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Willie Green, New Orleans Pelicans coach, realizes potential others saw in him

One of seven African Americans who landed an NBA head-coaching job in the offseason, Green reflects on his journey and how his uncle envisioned his coaching path before anyone

PHOENIX — Willie Green’s wife, Terrah, and NBA head coaches Monty Williams and Steve Kerr believed he could become a head coach in the league before he did.

But when recalling his path — from playing basketball in a tiny church gym to being a second-round NBA draft pick to becoming the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans — Green said it was his uncle Gary Green who envisioned it before anyone.

And with tears welling up in Green’s eyes, it pains him that his uncle isn’t here to see his prophecy.

“My uncle predicted a lot of this stuff before it even happened,” an emotional Green told The Undefeated from the Pelicans’ team hotel on Monday night. “He was talking like, ‘Man, your second career is going to be better than your first.’ He used to tell me that while I was still playing.”

Green was officially named the Pelicans’ head coach on July 22 shortly after the conclusion of the 2021 NBA Finals, which marked the end of his tenure as an assistant coach with the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns. He began his coaching career as an assistant under Kerr with the Golden State Warriors in 2016 and won two championships during his three-year stint.

Green next joined the Suns under Williams, Green’s former coach, in 2019. Green, the 41st overall pick in the second round of the 2003 NBA draft, played 12 seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, New Orleans Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, LA Clippers and Orlando Magic.

One of seven African Americans who landed an NBA head-coaching job in the offseason, Green has yet to coach 2021 NBA All-Star forward Zion Williamson due to a foot injury and 2020 NBA All-Star Brandon Ingram has missed three games due to a hip injury. Although Green’s young Pelicans enter Friday’s game against the Warriors with a 1-8 record, the franchise believes it has the right head coach to turn things around.

“He is very similar to myself in his coaching approach,” Ingram said. “He sits back and observes. He says something if he feels the need to teach something. He voices it, but he lets the guys make their mistakes and try to figure it out on the fly. He knows that being a player, we have a better eye on the floor, and he lets us use our eye rather than drive a ship all the time.”

Said Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin: “He’s been remarkable. I feel badly because he’s in a position where everything has to go perfect. But he’s really, really been good in terms of the spirit he brings every day and the buy-in he engenders.”

Willie Green (left) with his uncle Gary Green (right), who died of a heart attack at age 64 in April 2020.

Willie Green

Green’s foundation as a coach was built by his beloved uncle, Gary Green.

Gary Green was a former Eastern Michigan University basketball star who taught the game to his nephew, Willie, and many other Detroit kids. He coached and mentored countless Black Detroit boys and kept them off the streets by opening a cafeteria/small basketball gym at Greater Grace Temple Church at night. Once it was time to go, Gary Green packed as many as 16 kids in an old church van to give them a ride home, if needed. After dropping the last kid off, he worked the night shift as a Wayne County, Michigan, sheriff’s deputy. Gary Green coached his nephew on his AAU teams and as his head coach at Detroit’s Cooley High School during his senior year.

“More and more as I get older, I understand what he was investing. Not just me, but it’s a ton of kids in Detroit that he helped go to college. He had been doing this all his life,” Green said.

Gary Green continued to be Willie’s biggest fan, mentor and confidant during his NBA playing career. As Green’s playing days were winding down, his uncle kept telling him that he would have a bigger impact when he retired.

“He just had that type of discerning mind, where he was a praying dude, a pastor, so he would always throw it out there,” Green said.

Kerr also believed Green had potential to be a coach while he was playing in the NBA.

While Green was a reserve for the Clippers from 2012 to 2014, Kerr regularly would have long conversations with him before games when the latter was an NBA analyst for Turner Sports. Kerr was very impressed with Green’s basketball IQ and calm demeanor and had him in mind after he became the Warriors’ head coach in 2014.

“Willie was a mature guy and I asked Grant Hill about him. I said, ‘Is he as good of a guy as he looks?’ Grant said, ‘Even better.’ So, he was on my radar back when he was playing and when I was on TV, I kept a list of guys that made sense for my coaching staff,” Kerr said.

Green’s NBA career came to an end after he played with the Magic during the 2014-15 season. He had 731 games under his belt. He said he knew his time was up when he was asked to try out for teams at the age of 34 against much younger players in the summer of 2015.

“There was a bit of depression because it was like breaking up with your favorite girl,” Green said. “This is something that you love. Something that you’ve done all your life and then all of a sudden it’s you’re not a part of the club anymore. You can’t go to the locker room, you can’t get on the bus, you can’t go to the plane.”

The 2015-16 NBA season was coming to an end without Green in it when his wife literally gave him a nudge to put his hat in the coaching ring. The Warriors, Clippers and Denver Nuggets had interest in hiring Green as an assistant. Ultimately, it was the connection with Kerr that led him to Golden State.

“We were in a car one day and it was early April, and she just hit me with an elbow and was like, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ She was like, ‘The regular season is getting ready to be over and people are going to start looking at who they want to get on their staff and all this and so you need to just get with it.’ And one thing led to another and I was blessed to get an opportunity with the Warriors,” Green said.

In three seasons with Golden State, Green said he also learned a lot from Kerr and a staff that included former NBA head coach Mike Brown, longtime NBA assistant Ron Adams, then-assistant coach Jarron Collins (now with New Orleans) and assistant coach of player development Bruce Fraser. In hopes of growing further as an assistant coach, Green joined Williams’ staff with the Suns in 2019.

