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Lionel Hollins on life after the Grizzlies and Nets

‘Maybe somebody will give me an opportunity to coach again. If they don’t, I’ve had a grand life’

Every morning, Lionel Hollins drives a few miles from his home in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, to a nearby athletic club for a morning swim.

“I swim every day,” the once and former head coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets said. “I’ve swam off and on over the years, but my last year in Brooklyn my hip was bothering me and it was a way for me to do some exercise without aggravating my hip. I was able to swim fairly regularly, and after I came back to Memphis back in January I’ve been swimming.”

His days mainly consist of reflection, family and enjoying life, but he’s not throwing the idea of coaching out the window. He misses the game.

“I miss the action of teaching,” Hollins said. “I miss practice. I miss seeing guys get it and run forward with it. To me, that’s the big thing about coaching that I like. I like going to practice. I like teaching. I do miss it and I hope to get back. Maybe somebody will give me an opportunity to coach again. If they don’t, I’ve had a grand life, I’ve had a grand career both playing and coaching. And if basketball is not in my future, I think I could deal with it. It’s not something I want, cause I’m not ready.”

Hollins was the Grizzlies’ first black head coach since Sidney Lowe (2000-2002). He led the team to the Western Conference Finals and finished his time with the Grizzlies as the best and most successful Grizz coach since Hall of Famer Hubie Brown. His contract was not renewed however after the 2012-2013 NBA season. Hollins went on to coach for the Brooklyn Nets, who let him go after two seasons.

Nets owner Mikhail D. Prokhorov said in a statement that Hollins, who was in his second season as head coach, was released from his duties so that Prokhorov could pursue “a fresh start and a new vision for the team.” Brooklyn held the NBA’s third-worst record at that time (January 2016). “By making this decision now, it enables our organization to use the rest of the season to diligently evaluate candidates with proven track records,” Prokhorov said in the statement. “It’s clear from our current state of affairs that we need new leadership. With the right basketball management and coach in place, we are going to create a winning culture and identity and give Brooklyn a team that it can be proud of and enjoy watching.”

Hollins’ contract with the Grizzlies was set to expire on June 30, 2013. On June 10, the team issued a statement saying Hollins was no longer with the organization. Jason Levien, former chief executive officer and managing partner of the Grizzlies, said they decided to go in a different direction.

When Hollins was announced as the 11th head coach of Grizzlies history in January 2009, he lent his eye for recognizing the elements that would make the team successful. He established an identity for the team that mirrored the city’s fierce competitive nature and hard-core work ethic. Under Hollins, the team was noted for its scrappy, defensive gritty way of executing, with most of their points scored in the paint. He was huge on playing more to their strengths as opposed to fast ball. Hollins transferred his hunger to the players, who went on to become a talked-about, playoff-caliber team that dished its “grit and grind” mantra night in and night out.

The 21-year veteran coach was an original member of the Grizzlies when they were in Vancouver, British Columbia, before moving to Memphis. Before joining the Grizzlies organization, he was with the Phoenix Suns for seven years (1985-95) as an assistant coach.

Life since he left the Nets has been in chill mode, but full of duties that allow him to explore health and fitness, youth basketball and his foundation, The Lionel Hollins Foundation.

“You learn to adapt and move on and learn to do other things and that’s why you need a foundation and you need to be balanced in your actions, balanced in your education so that you can move from one field to the other,” Hollins said. “As I tell people, it’s not much I cannot do. If I have an interest and you show me how to do it, I can do it.”

If he doesn’t hit the hardwood again as a coach, he said he can see himself staying involved with youth basketball in a development role.

“I’ve been developing a little bit of a personal brand and speaking, doing coaches clinics, doing basketball camps. I wouldn’t even mind going into the front office. The juices and the energy for coaching is still there and the passion. If you sit and watch games with me, you’d probably say, ‘dang, you’re not even coaching.’ I’m yelling at referees, I’m rewinding plays. My son-in-law sits and watches with me, I’m rewinding plays and showing him things that could’ve made the play happen and showing him players who aren’t getting whatever the coach is trying to show them and all those kinds of things that you do as a coach.”

“I wasn’t trying to be the best coach ever, I just want to go out and enjoy the camaraderie.”

Hollins had an illustrious 10-year NBA playing career where he was the floor general for five teams. As a point guard, he was drafted the sixth pick of the 1975 NBA draft from Arizona State to the Portland Trail Blazers.

He was a key member of 1976-77 Trail Blazers’ championship team that defeated the Philadelphia 76ers after losing the first two games. He earned a degree in sociology from Arizona State in 1986.

Hollins comes from a time when racism was evident in sports, but he agrees that it wasn’t always overt or blatant during his player era.

“Racism isn’t always [overt and blatant], and that’s why a lot of people don’t believe that it’s still racism. But it was subtle coming in a league and having the Knicks be called the Nigger Bockers, which is because they had an all-black team. Having black players that were on the end of the bench not kept because there had to be a certain amount of white people … I recall when I played for the Blazers and we drafted a kid and you would’ve thought he was going to be the savior. He was on the side buses, he was on the milk cartons and the billboards and all that, but he never got off the bench. This was 1975. So we are talking about seven years removed from Martin Luther King’s death.”

Since then he has been pulled over by police and he says he’s prepared to deal with them because of his own experiences and he doesn’t regret any of them.

“I’ve had a gun pulled on me, put to my head, cocked a couple of times by policemen. I had to experience racism in school. We had riots in my high school. I’ve learned through my upbringing it’s better to learn how to deal with those situations in a way that you would not get hurt and so you can live, one, to talk about it and, two, to do something about it in the future. But sometimes emotions get carried away.”

