win his four championship rings.

Clarity (in communication and systems) and honesty are critical aspects to Pops’ approach to coaching. Pops sensibility was never more apparent than in his relationship with Avery Johnson.  As an assistant Coach Pop sat in Johnson’s kitchen, with his wife looking on, one Christmas Eve and told Johnson he had been cut from the team.  However, later Pop was the one to give Johnson his first multi-year contract.  Pop also listens to his players and he credits Avery’s insistence that the team make the pick and roll its staple for leading to their first championship.

When his number was retired, Avery said the following about his coach: “I met Pop and we connected, not just in basketball but we connected in spirit.  We were passionate about people and passionate about the community and we would take caravans all over the state from here to Larado, to Uvalde to the Valley doing basketball camps because we loved children.”  Similarly, Cathlett’s work was all about “The People.”  “I have never thought about getting myself in museums or making a lot of money. I was thinking about people. I still am,” she said about her work.  In Mexico she was always very active in the community.

We see the beautiful wins and clear structure in Pops’ work, but the foundation for it all is his love of people and San Antonio.  He and his players are heavily involved in the community and not just for NBA marketing purposes.

8. Stan Van Gundy is really Vincent Van Gogh

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Stan Van Gundy presents and represents the melancholy of the tragic but talented Vincent Van Gogh. It is well known that Van Gogh suffered from mental illness and anxiety, cut off part of his ear and sent it to a prostitute for safekeeping and eventually shot himself to death. Van Gundy forever seems to be the tortured soul as he always publicly offers us his view of  the darker side of his team’s performances.  There was a time when we believed he was actually tortured as his mentor and boss, Pat Riley, transformed from Tony Robbins (motivational speaker) to Jack Bauer (abusive CSI agent) and purportedly forced him to retire (although he was a winning coach) when Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade were capable of winning a championship for a Heat coach.   Although, Van Gundy resigned, it was widely speculated that Riley wanted to return to the bench to pad his stats.  Despite the apparent slight, Van Gundy did not cut off his ear and send it to a ho nor did he shoot himself; instead he continued to coach which some may consider a form of masochism.

Van Gogh is widely considered to have given birth to “expressionism” which is less an artistic movement than it is a reference to works of art (including poetry) that reflect a very personal and emotional perspective.  Van Gogh’s style varied during his career but his work is known for its symmetry and considered to reflect great emotion diverging from realism.  About his art, Van Gogh once wrote “[R]eal painters do not paint things as they are…They paint them as they themselves feel them to be”.

As coach of the Orlando Magic, Van Gundy built a contemporary league power based upon symmetrical offensive sets designed to spread the floor for shooters with his huge big man, Dwight Howard, ruling the paint and quick guards capable of taking advantage of big lanes to the basket.  On defense, the presence of the big man allows for greater perimeter pressure and better help defense.  Howard, who has dressed as Superman and mimicked his beloved coach publicly, has questioned whether Van Gundy’s negativity keeps him out of touch with reality and his players.

A slightly interesting aside: Digger Phelps’, who is an artist himself, considers Van Gogh his favorite artist.  I don’t think (and don’t know whether) Van Gundy is his favorite coach though.

9. Don Nelson channels Salvador Dali.

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Bizarre. Warped.  Relatively successful. Showmen.  That just about describes both Don Nelson and Salvador Dali.

The highly imaginative Dali is best known for his surrealist paintings and his over-the-top showmanship.  The inventive Don Nelson, as general manager and coach, is known for his up-tempo defenseless offense, penchant for small ball, perpetual roster changes and the innovation of the point-forward to run the offense.  Most recently, echoing earlier conflicts with stars like Chris Webber and Patrick Ewing,  Nelson has seemed to be at odds with many of his players, who have demanded and wished for trades including open spats with Stephen Jackson, Jamal Crawford, Al Harrington and Monte Ellis. These days, like Dali, Nelson seems to eschew rationale thought in his work while delving far too deeply into his own subconscious for others to make sense of his decision-making and handling of players.

Nelson is perhaps best known for his up-tempo small ball which at its most successful point featured the guard trio of Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway. This guard corp became affectionately known as Run-TMC.  As successful as this unit was, small ball never proved to be the stuff of champions.  Like Dali’s melting clocks, which suggested that time was not rigid but relative as Einstein opined, small ball was actually soft-ball distorted in the space-time continuum referred to as the regular season.

Dali was extremely productive with over 1500 paintings and many other projects in other media, such as photography and film.  He even worked on a Disney cartoon.  Nelson, the winner of several coach of the year awards and recently celebrated for achieving the most wins of any coach in NBA history, has been pretty successful too, but no one would ever mistakenly expect him to play any role in a  Disney cartoon unless it were some sort of  bizarre parody.

10. Jerry Sloan replicates Norman Rockwell

Jerry Sloan, the coach of the Utah Jazz, is simply solid, consistent, undervalued and unappreciated Americana.  Who else could Sloan be but Norman Rockwell, one of the greatest most underappreciated artists in American history despite offering us some of the most recognizable and meaningful images of the 20th Century?

Norman Rockwell, who produced over 4000 images as a painter and illustrator of magazines and books, was born a New York City boy, but the essence of his spirit was middle America.  Where Rockwell creates the picture of middle America, Sloan is middle America.  Sloan was born a farm boy in Illinois where he was the youngest of 10 children and attended school in a one room building which housed all eight grades.  As his siblings worked the farm so that he could realize his dream of basketball, he transferred the lessons of hard work onto the court.  His concept of hard work was what made him one of the toughest, most reviled defenders in the NBA as a member of the Chicago Bulls.

His Jazz teams, although he coached the likes of  fellow Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone, Jeff Horncek, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, are not known for being star-focused teams.  His teams are recognized for consistently working hard, solid defense, good ball movement and smart shot selection.  No less than any other coach, his teams reflect his personality which is without frills and simply fundamental. Rockwell’s work was most often very basic and idealistic scenes from American life.

During his over 20 years as a coach with the Jazz, Sloan’s team missed the playoffs only three times and appeared in the playoffs for 15 consecutive seasons from 1988 to 2003 including two trips to the finals in 1997-98.   Notably, only one of those non-playoff seasons was a losing season.  Incredibly he has never been recognized with a Coach of the Year Award.  Similarly, despite his longevity and prolific production — he painted over 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post over 47 years and produced work for  Look magazine for 10 years –  Rockwell was previously criticized for being an illustrator and not a serious painter.  However, most recently both Sloan and Rockwell are receiving more recognition for the quality and consistency of their oevure. In fact a comment made by an art critic about Rockwell could easily apply to criticism of Coach Sloan: “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.”

Bonus:  Lawrence Frank makes a mess

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Just kidding.  Kinda, sorta.  Lawrence Frank has a reputation of being one of the most prepared and studied coaches to ever be in the league.  He was well liked by his players.  Nevertheless, he always seemed to be more college student than master artist.  Despite a record winning streak after he took over the Nets from Byron Scott (that streak was really Jason Kidd trying to make a point about Scott), Lawrence never seemed to know quite what to do with the resources he had. After the Nets graciously dismissed him before he become the full owner of one of the worst records in NBA history, the Nets proved that he didn’t have much to work with in the first place.  So when we think of Frank as a child-artist making a mess, we must remember that it wasn’t all his fault.  Most of the blame should go to the home-team owners who gave him the mess to start with.

Not all NBA coaches can be re-imagined as great artists, but it is impossible (and foolish) to ignore their impact on and ability to bring color and style to such a beautiful game.

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Exit, Stage Right, Almost No One Left: Inside the Knicks Exit Interviews 2010 , Part I
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