MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — From the mid-October snow crunching beneath his feet to his Kobe-less roster full of youngsters and journeymen, it didn’t take long for Kurt Rambis to realize he’s not in Los Angeles anymore.
Rambis left Phil Jackson’s side with the Lakers — and the chance to eventually succeed him in Tinseltown — to move to chilly Minnesota and take over the Timberwolves, a wilting franchise that has made it out of the first round of the playoffs just once in its 20-year existence.
Now he’s using every trick he gleaned during coaching stints under Jackson and Del Harris, and his playing days for Pat Riley, to try to build the Timberwolves into contenders.
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“I feel like I had great fundamental teaching as a player growing up, feel like I had good basketball instincts,” Rambis said. “But learning how to be a coach, and the responsibilities it takes to be a good coach, and formulating a style of play that I want to coach, I’ve learned all of that over the years. So I feel like I’m definitely ready.”
Rambis shouldn’t have a problem adjusting to his new surroundings. He played his first year of pro ball in Greece under the name Kyriakos Rambidis, then became one of the most popular of the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s despite a less-than-chic look featuring thick, black-rimmed glasses and wild, frizzed out hair that didn’t exactly fit the Hollywood scene.
After serving as the defensive coordinator during the veteran-laden Lakers’ run to the franchise’s 15th NBA title last season, Rambis inherited a Wolves roster with 11 players under the age of 26.
“You can tell that he’s learned under the right coach in Phil,” guard Ramon Sessions said. “He knows exactly what he wants to get done, and he knows how to get it done. He’s a lot calmer than the other guys I’ve played for. He seems like he’s been doing it for a long time.”
Tinges of Jackson are already showing up in Rambis, who is incorporating elements of the famed triangle offense into his uptempo game plan. He doesn’t yell or scream at a young team that took plenty of lumps last year in a 24-win season.
“He’s from Los Angeles. What do you expect?” assistant Bill Laimbeer said. “It’s La-La land out there. If my role is to be the opposite, I can do that real good.”
Rambis may not pass out books to his players to read, but he answers questions with a bemused squint and a wry grin. A dead ringer for the Zen Master.
“I’m not surprised, and that’s just what we need,” third-year swingman Corey Brewer said. “We’re a young team, and we need someone that’s going to be patient with us and be a teacher. That’s just what he is doing, and it is working.”
Already Rambis has been confronted with adversity. Kevin Love will miss six to eight weeks with a broken left hand and Al Jefferson did not play in the final three exhibition games because of illness.
The Timberwolves finished the preseason 3-5, and the injuries will prevent Rambis from really getting a feel for how this team is taking to his teachings until the turn of the year.
“He’s had a couple of other guys banged up,” Jackson said. “But from the reports I get, reports from basketball people who come in and say you can see he’s getting things accomplished, you can see the direction the team wants to go even though they may not be winning games yet.”
Like Jackson, Rambis would prefer to let the team flow up and down the court without heavy direction. That takes time, and Rambis does have that.
New Wolves president of basketball operations David Kahn has been blunt with his prediction that this project will take years, not months, to complete.
The Timberwolves will have an abundance of cap room and draft picks next year, two main factors in convincing Rambis to leave a chance to inherit Jackson’s throne in sunny L.A. for frosty Minnesota.
He also has plenty of input with Kahn to help mold the roster into a team that fits his style.
“I wanted a cohesive working environment with constant communication,” Rambis said. “He has been nothing but upfront and honest, and allowed me to be an integral part of decision-making process. He’s kept me abreast of everything he’s done along the way. Our working relationship has been and right now is and will continue to be excellent moving forward. That’s the way we both want it to be.”
AP freelance writers Dave Hogg in Auburn Hills, Mich., and Dan Weber in Anaheim, Calif., contributed to this story.