The Sum of Sam

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:23 AM ET

Sun: Has the job been what you expected?

Sam: Yes. It's constant learning. I knew the pressure going into it.

Sun: What's more difficult. Being an NBA head coach or a player?

Sam: Without a doubt, being a coach. As a player you mostly worry about yourself and make sure that you understand the offence and defence and try to do the things the coach wants you to do within the framework of the team. When you're coaching, you have to worry about all that with every individual, whether the guy's playing 35 minutes a game or whether he's not playing at all because throughout the course of the season, you're probably going to use everyone at some point.

Sun: Coaches put in the huge hours. Is it tough to unwind?

Sam: It is, because you really can't shut it off until after the season. You don't sleep during the season. Even when you win, you start worrying about the next game and it's just a constant grind. That's why in the off-season, you have to just step away. After the (2004-05) season ended, for the first week, I just shut my phone off and went home. I didn't realize how tired I was mentally and physically until I got home. All I wanted to do was sleep. I didn't want to think. I didn't want to make any tough decisions. I told my wife (Anita) you've got one more week to make them. If it's not yes or no, I don't want to deal with it.

Sun: You've been called a player's coach. If that's the case, do you find it difficult to keep a professional distance from the players when you have to build them up or give them grief.

Sam: I don't find it difficult. The fellas understand that there's a distance the coach and players have to have. My guys get upset with me for some of my decisions -- not playing them enough or they're not getting enough shots, but those are decisions I have to make. They're not always going to agree with me, but I tell them, every decision I make is what I really feel is going to be beneficial to the team.

Sun: Anything about Toronto surprise you since moving up here?

Sam: As long as the fans know you're giving 100% and an honest effort and trying to do the things that are necessary to move this team in the right direction, they'll support you. I think Toronto has great fans, it's a great city to live in. The thing I tell people all the time, the reason I like it so much is, you meet people from all over the world, the different cultures and backgrounds, races and religions. And everybody is very accepting of everyone.

Sun: What about the media?

Sam: It's tough. Because it's so much. When you hear New York writers say that the media's tougher in Toronto than anywhere else ... But not tough as far as mean-spirited. Just tough because it's a constant barrage. When I was in Milwaukee, (head coach) Terry Porter would have maybe one writer come in, every other day. And he'd sit down with him for five minutes. A lot of days, he didn't have anyone. Here, there's always media. But you just have to learn to understand that the media has a job to do, you have a job to do, and you try to respect everyone. You just hope that you're quoted correctly and people treat you as fair as possible.

Sun: Sometimes the fans and the media in this city have been criticized for not being basketball savvy. Have you noticed that?

Sam: No, I think the media and fans understand. They have a lot more knowledge about basketball than most people think. They're sports fans. Just because someone never played the game, doesn't mean they don't know the game.

Sun: When did you first start thinking about becoming a coach?

Sam: It was weird. I never really thought about it. But everywhere I played people just felt like I did it naturally, I was always a team guy. I had to rely on my smarts, because I wasn't gifted athletically. I could shoot the ball decently, but I couldn't out-run people, I couldn't out-jump people. So I had to be smart and beat people to the spot and anticipate.

Sun: People must have seen traits that would translate into coaching. So what happened?

Sam: I was thinking of playing for one more year (2002-03) but then I got a phone call from my agent, who said that Ernie Grunfeld (then GM of the Milwaukee Bucks) wants to talk to you. And I'm like, 'What, Milwaukee doesn't need a small forward.' And he said 'call him and see what he wants'. Ernie said, "I have a ticket for you and I want you to fly to Milwaukee, we've got an opening for an assistant coaches job and I think you'd be perfect.' And I was like, 'Whoa. Mr. Grunfeld, I just want to play one more year.' And he said, 'Okay, let's say you play one more year. Then you're going to want to coach.' And I said yes. He said, 'Well, do you get your coaching career started one year earlier or do you go sit on the bench for one more year?' It made perfect sense. People say, you could have made the veteran's minimum, playing one more year. You could have made $1.2 million compared to $200,000. But, it got me one year closer to my dream of being a head coach.

Sun: But it must have been a difficult decision.

Sam: It was different when you got those cheques on the first and 15th (of each month). But I read a book one time that said never take a job for the money, take it for the opportunity for advancement. I knew I wasn't going to advance (anymore) as a player. My only chance was to advance as a coach. So I took the job that offered the greater chance for advancement.

Sun: And if you didn't coach?

Sam: I have a teaching degree in special education. I actually taught school for a year. I'd be teaching and coaching high school basketball, or maybe somewhere in college.

Sun: Did you enjoy the interaction with kids?

Sam: Always. I think anytime you can give back to kids, it's the greatest gift. I tell people, as we get older, they're going to be the ones who make the decisions that dictate our lives. So treat them right, raise them right.

Sun: Have you maintained relationships with a lot of your ex-teammates?

Sam: I have. I talk to Kevin Garnett very often. He and I have a relationship probably like no other. We're really close. And Chauncey Billups also. I talk to Chauncey quite often, Mike Curry, different guys like that. I don't see why because I'm a coach I can't have dinner with those guys. We went through a lot as teammates and we have developed a relationship that just can't be shaken.

Sun: You took Garnett under your wing as a player.

Sam: Yeah, but we buried a teammate together, a very dear friend, (Malik Sealy). When you go through things like that, there's a bond. Unless you've been through it together, most people just don't understand.

Sun: With all the pressure that goes with it, would you still want to be a head coach in 10 years?

Sam: There's pressure with every job. A guy working in a factory making $10 has pressure. It's just how you deal with it. I just come out and do the best I can each and every day. I try to get better, and be fair to my players, respect them as players and men, and I try to treat them the way I'd like to be treated.

Sun: Have you found that the players have changed dramatically since you left?

Sam: I laugh at that. I remember Michael Jordan came into the league and he was wearing a short gold chain and he was flashy and flamboyant. The veteran guys were mad at him, and Charles (Barkley) and those guys. It runs in cycles. When I came into the league, guys thought our mentality was different.

Sun: Why don't you think there's more zone coverage in the NBA?

Sam: I just think you have more coaches who played pro basketball. And when you played in the NBA for years, it was all man-to-man. So it's hard to switch gears and most people are going to stick to what they're most comfortable with. What hurts the zone is two things: Great outside shooting and penetration. A team may not be able to shoot, but you look at a lot of teams, they're so athletic, their one (point guard), two (shooting guard), three (small forward) or their four man (power forward) can break you down. And once you have penetration, even if you miss the shot, you're open for offensive rebounds.

Sun: Any coaches you pattern yourself on?

Sam: I wouldn't say pattern, but I swiped a little bit from everybody. I swiped some things from Larry Brown, playing for him, Flip Saunders, Bill Musselman, I learned some things from Bob Hill. Every coach I ever played for, there's something you can learn. I learned a lot the year I spent with George Karl. I learned what Terry Porter went through as a first year coach, which helped me last year.

Sun: You could have went somewhere else (Charlotte) before you came to Toronto, do you ever have any regrets?

Sam: No. I think we've got great ownership and unbelievable fans. I couldn't ask for a better situation.


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