Measuring the layers of Rick Adelman's greatness
There's this card table set up in the corner of the Minnesota Timberwolves' practice facility. It's flimsy and nondescript, but still somehow the seat of power. The coach sits behind it, hunched a bit, usually in a black zip-up hoodie one procures at the local Target and wears until the elbows fray.
The coach's brow is permanently furrowed, his eyes trained straight ahead. To watch Rick Adelman observe a practice is perhaps the least instructive of pursuits. He's more than mellow. He's the absence of emotion, and yet behind that front is the brain that's birthed some of basketball's best offensive schemes, turning over and over as he sits so absolutely still.
In his 23rd season as an NBA head coach, Adelman has seen it all. Some of his teams have contended for championships, some have clawed for .500, injured and ineffective. It's been more of the former, of course, that makes Adelman not only the active coach with the most experience but also the one with the most victories.
His past three seasons have seen more of the lows, though, from both a basketball and personal standpoint. In Minnesota, injuries and a stacked Western Conference have kept promising rosters from the postseason, and his wife's heath concerns have been a constant worry behind the scenes. Adelman, 67, and the team both can opt out of the final year of his contract for next season, and speculation has already begun about his future with the Timberwolves (40-41), who will miss the playoffs for the 10th straight year.
Will Adelman retire? He's acknowledged that Mary Kay's health is his biggest concern, and when he talks about the future with the Timberwolves, it's about what he's built and how they'll continue it. He, they. Adelman isn't making a definitive statement about next season -- he said he's asked his players to finish the year focused, and so he must too -- but he's dropping clues.
With those clues comes a need to parse, to quantify. When a coach like Adelman looks poised to move from bench to couch, wins are counted (1,042, eighth all time). Playoff berths (16) are recalled, and titles are celebrated. Adelman has no titles, despite leading some of the best teams of the 1990s, in Portland, and early 2000s, in Sacramento, along with two 50-win clubs in Houston from 2007-09. He's also toiled mostly out of the spotlight in small markets. And yet, some of the biggest names in the game have begun to chirp.
"He's probably the most underrated coach in the NBA," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's done a great job every place that he's been. He runs good stuff, players enjoy playing for him and he's tenacious. He's one hell of a coach."
Said the Bulls' Tom Thibodeau: "Everywhere he's been he's made the team better. He's a great coach."
Great. That's the word that sticks, and despite the recent struggles, there's no denying it: Rick Adelman is a great coach. He's not the best, certainly, or the most successful, but in place of championships, he has people. People are the addendum to his greatness, or maybe they're the base, and in Minnesota, he's surrounded himself with many of the people who matter most. They're the men on his bench and the family in the stands, the six children and eight grandchildren, the relationships that go back 30-40 years. Rick Adelman may be unacclaimed, but to the people who know best, he's anything but underappreciated.
Greatness is measured in the words of Terry Porter. In 1985, he was a rookie point guard from a tiny school, Wisconsin-Stevens Point. After arriving in Portland, he quickly formed a close bond with Adelman.
In college, Porter had played mostly small forward, and Adelman was charged with easing his transition to point guard. Back then, practice facilities were luxuries, so Adelman talked to the coach at Tigard High, just southwest of Portland, and wrangled a spare key so that he and Porter could work in private. It made all the difference, and the lessons stick with the younger man in his job today as a Timberwolves assistant coach.
As Porter's playing days wound down, he and Adelman, who was coaching in Sacramento, began to talk about the future. Without pause, the coach invited Porter to join his staff, and nine years later, he again extended an invitation, to come to Minnesota, which Porter accepted. That's just how it works with Adelman. Once you're in, you're in.
"There's no self-promotion," Porter said. "He doesn't worry about those types of issues. He worries about wins and about the important things in life. He's a great family man, a great friend."
Porter learned that firsthand. Adelman has been by his side for the deaths of both of his parents. Each time, the coach's message was the same: Step away from the team. Go be with your family. Have some closure. Come back when you can come back.
"Sports are sports, but family is a whole different level," Porter said, and to him, Adelman has become family.
Greatness is measured in the hours David Adelman logged to get to where he is. Recently promoted to assistant coach on his father's staff, Adelman's third son came to basketball by choice, not by any prodding from his parents. In fact, when David was a child, basketball was just his father's job, nothing to brag about. It wasn't until his friends got old enough to be Blazers fans that he realized his family was anything special.
"I got to go to practices sometimes, to go to games and work the visitors' bench as a ball boy," David said.
One of those instances was in 1990, Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Blazers and Spurs. Portland won in overtime, and David was the ball boy for San Antonio's bench. He was awestruck, and somewhere on that run to the Finals in his father's first full year as a head coach, David caught the coaching bug.
Sure, there were sacrifices. His senior year of high school, David won a state basketball championship in Oregon, but his father had moved to Sacramento that fall to begin his tenure with the Kings. He didn't get to see it. Years later, though, when David was a high school coach, Adelman was in the stands when his son won yet another title
Now, David aspires to become an NBA head coach, and his older brother, R.J., works for the Timberwolves as their director of player personnel. An older sister, Kathy Adelman Naro, coached high school basketball for more than a decade, and the youngest Adelman son, Patrick, is in his first year as an assistant coach at Willamette University. There's even a nephew in the mix: Dan Burke, who's been a Pacers assistant coach for more than a decade.
"It's rewarding, and it's also, I wish they would have done something else, because I know how difficult this business is," Rick Adelman said.
Greatness is measured in the two children the Adelmans adopted in the early 1990s, Caitlin and Patrick, whom they inherited after Mary Kay's sister died. The word "adopted" isn't even mentioned. It is son, daughter. Period.
