Rick Adelman’s path to 1,000 career coaching victories didn’t begin when he was thrust into the interim head coaching job with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1989.
It started on a snowy night in Denver some 30 years ago, a few hours after the Blazers lost to the Nuggets. Adelman was an assistant under Jack Ramsay then, and the championship-winning head coach was distraught after watching his team drop the game.
”I still remember Jack Ramsay, walking with him for like five miles in Denver when it was cold and snowing,” Adelman said. ”He just wanted to walk. I’ve never seen a guy so down. The next day he was at the airport like nothing had happened. He was slapping players on the back, talking to them real positive. I thought boy he was really so down last night.”
Adelman made a habit out of accompanying Ramsay on his post-loss walks. There wasn’t much conversation involved, which won’t come as a surprise to those who know Adelman well.
”Sometimes after games I would go by myself,” Ramsay said in a phone conversation with The Associated Press. ”Then Rick started to tag along. We didn’t talk a lot. We got it out of the air so that the next day everything was on a more upbeat basis. That’s important for a coach.”
It was on those walks that Adelman learned how to process the losing that inevitably comes in the NBA, how to manage the disappointment and move on to the next game, which may be as big a part of his success and survival as a head coach as his famed corner offense. His understated demeanor and aversion to the spotlight has allowed him to navigate more than two decades as a head coach without much fanfare.
Now sitting on 999 career victories, the Minnesota Timberwolves coach is on the brink of joining an exclusive club that is sure to bring some long overdue attention his way.
The Timberwolves host Toronto on Friday night, when he will try to become the eighth coach in NBA history to win 1,000 career games.
”I’ve said it many times, I think he’s the most underrated coach in the league. … Even the guys that he’s coached in the past that are on other teams now, they still do the things that he taught them offensively,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ”He’s very creative in that sense. … He’s one of those guys, he doesn’t try to get the camera. He couldn’t care less. He just wants to do his job and go home. And he does it well.”
One more win would put Adelman on a list with Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson, Larry Brown and George Karl as men who had the staying power, resilience and coaching chops to climb to this summit. He’s widely considered one of the best Xs and Os guys in the game, a coach who can take his five and beat yours or your five and beat his.
”He’s one of the all-time great coaches in the league,” Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau said. ”To do it the way he’s done it for as long as he’s done it, it says a lot about him. And he’s done it with a lot of different teams. His teams always play hard, they always play unselfishly. They play smart, play together. It’s the way he’s been for a very long time.”
When Adelman’s playing career wrapped up in 1975, coaching in the NBA was the furthest thing from his mind. He wanted to coach in high school, but didn’t have the teaching experience to get his foot in the door. He wound up at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore. Ramsay hired him as an assistant in 1983 and he stayed on Mike Schuler’s staff after Ramsay was fired three years later.
Adelman took the Blazers to two NBA Finals in 5 1/2 seasons, followed that up with two tough years with Golden State, then turned Sacramento into one of the most exciting teams in the league at the turn of the century. He weathered injuries to stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in Houston to bring the Rockets to the playoffs twice in four seasons – winning 22 straight games in 2008 – before coming to Minnesota in 2011.
”I don’t know how to say it, but I’m so happy to be with that coach,” Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. ”It seems like he knows everything. I feel comfortable with him. It’s something that he has and you can’t explain it. Once you are on his team, he’s giving you advice, it’s like a clinic every single day.
”He lets us play and that’s pretty cool for me,” Rubio said. ”I like when I’m out there and playing like it’s a playground and it’s the NBA. It’s fun.”
In a week that has been dominated by video of former Rutgers coach Mike Rice’s abusive behavior toward his players, Adelman’s low-key approach stands out even more. He rarely raises his voice, prefers to stay in the background and lets his players receive all the attention. In an era where coaches sometimes have the biggest personalities in the arena, the only time Adelman catches anyone’s attention is when he strays from his trademark black wardrobe and dons a black shirt with stripes instead.
”I don’t know what a player’s coach is, but I know it’s a players’ league and you better understand that,” Adelman said. ”It’s your job to get the players to respond in a positive way, to put them in a position to succeed and put team in position to succeed. They’re going to respond to that.”
There have been a few rough seasons along the way. When you’re around for 22 years, how can there not be? But none have been as trying as this one. A team that started with playoff aspirations has languished under the weight of a litany of injuries and Adelman missed 11 games to be with his wife, who was treated for seizures.
Her condition, while improved lately, has caused Adelman to consider calling it a career when the season is over. He said now is not the time to discuss his future. There won’t be any playoffs this year for him and a second straight losing season is already assured. But he said he’d be lying if he didn’t think about getting No. 1,000, and his players want that even more than he does.
”He deserves it, especially this year,” Rubio said. ”He stayed with the team and he has all my respect for that. We just want to make a run here and give him good news.”