Hollins is the father of four adult children, three sons and one daughter. As a black man growing up in America, he’s lived through some turbulent times and he said he tells his sons the same thing his grandmother told him.

“I just tell them to be men, be respectful — and they are. We get looked at differently. There’s a lot of years of propaganda and imagery and brainwashing that has all of America believing certain things about certain people and especially about black men. I still see it all the time.

“I’ve experienced a lot, but I’m still hopeful for my boys and son-in-law and my nephew and the two boys that were raised with my kids that the world is better for them and that they can dream and fulfill their dreams. But it still takes work, it still takes discipline, it still takes perseverance, it still takes developing a plan from your vision. Nothing’s easy.”

Hollins’ mother died when he was 8 years old and he was raised by his grandmother in Las Vegas.

“My grandmother had an eighth-grade education,” Hollins said. “Taught herself to play the piano. She could reupholster your couches and chairs and all of that stuff. She only did it for herself. She could’ve had her own business, but it wasn’t a time that she was going to be given a loan to have her own business. We also boarded black entertainers because black folks at the time weren’t allowed to go out on the Strip or live on the Strip.”

Hollins maintained his residency in Memphis since the Grizzlies moved to Memphis.

I enjoy the city of Memphis, I enjoy the people, I have a lot of friends,” Hollins said. “People have been gracious to me and my family, and individuals have taken me under their wing and mentored me, and introduced me to so many people in this city. I have no desire to leave, obviously getting a job, I got to go to do my job, but I don’t have to sell my home, which I didn’t do when I went to New York and as soon as I was done with that opportunity I was right back in Memphis, about two weeks later.”

Hollins buys into the mantra that as a coach he has a responsibility to his players to help them on and off the court, and he is willing to help them as much as possible, if they are open to it.

“You’ve got to be a friend. You’ve got to be a psychologist. You do play a little bit of a father role. Fatherly advice.”

Former NBA coach George Karl dropped a memoir in early January but he came under fire when excerpts from Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GM’s and Poor Shot Selection were leaked before Christmas in 2016, causing controversy. Karl argued that absentee fathers can be blamed for immaturity in some players. He mentioned Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin.

“Well, everybody has their opinion and they’re entitled to it,” Hollins said of Karl’s claims, which Karl later apologized for. “I’m not going to knock George Karl because I don’t know George Karl’s experiences. I think it’s tough coaching all players, whether they have fathers, whether they have fathers and mothers, whether their fathers and mothers are together. Coaching is a tough environment. So, I could see a lot of coaches making the same comment on all levels. High school, college, pro. Because those are unique experiences.”

Hollins credits his junior college coach for molding him into the person he is today.

“If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be talking to you on this interview right now, because he took care of me,” he explained. “When I left home and went to an all-white school in an all-white city, there was a lot of reasons for me to leave, a lot of reasons. He made me stick it out and took care of me and treated me like I was his son. His wife took care of me when I had my appendix taken out. He was right there when I had my tonsils taken out. He was right there. He was the first person I saw when I opened my eyes both times I was in the hospital. He would come by the dorm and bring me broth when I couldn’t eat. He just took care of me. He gave me good advice. He wasn’t easy on me, he was tough on me and I think he gave me love but he also gave me discipline and direction because it would’ve been very easy for him, when all of the stuff I was going through, to make it make me a victim and make it seem like I was not responsible for my reactions and responses.”

Hollins enjoys watching the NBA in his spare time and has an appreciation for young players making high strides in the league.

“I think the one gratifying thing for me this year is the stars are being stars. When I look into Anthony Davis coming into being what Anthony Davis was expected to be coming out of college, it’s a joy to see. There’s a ton of guys. I’m looking at Damian Lillard. He’s not only the star of the team, but he’s the leader. You can tell he’s the hardest-working guy. You can tell he gets the guys together and gets them to be and do what they’re supposed to do. There’s always people that have good years. I think the year Russell Westbrook is having — I always felt like he was a star.

Hollins said the hardest part of his journey was “getting an opportunity.”

“There is a lot of guys I see sitting on benches that have never had opportunities, been around a long time. There’s guys who have very little experience to get opportunities to do the job. There’s other guys with very little experience who get an opportunity and don’t do the job. You see, you just want one team to believe in you. That you can get it done.

Hollins thanks God that he’s still alive, saying he’s thankful for the opportunities he’s been given.

“I’ve been blessed to raise a family, send three, now four kids to college, and that’s what life is about. For me. Enjoying life, enjoying my family. I wasn’t trying to be the best coach ever, I just want to go out and enjoy the camaraderie, enjoy the players learning and growing and seeing the joy on their faces when they have success, because as I always say, I had my time as a player. God saw fit to choose me to raise me out of that to keep me out of that life, and I’m thankful for that if nothing else. So forget NBA player, forget being NBA coach and all that, just the fact that I’ve been able to live a charmed life.”

As a member of the Memphis community, Hollins said, he’d like to see “inner-city communities gain economically, educationally, financially, to be able to support their communities a lot better, which maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t.”

“I’m a dreamer, but maybe some of the crime rate would go down in that part of the city, but, I like a lot about the way Memphis is growing and I would love to see a Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus and all those things,” he said.

Sage advice he’d give anyone seeking it from him?

“You can have whatever amount of talent you want. You can have whatever amount of X’s and O’s you want, style that you want. But it’s a process you have to go through to be a winner and be a champion. There is no shortcut in it.”

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.