On April 24, 2020, Willie Green said, he and his uncle had an amazing two-hour conversation where the latter made a point to tell his nephew to help as many people as he could. Two days later, Gary Green died of a heart attack at the age of 64 during a drive-by college graduation party from Eastern Michigan University for his niece, Precious, during the pandemic.

“I was talking to my brother on the phone and I heard my uncle in the background when my brother pulled up. My uncle said, ‘Hey, what’s up, nephew?’ And my brother said: ‘Hey, I’m going to call you back. I just pulled up.’ Click. My brother called me back, maybe an hour later, and that’s when they said he had a heart attack,” Green said.

Said Williams: “I just know how it hurt him. You can tell how much a guy loves another person and how much they meant to them based on the emotion that comes with that kind of change. Willie is not the kind of guy that shows a lot of emotion unless it hits him in the heart.”

Unbeknownst to Green, his uncle’s vision of him making an impact in his second career was starting to come to fruition in Phoenix.

Williams said although NBA teams with head-coaching openings began inquiring about Green last season, he still didn’t envision himself being a head coach. Williams said that Green’s poise, respect, the relatability he received from players and high basketball IQ was attractive to teams. Green interviewed for head coach openings with the Pelicans, Magic, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards while the Suns were in the postseason.

“I said, ‘Dude, you’re going to start getting some calls here soon,’ ” Williams said. “He would be like: ‘I’m good, man. I’m learning. This is the best place for me.’ That would be his comment almost every time. I was like, ‘Willie, you got a chance to be a head coach, man.’ He’d be like, ‘Monty, Terrah is happy. I’m happy. If it happens. …’ He was really patient.

“That is why he did so well in the process, because he wasn’t really chasing it. He didn’t do the normal things guys are doing to go after jobs.”

Said Green: “My head was just down, like, ‘OK, I’m going here, because I want to be the best that I can be in my role.’ I’m here to support Monty.”

Head coaches Willie Green (right) of the New Orleans Pelicans and Monty Williams (left) of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of an NBA game at Footprint Center on Nov. 2 in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Pelicans 112-100.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Griffin said Green sold the Pelicans on him “as a human being” during an introductory Zoom call that lasted just short of an hour with himself, Swin Cash, vice president of basketball operations and team development, and general manager Trajan Langdon. After that call, Griffin reached out to two of his close confidants, Kerr and Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue, and he also spoke to Williams about Green. The common denominator spoken by the three head coaches was that Green had a “different presence.”

The Pelicans wanted Green to come to New Orleans to interview face to face for the head coach opening, which was proving challenging with the Suns still in the playoffs. Williams, a former Pelicans head coach, Suns owner Robert Sarver and general manager James Jones granted Green permission to go to New Orleans for two practice days after the Suns advanced to the NBA Finals.

“These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” Williams said. “Anytime you get a chance to get ‘a’ job in the NBA, I think you should be afforded that opportunity in any kind of move. If a guy has an opportunity that he wants to look at, I don’t care what the season is, the moment or where you are, it could be life-changing for him and his family. It was done for me. Pop [San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich] did that for me. Everybody I worked for did that. It was an easy call for us.”

Green got a call from his agent Marc Cornstein that he was offered the job during the NBA Finals and he accepted. It was a poorly kept secret during the NBA Finals that the Pelicans planned to hire Green as their head coach. Green was focused on the Finals, but he certainly was excited about what was next.

“In my own mind, I’m saying, ‘Man, is this really happening?’ Because it was quick for me,” Green said. “It was only my fifth year being an assistant coach. But quickly I started to come to the realization that like, ‘OK, this is probably going to happen and I need to finish Phoenix and just be prepared to go right into it.’ ”

On July 16, Williams congratulated Green after practice in front of the players in preparation for Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Phoenix. Green was overcome with emotion and gratitude for the Suns’ salute.

“It was meaningful. He was a guy that helped us start our program and he meant so much to Book [Suns All-Star Devin Booker] and to me. It was real at that moment that he wasn’t going to be with us after that,” Williams said.

Said Green: “It was great. I was emotional. It’s still emotional.”

Green began calling players shortly after the NBA Finals ended and quickly connected with stars such as Williamson and Ingram, as well as the role players such as journeyman Garrett Temple. Ingram says he regularly has great basketball conversations with a similarly laid-back Green. The Pelicans have had a very tough start to the season, but Ingram says they are in a positive state of mind because of their new coach.

“We’ve connected well,” Ingram said. “It’s never anything scripted. It’s never anything really emotional. Whatever we saw in previous games we will come to each other and talk about the game a little bit. It’s good to get feedback from somebody who actually knows the game.”

A year earlier, the NBA was scrutinized for its lack of African American head coaches in a league that was 85% Black. Now, 13 of the 30 NBA head coaches are African American. Temple said he was “excited that a young, Black former player had a chance,” and it played a role in him wanting to come to New Orleans.

“His approach is something that is very palatable for the guys,” Temple said. “It is something that they can accept, especially the younger guys, in today’s day in age. The softer touch makes it easier for guys to take criticism and teaching. He has the ability to still point out things, but in a manner that you won’t be defensive at all.”

This week has been a reunion of sorts for Green as he coached against Williams and the Suns in Phoenix on Tuesday and coaches against Kerr and the Warriors in San Francisco Friday night. The only person missing is his beloved uncle and first coach.

“I’d just like to say, ‘Thank you,’ and give him a hug, because I understand what he was doing and saying now,” Green said.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.