Inside Lisa Willis' Process with the Westchester Knicks, Part II

Jackie Powell

Part II: An Unwritten Rule of Respect

(Read Part I of the story here.)

GREENBURGH, NY — During a pregame shootaround, Willis facilitates jumpers and pick and roll drills for the Westchester guards. Andrew White III and G League rookie Amir Hinton waited for passes and handoffs from Willis, who looked like she was ready to play herself. In a blue and orange Knicks long-sleeve T-shirt and a pair of black and white kicks, she was hurling behind the back passes for Hinton to catch and shoot.

Keith Bogans, (a former Westchester assistant who now serves as an assistant for Mike Miller’s New York Knicks) sits on the bench with a MacBook on his lap. Flash forward to game time against the Santa Cruz Warriors, and Bogans and Willis are standing next to each other behind the team huddle during a timeout. While clutching her brown leather-bound folder, Willis and Bogans observe. As the team trots back out to the court and its bench, the two coaches share a look and a smile.

After the Knicks’ 104-100 win over Santa Cruz, Bogans compared his relationship and the camaraderie he has with Willis to how he feels about New York Liberty legend and current New Orleans Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon. He referred to Weatherspoon as his big sister and he sees Willis in the same light. “ I love the opportunity so I can see basketball from a different lens,” he said regarding Willis’ presence. “You know Spoon, Teresa was great, I called her my big sister and...That might have been the closest WNBA player I’ve ever been close to and then to have Lisa come in it’s just like hand in hand like I got like a sister figure that I can talk basketball with.”

Bogans and Willis actually go way back. They both arrived at professional coaching via the pipeline provided by the NBA’s Assistant Coaches Program. Bogans, who represented an earlier cohort, returned to give a presentation to the latest class which included Willis.

“I just remember her sitting there,” he said. “And she might have been the only person to ask questions after I finished talking. So that’s why she actually stood out to me. Actually she is the only person who asked questions. She had a lot of questions and that’s kind of how I knew she was really into it.”

Willis wanted to know specifically how he got into the zone to coach, how he prepared. When the two reunited in Westchester many months later, Bogans gave Willis some simple advice. He instructed her to observe and not be reluctant to ask for clarification. “She was quiet [at first] but now you can’t get Lisa to stop talking,” Bogans said as we both chuckled.

And he’s not wrong. Lisa is always talking to her players if during training or game time. On occasion, I was able to hear a “YAAAAAAAS” shouted from the Knicks bench. Who might that be? Yep, it was Lisa.

She fits right it according to Bogans. And while Willis will be noticeable on a bench of testosterone, the Knicks play for her just as much as they play for first-year head coach Derrick Alston. There’s an “unwritten rule of respect” for Willis on the bench, in practice and in the locker room. “I haven’t seen anyone disrespect her. No one tries to talk over her,” Bogans said.

“She just brings her attitude, her energy every morning. She wants to work. She’s out there early with guys on the floor. She does it all. She’s one of us. I don’t look at it, she’s one of us. It’s a team. There’s no females. No guys. It’s the team.”

“All-Net” is the word

Former Shaw University guard Amir Hinton owes part of their development on and off the court to Willis.

As a rookie in the G League, Hinton admires how she has handled being the new person to an organization. Her calm, cool and collected demeanor is what keeps Hinton in check. She has also helped the former Division II player understand his new role out of college.

“I have a different role on this team than I obviously had in college,” Hinton said. “So I talk to her and she’s helped me understand that your role is still the same, just some little tweak in it. Just play your game, just have fun and everything will take care of itself.”

Willis is diligent and detailed with her scout and film preparation. She’s always prepared ahead of time, having all of her clips ready and in order before Hinton walks into her office. She’s a nerd and proud with a basketball IQ off the charts. During one-on-one film sessions with Hinton, Willis provides him with notes in writing which include constructive criticism and positive reinforcement. How were his pick and rolls? Did he set a bad hedge?

The two Westchester newbies have an emotional bond off the court. Both are but also have a similar sense of humor. I asked Willis about what superlative she might have received as a teenager in high school. After some thought, she replied that she was definitely known as an athlete (duh) and the class clown. Hinton agreed as the two share their own inside jokes.