When Patrick was in high school, he became friends with a fellow basketball player in the Portland area. The kid was a star already, and he spent time at the Adelman household, hanging out and shooting hoops.
The kid's name was Kevin Love.
"Every time I'd go over to their house, whether I'd be upstairs playing video games or outside shooting, I'd pull him aside and talk basketball," Love remembered.
Now finishing his third season playing for Adelman, Love said it doesn't seem all that long ago that he'd look through the memorabilia in his friend's house. There were photos of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Brad Miller, all big men with smooth passing skills. Even as a teenager, that's how Love envisioned himself, and he remembers thinking that a coach like Adelman would be just what he needed.
Greatness is measured in the tears Brad Miller shed one night two years ago, after his final NBA game. Miller had played for Adelman in Sacramento and then in Houston, and he came to Minnesota to be a veteran presence and little more. Over the course of the season, he barely spoke -- or played -- and was known more for his photo album of hunting prizes and penchant for filling a bag with free sports drinks than his hardwood prowess.
That night, though, Miller couldn't contain himself. He started sobbing. It began on the bench, and then it picked back up in the locker room, when he was asked about Adelman.
"That's what he means to me," Miller said, gesturing to the tears. "He's been like a college coach to me. I got to know his wife and family and his kids. He just wants to win."
To make a man that large, that tough, that stoic break down and weep -- well, that's something.
Greatness is measured in the days Adelman benched Kevin Martin in 2004, the days he went without talking to Chase Budinger in 2009. Both were rookies. Neither quite understood it. In Martin's case, he'd gotten some positive reinforcement early, and then after playing on Nov. 14, he didn't touch the court again for the Kings until December.
"People think I always had an easy relationship with him while playing, but it definitely wasn't," Martin said. He's able to laugh now. "I was mad. I was mad."
For Budinger, it was less upsetting, more mysterious. He played consistently with the Rockets right away, but his coach would go days without even acknowledging his existence.
"You learn to adapt," Budinger recalled. "It was pretty interesting and funny my rookie year, not knowing him and not knowing that he doesn't talk a whole lot. He's not one of those guys that you can sit down and have a conversation with. It was kind of weird, your first year in the NBA, your head coach, you think he hates you or something."
Now the two swear by his methods. Adelman is the opposite of overbearing, and he prefers players to play through their mistakes -- unless, of course, he benches them without warning. In that case, stay strong, and don't panic. You'll be back.
Those who have played under Adelman call him the ultimate players' coach, one who "really gives everyone on the team confidence," Budinger said. It's a method that's worked, and when someone fits in Adelman's system, he often follows the coach. There was Miller, of course, and now there are Budinger and Martin. Adelman traded for the former and acquired the latter, who's played for him in Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota, in a sign-and-trade deal last summer.
"That's a real plus, when you get these people who want to be there because they've been with me or my system before," Adelman said.
Greatness is measured in Adelman's gaze the night he won his 1,000th game, on April 6, 2013. From the moment David climbed up into the stands and brought Mary Kay to her husband's side, Adelman's eyes never left her. He performed the perfunctory duties of his milestone -- the words into the microphone, the waves -- but somehow, it was all about the woman by his side.
"She had to be a part of it," Adelman said that night. "She's been there all the years. If it wasn't for her, I could never have done it."
She was the one who ran the household, the one whose day he asked about each night when he got home. Basketball talk could wait. He wanted to know what the kids were up to and how school had been, whose knee was skinned and if he could help. When she started having seizures in early 2013, she was his priority, even more so than before.
"It's just not you," Adelman said. "Your whole family's in the fishbowl, and when Mary Kay got sick, it hit home that the most important thing was her. She's been sacrificing for over 20 years [of me] doing this job."
To be truly great at something is to put it in perspective, to know when to step away and what matters more. It's to realize that 10 years down the line, you'll kick yourself for missing out, for not being there, because the basketball ends, and the basketball doesn't really matter quite as much as everyone pretends it does.
In that, Adelman may be not just great, but also the best.
Adelman is unlikely to win that coveted title, which he came so close to getting in 2002. Despite Robert Horry's three-pointer to win Game 4 of the Western Conference finals for the Lakers and some of the most controversial officiating in NBA history, Adelman's Kings came within seconds of facing the New Jersey Nets in the Finals. It still stings. Adelman still talks about those teams in Sacramento, how special they were. They're family, too.
"Both NBA Finals that we happened to lose in Portland, just to be in that arena and feel that energy, that was a special time and a special place, and then to have it happen again in Sacramento, where people loved that team," David said, his voice trailing off. "Wow."
They loved the teams, and they loved Rick Adelman.
Back then, in Portland and Sacramento and even in Houston, a title was still in reach. The NBA was a familiar world. Adelman was surrounded by his peers, by Phil Jackson, Mike D'Antoni, George Karl, Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan. They're leaving the bench now, one by one, and new ownership with new goals is bringing in younger coaches. The league is changing, for better or worse, and Adelman is changing too. He's mellowed a bit during games, and he doesn't crouch quite so deep on the sidelines, although his voice is just as loud when he berates referees.
The talk is no longer of titles. It's of turnarounds, of how he took the Minnesota job because he wanted to make a difference, because he didn't want to wait around to be handed a winning team, because he wasn't finished yet. Three years later, it's hard to blame him if he is.
Earlier this year, Adelman flew his grandchildren to Minneapolis. The eighth was born five months ago, and the oldest is 11. The whole lot of them attended a game at the Target Center, dressed in Timberwolves gear and high-fiving players -- and they're clueless about basketball, Adelman said, laughing.
All they know is they're Minnesota fans. They're Grandpa's fans, and they don't even know the half of what Grandpa means to the NBA.