For Wolves’ Adelman, family has always come first
MINNEAPOLIS — Mary Kay Adelman sat regally four rows behind the Timberwolves bench, her gaze rarely straying away from her husband.
When it did, it was to coddle her 5-month-old grandson, whom she held for the entire second half and two overtimes that in all likelihood closed out her spouse’s Hall of Fame NBA career.
Berating officials and wondering how in the heck a Jazz team Minnesota had defeated three times earlier in the year by an average of 19.3 points was being allowed to hang around on this night, Rick Adelman remained as focused and tenacious as ever. Once Utah rookie Trey Burke hit a 3 to make it 130-125 with a minute left in the second extra session, though, Adelman appeared to realize it was about to be over.
So the 67-year-old veteran of the coaching profession stole the slightest glance at his wife with 57.7 seconds to go. The scowl disappeared from his face, and the hardness melted away from his expression.
It was time.
If there’s one thing Rick Adelman has put ahead of basketball during 23 stalwart seasons as an NBA head coach, it’s family. As he coached what was probably his final game Wednesday night, he had the love of his life behind him and one of his six children directly at his side.
After becoming the eighth man in NBA history to amass 1,000 wins and becoming the league’s winningest active coach, Adelman is expected to announce his retirement within the next few days. Health concerns with Mary Kay are a principal reason, along with the fatigue that sets in during an 82-game basketball season full of travel, trial and tumult like this past one with Minnesota.
"Every year does get harder," Adelman said.
But this isn’t a personal decision. It’s a family decision.
Because that’s how the 67-year-old hoops sage operates. In the Adelman household of hoops, family and basketball aren’t such distant relatives.
Back during his playoff runs with the Sacramento Kings, Adelman would occasionally gather players for practices he had no intention of carrying out.
Sometimes, they’d line up for a half-court shot. Others, they’d wait for longtime assistant John Wetzel to throw down a dunk. Once the token goal for the day was achieved, the head coach would say "alright, we’re outta here."
It was a laid-back, fun-loving side of Adelman to which outsiders aren’t often privy. Instead, the general public sees a reserved, gruff curmudgeon who’d rather be at home watching a Western than talking to reporters or making public appearances.
But those who are part of the family have always been treated as such.
"He provides a great locker-room atmosphere and always makes it fun to come to work," said Jon Barry, an NBA ESPN analyst who spent three seasons under Adelman in Sacramento. "That can be hard to do. When you go for seven months or so where you’re seeing everybody every single day, he was still able to create a culture and an environment that guys have fun coming to work."
As a result, despite his sometimes-standoffish persona, Adelman has become known as the consummate players’ coach. Guys like Barry — who first teamed up with Adelman in Golden State for a year — and current Timberwolves shooting guard Kevin Martin have chosen franchises he coaches in free agency over other options simply due to their relationship with him.
"Yeah, I had this in mind," Martin said this past offseason after coming to Minnesota in a three-team, sign-and-trade deal. "I was just waiting to see where he was going to land next. He’s been such an inspiration in my career and where I am today."
Having played for him in Sacramento and Houston, Martin’s the only player to join Adelman at three different organizations.
The unity carries over into Adelman’s patented offensive schemes. His permutations of former Sacramento assistant Pete Carril’s Princeton offense stress a high tempo, sharing the basketball and relying on one’s teammates to help set up open looks.
"Throughout his career, his teams have always played the same way where they’ve always played very unselfishly," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He’s been (about) five-man offense."
It’s something that most current coaches, including Thibodeau, admit to adapting in their own personal playbooks. Clippers coach Doc Rivers even had a motion-based play called "Adelman" he used to run when coaching the Celtics.
But to call Adelman a lifelong system coach doesn’t do him justice. During his first head coaching gig, in Portland, he catered his schemes more to Clyde Drexler’s creativity and the brute interior force of Buck Williams and Cliff Robinson.
Only when he’s had good-passing big men like Kevin Love, Vlade Divac and Chris Webber has his signature corner offense been heavily emphasized.
"I think he’s a brilliant offensive mind," Barry said. "He can see what he has with his talent and just gets the most out of it and doesn’t force his concepts. He doesn’t have a system that he just makes people do; he reads what he has and is able to adapt and allow guys to do things they do best."
These aren’t just some vague, idealistic musings from past players and counterparts, either. They can be quantified.
Try quadruple-digit wins. A 1,042-749 overall record that equates to a .582 winning percentage. Two NBA Finals appearances with the Trail Blazers and 16 playoff appearances in 23 seasons.
Adelman couldn’t replicate that success in Minnesota, compiling a 97-132 mark in three seasons here. But he did welcome some new members to the family, including All-Star power forward Kevin Love.
"It’s been unbelievable," said Love, who became the first player in NBA history to amass 2,000 points, 900 rebounds and 100 made 3s in a season. "He has a great family, tremendous human being. But I just feel bad we haven’t been able to take him as far as some other teams have gone that he’s coached."
