NBA coach hopeful Robert Pack relishing chance with BAL’s Rwanda Energy Group
The longtime NBA assistant is excited about the opportunity to lead: ‘I’m here, and I want to take full advantage’
DAKAR, Senegal – Perhaps one day Robert Pack will get his opportunity to be a head coach in the NBA or at an American college. But as he gazed from his hotel balcony in the city of Kigali, Rwanda, the former NBA player and assistant coach said all he was focused on was the opportunity the Basketball Africa League gave him to finally be a head coach.
“I’m here, and I want to take full advantage,” Pack told Andscape. “I don’t want to think about something else because then I can’t give all of myself to these young guys and take in the full experience of me being a head coach. They can’t get the best from me if my mind is elsewhere. So right now, I’m fully locked into helping these guys reach the highest level, both individually and as a unit. And after that, I’ll think about that.
“But right now, to be honest, I’m here. I’m not thinking about anything in the past, what’s ahead. I’m thinking about right now and trying to have fun, enjoy this experience and have success.”
Pack was named the head coach of the Rwandan professional basketball club Rwanda Energy Group (REG) on Feb. 17. REG opens play in the second season of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) on Sunday here against Morocco’s AS Sale. The BAL head-coaching opportunity is the first for Pack, who has been an NBA assistant for 12 seasons — most recently with the Washington Wizards from 2018 to 2021.
Pack joins Al Harrington, who is an assistant coach with the South Africa Cape Town Tigers, as the only two former NBA players coaching in the 12-team league.
“I’m always in the mode of teaching, especially people that really want to learn the game and then at the same time compete,” Pack said. “So, I thought it was a chance for me to grow as a coach and get an opportunity to be a head coach.”
Pack wasn’t a McDonald’s All American or heralded recruit when he played basketball in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward at Alfred Lawless High School before going to Tyler Junior College in Texas. Next, the point guard landed a scholarship at USC for Hall of Fame coach George Raveling, where he averaged 13.4 points and 5.6 assists from 1989 to 1991. Pack, however, went undrafted by the NBA in 1991.
Pack was invited to the Portland Trail Blazers’ training camp in 1991 and beat out veteran Walter Davis for the last roster spot. That sparked an NBA playing career with the Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Washington Bullets, New Jersey Nets, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets and Minnesota Timberwolves from 1991 to 2004. Pack’s career highlights included dishing a career-high 22 assists in a game, dunking on Michael Jordan, playing on the Nuggets team that upset the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the 1994 playoffs, and averaging a career-high 18.1 points for Washington during the 1995-96 season.
While Pack said he didn’t get to shake NBA commissioner David Stern’s hand during the 1991 NBA draft, he is very proud of what he accomplished, going from undrafted to playing in 552 games.
“I was not only able to fulfill my dream of playing in the NBA, but also become a starter and compete at the highest level against some of the greatest to ever lace them up,” Pack said. “I think about all the undrafted players every draft night. I hope they all stay confident and ready for their opportunity to get into training camp with the right organization and prove that they belong.”
Pack finished his playing career in Lithuania during the 2004-05 season. In 2008, he decided he wanted to get into NBA coaching and took his lone opportunity as an assistant coach with the G League Rio Grande Valley Vipers. NBA teams were impressed by the passionate way Pack worked out prospects during the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago in 2009. Pack landed his first NBA assistant coaching position with his hometown Hornets before the 2009-10 season.
Pack served as an assistant coach with the Hornets, Wizards, LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans, and played a big role in the development of Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, as well as former players such as Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton. But when the Wizards fired head coach Scott Brooks after the 2020-21 season, Pack lost his job as the team’s offensive coordinator, too.
Pack didn’t land another coaching job with an NBA team before this season but was happy for the seven Black coaches who landed head coach gigs last offseason.
