SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- It’s Friday afternoon, and Lionel Hollins is multitasking: answering questions from a reporter while signing autographs for kids participating in the first-ever Brooklyn Nets Basketball Camp.
As the interview is ongoing, one of the youngsters walks up to Hollins with a couple of requests: he wants the new head coach of the Nets to sign his jersey and a basketball.
“You want me to sign my life away to you too?” Hollins jokes.
The 10-year-old and the 60-year-old then pose for a quick selfie.
This is the side of Hollins that very few people see. Because when he’s on the court directing his players, his personality changes.
Over the years, Hollins has developed a reputation as an “old-school, no-nonsense” type of coach.
It’s one of the main reasons why Nets general manager Billy King decided Hollins was the right man for the job following Jason Kidd’s abrupt departure to Milwaukee.
Hollins, King felt, would push his players, challenge them, get them to play tough, tenacious defense. Hollins did just that in Memphis, turning the Grizzlies into a perennial playoff contender in the formidable Western Conference.
“I don’t know what ‘old-school’ is,” Hollins responded when asked how he developed his coaching style. “When it comes to playing, it’s about a philosophy of trying to go out there and get our team to play as hard as they can and as well as they can and together as often as they can.”
“You’re trying to win the game,” he continues. “I mean, ‘old-school’ or ‘new-school,’ that’s what everybody’s goal is. Everybody has a personality of how they get it done. I tell people all the time, we have fun. I’m not an ogre, but I do have expectations of when we’re in the gym, we work. And if you’re gonna be in the gym, you work. And if you can’t, then there will be someone else there waiting for an opportunity. I don’t think that we can say that that’s any different from anybody else coaching.”
Hollins became a coach long before he officially became a coach. During his playing days -- from youth ball to high school to college to an NBA career that spanned from 1975-85 -- Hollins exhibited several coaching traits on the floor: from his mental fortitude to his leadership.
“Billy Cunningham [my head coach when I played for the Philadelphia 76ers from 1980-82] was probably the first coach that was telling me that he thought I could coach, and I should get into coaching,” said Hollins. “I had never really considered it, although in every sport I played I was always into it from a big picture, team perspective versus what my job was or what I could get myself.”
“Then I played for [Detroit Pistons coach] Chuck Daily (in 1983-84) toward the end of my career, and Chuck told me that he didn’t think he could bring me back as a player, but he’d have an opportunity for me as a coach,” Hollins continued. “I actually turned him down at the time and played one more year [with the Houston Rockets], and then I wound up at Arizona State [my alma mater] and ended up coaching in college for a couple years before getting back into the pros.”
His coaching resume is extensive and wide-ranging. Hollins was a long-time assistant with the Phoenix Suns (1988-95). He served as an interim coach with the Grizzlies in 1999-2000 and 2004. Hollins also coached in the International Basketball League (2000-01) and the United States Basketball League (2002). The season before he got hired again in Memphis, Hollins was an assistant with the Bucks (2008-09).
With Hollins at the helm, the Grizzlies’ winning percentage spiked from .561 in 2010-11 to .621 in 2011-12 to .683 in 2012-13. The 2012-13 team won a franchise-record 56 games and advanced to the conference finals. In each of his last three seasons with the team, Memphis finished in the top-10 in defensive efficiency. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley Jr. turned into a young, potent trio. But the Grizzlies ultimately decided to move in another direction, a contentious relationship between Hollins and Memphis ownership serving as the crux of their decision.
“I don’t emulate [anyone],” Hollins said. “I’ve taken a lot of stuff from a lot of coaches that I’ve worked for just as part of the process, but I think all along I always had a vision of how I thought the game should be played, and I just like for people to go out and do their jobs to the best of their ability every time they’re on the court. You can’t always win, but you can always go out there and compete. And after you do that, the winning and losing takes care of itself: whether it’s talent or somebody throwing up a lucky 75-foot shot that wins the game at the end. There’s nothing you can do about it, but you went out there you competed and gave what you had on that particular night.”
Hollins faces several challenges heading into next season:
1. Helping Deron Williams (offseason surgery on both ankles) regain his confidence and return to All-Star form.
2. Turning gifted scorer Brook Lopez (foot/ankle surgery) into more of an impactful player on the defensive end.
4. Figuring out what type of system his team is going to play and how they’re going to play in.
5. Developing a rotation which enables his team to become a cohesive unit.
But Hollins isn’t at that point yet. After all, he’s still looking for a place to live. He wanted have that done already, but circumstances out of his control, he says, have prohibited it from happening just yet.
“I need to get to know who my players are, their personalities, what they can and can’t do,” Hollins said. “And then I need to lay the groundwork and get them to believe in what my vision is for them and then get them to execute.”
Sounds daunting. A lot tougher than signing a couple autographs and taking a selfie, that’s for sure.
But, as he said, that’s what training camp and the preseason is for.
“It’s always an evolving situation,” Hollins said. “[A system’s] not something that you put in one day and then that’s it. It’s something that’s constantly evolving and growing. Defense grows and offense grows. You put in some plays, then you put in more plays. It’s on-going, and you just try to keep it growing and evolving.”
There’s some concern that his personality might clash with his players. But Hollins’ track record is quite impressive, which is why King believes in him. And there’s no doubt Hollins believes in himself. Now it’s time to get to work. In a month, his system will begin to grow and evolve in Brooklyn.