Minnesota assistant Terry Porter didn’t have to look far for work after hanging up his playing sneakers.
A year after the guard retired as a San Antonio Spur, he was back with Adelman as an assistant coach in Sacramento. And a year after that, he’d earned his first head job with the Milwaukee Bucks.
All due to a relationship forged with Adelman, who coached him in Portland from 1985-94 (part of which Adelman spent as an assistant before being named head coach partway through the 1988-89 season).
And when the Timberwolves hired Adelman in 2011, he knew exactly who to bring in as his top aide.
"I think sometimes coaching’s a loyalty business," Porter said. "He’s loyal to a lot of guys."
Wetzel served under Adelman in Portland, Golden State and Sacramento. He kept Carril around all eight seasons he was with the Kings. Current Timberwolves assistant T.R. Dunn has been with Adelman on every stop since joining his Sacramento staff in 2004. Another Minnesota aide, Jack Sikma, has been on his staff every season since 2007 in Houston. Player development coach Bobby Jackson played for him in Sacramento from 2000-05.
And of course, there’s his own flesh and blood. David Adelman was promoted to a full-time assistantship this year, and R.J. Adelman serves as Minnesota’s director of player personnel.
It’s a tight-knit circle of dependence that will likely be asked to branch in different directions within the next few days.
"When you know people, and you know they’re quality people, and you know that they’re gonna be there and have your back, it’s important to have those types," Adelman said. "You trust those people. This is a tough job, and you have to have good people around you to make it through."
Adelman didn’t necessarily want his boys to chase after their father’s profession.
"I’m not sure you want this," Adelman used to tell David and R.J. Adelman.
Rick’s passion for the game is unmistakably palatable. But family comes first — a difficult balance to strike for a dad who’s away for 41 games a year and spends most of his days during the season at the office or practice facility.
But the Adelman youngsters never felt neglected growing up, David said.
"I would say people think he’s boring, but to me, that’s what being a father is when you have this job," said David Adelman, who used to perform ball-boy duties for the Blazers and later the Kings. "You sacrifice time away from your family, so you sacrifice personal time when you come home. He was always there for us, and it never felt like he was gone for very long, which I think is interesting looking back on it now as I’ve gotten older."
David Adelman speaks from experience. His first son, L.J. — named after Adelman’s father — was born earlier this season.
It was that infant, the newest of eight grandchildren, whom Mary Kay Adelman held during the latter stages of Wednesday’s loss to the Jazz. Rick has been present at the births of all of them.
He and his wife adopted son Patrick and daughter Caitlin in the early 1990s after their mother, Mary Kay’s sister, passed away. During high school, Patrick became friends with Love, a Lake Oswego (Ore.) product who like Patrick grew up as a hoops junkie in the Portland area.
Patrick Adelman just wrapped up his first season coaching at Division III Willamette University in Salem, Ore. Pacers assistant Dan Burke is Adelman’s nephew. An older daughter, Kathy Adelman Naro, coached high school basketball for more than a decade.
So much for stamping out the coaching bug in the family.
Adelman says his longevity in Portland (11 years total) and Sacramento (eight) were of special import. They meant fewer moves, fewer school transfers, a closer-to-normal lifestyle for the children in the family.
And, for as much as he’s stood by his wife’s side the past couple years as she battles a disorder that causes seizures, she’s never left his.
"That’s an opportunity that you have a chance to get your sons involved, it’s always nice to have them next to you during the season," Adelman said. "And I’ve been very fortunate with Mary Kay and having her support all this time."
That’s all the aged basketball patriarch wished to discuss before the last one. He’d asked his third Timberwolves group — long since removed from any playoff hopes — to finish the season strong with a goal of attaining a .500 record or better.
And Adelman, as he has since starting his coaching career at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., in 1977, went with the same, cliche approach.
One game. The next game.
"If I did it any other way," Adelman reasoned, "then I wouldn’t be doing what I asked them to do."
A 136-130 loss to the last-place team in the Western Conference certainly wasn’t a fitting conclusion. But Adelman was never about public sentiment anyway.
So he walked off the floor unceremoniously, held what’s most likely his final, begrudged postgame press conference, and slipped off into the cold, snowy Minneapolis night.
He, Mary Kay and his growing family can reflect on his career in their own time, their own place — perhaps closer to their Portland home, where the weather is nicer and the company is more familiar.
It’s viewed as quaint, a bristly-yet-softhearted, legendary basketball coach maintaining a deep bond with his wife for more than 40 years — deep enough that she takes priority over his career — and raising a family of six alongside her. It can be seen as countercultural in a society where divorce is common and families tend to skew smaller.
But this is who Adelman is. It was never about him.
"He’s always been a family guy," Barry said, "and that’s how he runs the team."
Or, more relevantly, ran it. Now he and Mary Kay can retire someplace warm and walk.
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