Old Rookie Wins From the Bench Raptors' coach Kevin O'Neill

January 19, 2004

As a notorious screamer throughout his 20-year career as a
college coach, Kevin O'Neill was an unlikely candidate to
graduate to an NBA sideline. So how is it that this rookie head
coach has led the surprising Toronto Raptors to an 19-16 start,
just six fewer wins than Lenny Wilkens managed all of last
season? "I coach differently than I did in college," says
O'Neill, 46, a former head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and
Northwestern. "I shout out plays or coverages, but I don't yell
at players."

Crucial to O'Neill's disciplined transformation were the three
years he spent as an NBA assistant, first with the Knicks' Jeff
Van Gundy in 2000-01 and then as Detroit's defensive specialist
for Rick Carlisle the past two seasons. Other former college
coaches (P.J. Carlesimo and Lon Kruger) made the fundamental
mistake of jumping straight into an NBA head-coaching job without
serving an apprenticeship. "I would have been a miserable failure
if I'd done it that way," says O'Neill.

O'Neill rivals Van Gundy in his work ethic. He rises at 5 a.m.,
walks the three blocks from his Toronto hotel to the office and
spends the morning studying game tapes and scripting practices.
"As somebody who never played in the NBA, I know that the players
are looking at me to see if I'm making mistakes. They evaluate
everything I do." That explains his painstaking preparation for
every practice and every game. "I write down--word by
word--everything I'm going to say to the team, then I CliffsNote
it out for myself," O'Neill says. "I never address anything
immediately after a game because I don't want to be emotional."

His self-discipline is paying off: His players seem to like him
and are even making the ultimate sacrifice for anyone with a
guaranteed NBA contract--they are playing hard on defense. After
ranking 29th last year, Toronto is sixth this season. "He's a
basketball purist," says guard Jalen Rose. "We get along so well
because he's not here to be the show. He's here to win games."

O'Neill says he deals with the tensions of his job by working out
and attending Mass on a daily basis. When does he have fun? "On
the 15th and the 30th, when I get to see the direct deposit," he
says. "That's when I'm happy. And maybe during the last five
seconds of a game when I think we're going to win. That's the
greatest feeling you can have in the world. But it doesn't last
long."

SI.com
For more coverage, including a photo from the week, go to
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COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (O'NEILL) O'Neill knew that he had to change to coach in the NBA, whichmeant no yelling.

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