“I definitely feel that I’ve put my time in and paid my dues,” Pack said. “And what I do is continue to work. The opportunity hasn’t been presented to me for some head-coaching opportunity, but I don’t let it get me down. …
“I’m happy for every young coach, particularly young Black coaches, that got the opportunity. We’ve been fighting for that and [I’m] happy for each and every one of them, and I hope it continues to push forward, that those numbers continue to rise.”
Pack spent his unexpected free time visiting basketball staff with the University of Arkansas, Arkansas Little-Rock, the University of Oregon and Vanderbilt. He watched high school games in Los Angeles and New Orleans. But his coaching career took a unique turn when he heard about the REG job from Raveling and Egyptian Basketball Federation men’s basketball head coach Roy Rana.
“I thought it was something that was intriguing. I still needed to talk to the team to see if it was something that would work and what it all consisted of,” Pack said.
Pack interviewed for the REG head coach opening with the club’s president, Francis Murindabigwi, and landed the job. BAL president Amadou Gallo Fall said he was “superexcited” about Pack joining his league.
“I have had the great pleasure of working with Robert when he played for the Dallas Mavericks and followed his coaching career on NBA benches,” Fall said. “We are looking forward to having him share his top-flight experience, expertise and values with other coaches and players in our league.”
Pack also called former Nuggets teammate Dikembe Mutombo for his blessing before taking the Rwanda job. Mutombo, a native of Congo, is a Basketball Hall of Famer who is one of the greatest players to come out of Africa. The longtime NBA ambassador to Africa said he had wanted Pack to visit the continent with him for years.
“I said: ‘Robert this is a great opportunity. You are finally coming home. They will treat you like royalty there,’ ” Mutombo told Andscape.
Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said Pack and Harrington becoming coaches in the BAL could play a role in them one day getting a head coach opportunity in the NBA.
“It’s a great opportunity and great journey for two former players to go to the African league and help,” Kidd said. “Robert has been coaching, but to be a head coach is a little different. It’s a great journey and they will come back better. And one day they will be in this seat as head coaches.”
Pack’s REG plays in the Sahara Conference’s group phase at the Dakar Arena from Saturday through March 15. The Nile Conference’s group phase will take place in Cairo April 9-19. The top four teams from each conference will qualify for the BAL playoffs, which will feature a single-elimination tournament and finals at Kigali Arena in Rwanda May 21-28.
Pack’s new head-coaching experience and connection to the NBA through the BAL could help him return to the NBA or potentially attract interest for a college head-coaching job. But for the moment, he is truly enjoying being in Africa, teaching his eager-to-learn players and assistant coaches, and is focused on the challenge of being a first-time head coach.
“It’s obviously an aspiration of mine to be a head coach,” Pack said. “And for it to come in this way in Africa, the continent, a place I have always wanted to visit and never gotten the chance to … I am able to be a leader of men, particularly young men that have aspirations of having success in this game.
“But as I get here, I look at them, and they not only have the aspiration of getting to the top level, they embrace the work and the grind that it’ll take to reach those levels. And for me as a coach, any coach, but for me to get into it the way I’ve had to get into it, that really excites me. So, to be able to have a group that is willing to accept that grind, that really fuels me even more as a coach.”
Off the court, the 53-year-old says, he is also enjoying being in Africa after finally getting here for the first time.
From the moment Pack arrived in Africa, he said, he’s been blessed with kindness. Ambassador Sheikh Saleh Habimana helped him through customs upon his arrival. A chef at Pack’s hotel in Rwanda makes him fish dishes to support his pescatarian lifestyle. And Pack has also enjoyed meeting locals on the beach in Dakar.
“It’s a change because I’m going to be here for such a little time, but also it’s something that I embraced because I get to really dig into the culture,” Pack said. “I get to find out things that I don’t know. I’ve already learned from people telling me things. I’m trying to soak it all in, learn a few words of the language.
“It’s something that I’m looking forward to. It’s not something I have to rush. I can really breathe and try to take it in and learn as much as possible about the culture.”