“She always for some reason catches me burping,” Hinton chuckled. “ I’m always burping at practice and stuff like that but she’s always the one that catches me when I do it and we kind of laugh about it every time. She’s like ‘Amir, again.’ That just goes to show the sense of humor she has and how much of a good person she is.”

Her rapport with the 2019-2020 Westchester Knicks is evident. And Willis’ strategy is to try to connect with them on subjects that aren’t only basketball. Sometimes they ask her for advice on their personal lives, which Willis found a bit strange at first. But something she asks them frequently is how they are in the moment. And she gets the same question back from her players.

“I’ll typically ask them as they are walking by– they stop, they say, I’m good coach and they turn around and they make eye contact with me… they ask me how I’m doing,” she said. “It’s an authentic exchange... I think that speaks to the character of the guys but I also think that speaks to me trying to actually let them know that I’m not asking just because.”

Willis cares deeply. It’s as simple as that.

Building relationships with players is something Willis is well accustomed to. In 2017 she created her own basketball development business, Mindful Development Hoops, and was the President and the player development specialist for Think. Work. Play!, a basketball training program for young people under 18.

But something she’d didn’t initially expect during her first professional coaching experience was the juggling of emotions that she’d be exposed to. She’s learned that the G League is not only a very “unique place to be” but an emotional one as well. She recounted one evening when she received “a book” of a text message from one of her players. In the message, the player was reflecting on his performance while admitting his feelings. When NBA players and two-way players toggle between New York and Westchester, that even has an impact on her players.

“They have to process those emotions and process them properly,” she said. “And that’s where I try to help. I’ve been fortunate to be in every situation in basketball, where I’ve been the star, I’ve been the player who did come off the bench, I’ve been the player who didn’t even dress for the game.”

Now back to Irvin. His progress has been emotionally grueling, but Willis is committed to his journey. “I think Lisa has done a great job not only with my shooting but just with my confidence,” Irvin told me. “In a short period of time that I’ve known Lisa, I’ve been able to, open up to her about stuff on and off the court. She’s an easy person to talk to and she’s just really an unselfish person.”

She has found a way to get inside his head, installing a healthy force instead of a toxic inner critic. Irvin is an over-thinker and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it can become a hindrance on the court. Willis and Irvin landed on the word “All-Net,” a term that is meant to trigger a specific set of shot mechanics for the Knicks’ swingman.

Willis noticed that when she said the phrase “All-Net,” Irvin snapped into focus and “automatically” fixed his shot. They view “All-Net” as code: it’s a translation for “holding his follow-through,” shooting the ball “up higher” and putting spin on the ball. According to Willis, “All-Net” allows Irvin to do all “that he does when he makes a shot ‘all-net’.”

“Instead of me saying ‘cmon Zak get your follow-through up, hold your follow-through, put some spin on the ball,” Willis said. “Instead of overwhelming him with words, ‘all net’. He put that together. It’s something I can yell out during a game.”

Irvin describes the exercise as a way to “reset” his focus. “I’m just trying to put the ball in the net and she just makes it simple. So many times I’ve worked with so many people and they just try to complicate things, but she just really breaks it down. It’s very simple to me and I just think that speaks for how talented of a player she once was and now as she’s transforming to being a coach.”

Irvin owes a lot to Willis. He’s grateful for the patience she has for him, and that she “puts [him] first.” He prefers to report to a game four hours early to get some work in and Willis is glad to come along and make sure he’s got a ride.

With a little over five minutes left in the third on December 28 against the Erie Bayhwaks at home, Irvin finds himself in the right corner pocket outside the three-point line. Andrew White III hurls a chest pass into his torso.

Irvin catches it. Hesitates a little bit. And decides to go for it. All net.

Willis, sitting right behind Irvin, looks on. There’s a hope in her eyes that maybe this will be the one. The first three of the season. Right as Irvin fires, Willis is on the edge of her seat, about to rocket right out of it. She roars with her leather-bound folder in hand, screaming with a wide-open smile: “YEEEEESSSSS.”

There was a sense of relief. Irvin made another three-ball two days later against the College Park Skyhawks. Willis leaped up and pumped her fist.

“This is a relationship I have for the rest of my life with her,” he said. "For sure.“