Luke Walton's smart choice: Memphis
It began when he heard the words, "You may never play basketball again."
You know Luke Walton. So you should have expected something like this. In this epidemic of NBA players doing obscure, unnecessary jobs to avoid being stuck in million-dollar homes playing themselves 18 hours every day in the advanced-issued EA Sports' "NBA 2012: The Lockout Version," he went a direction other players weren't conscientious enough to go.
NCAA. University of Memphis. Assistant men's basketball coach. Younger players. Suits. Ties. Clipboards. Benches. Teaching. Passing on wisdom.
Different. He's always been different, thought differently. Maybe that's his father, Bill Walton, in him, maybe that's just who he is; who he's become over his 31 years of dedicating his life to this game. Maybe once he heard those six words everything became different.
Hours after going through his first official workout with the Memphis team, Luke describes the process. What got him here.
"I never really thought about it," he says to me over the phone. "Well, let me backtrack..." He gathers himself, mentally goes back to when has was a staple in the Lakers organization's game plans. "You know, I had a back injury, it was pretty serious. There was talk of me never playing again. I was out for a while and during that time I got depressed. I started not being myself. I'm usually the guy on the team that's always engaged, always talking, getting the guys ready. The injury gave me, I had a lot of downtime to reflect on my life.
"The only passion I ever had was basketball. And there were times where I felt that that was being taken away from me. Phil Jackson noticed how depressed I was, how I became quiet and to the side. I saw where I was going. So to keep me from being depressed, to keep me sane, he let me into all of the coaching sessions. He let me into their circle."
The coaching sessions. Where Zen happens. Where epiphanies happen. After spending time with Jackson and Co., Walton "knew this was what I wanted to do once I finished playing." It solidified the respect he'd gained for the profession previously at NBPA coaching clinics.
And that respect grew into something more. A passion. A passion that other current players have yet to find. Kobe Bryant (apparently) has interest in playing in China. Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Pau Gasol have been connected to Australia. Kevin Love turned to pro beach volleyball. Blake Griffin is interning at Will Ferrell's website Funny Or Die. Paul Pierce entered the World Series of Poker. Ron Artest is so bored, he's changing his name.
Nothing against the players who are using Goodman League (D.C.) and Drew League (L.A.) battles as their Plan B's, or are trying to get their girlfriends on "Basketball Wives: LA" to collect a check during the lockout, but Walton is on another level of self-sufficiency. His vision may be because he is a 31-year-old who has been taught John Wooden wisdom since he was born.
Plus, he needed a less-physical, more mentally challenging way to remain connected to the game he loves.
Over the last two years playing basketball has been the bane of his existence, the beast of his burden. His career was beginning to bottom out. He played a total of 83 games, averaging around 2 points per game and just over 1 rebound. In the most recent playoffs, Walton played a total of 4 minutes. On ESPN.com's NBA player ranking, he ranked 318 out of 500.
In the 20-plus years I've been covering the game, Grant Hill and Vince Carter are the two players whom I felt had the gift to become coaches after I observed them "mess around" with coaching (Nike camps, celebrity pickup games, AAU tournaments, etc.). But great players -- or players with great careers -- usually don't turn into great coaches, Lenny Wilkens being an exception.
None of us have had a chance to observe Walton in any coaching situations. So it's hard to tell whether he'll succeed. Like others who have transitioned from the court to the bench, he will have to learn and work if he wants to join the full-time ranks of pro alumni now coaching such as Nate McMillan, Brian Shaw, Byron Scott and Scott Skiles (all currently head or assistant coaches in the NBA) and Rod Strickland (a former NBA player who is an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky).
Walton's friendship with Memphis head coach Josh Pastner is the truth to why he is there. The days together they shared as players under Lute Olson while at Arizona created a bond and the comfort level to offer a job to a man who might have to walk away to rejoin his pro employer in the middle of the college season.
These two true basketball junkies (coincidentally, they both majored in family studies at Arizona) have a love for the game that probably few around them understood. Two kinetic spirits, drawn to something intrinsic that most other players around them missed because they were too busy trying to find themselves on the court, too busy trying to make the League pay attention, too attracted to the NBA instead of the game of basketball.
"I have an amazing opportunity to coach college kids while still playing," Walton says. "Without the lockout, this couldn't happen."
But different -- being different and doing different -- is never an easy sell.
On Petros and Money's radio show, Walton was asked about the 800-pound tiger in the room: Was joining the coaching staff at Memphis a hasty decision?
"It could be," Walton said. "That's part of the reason I took it, just to kind of get a feel for it. Obviously, I made some phone calls to some people before I said yes, to get their advice on it. Most everyone, including my old coach, Phil Jackson, thought it was a great opportunity for me and something I should do just for that reason, to find out maybe I hate sitting in gyms blowing whistles for three hours a day when I could be down in Manhattan Beach. But maybe I'll love it."
ESPN TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott took it further, zeroing in on some who acted surprised by the move.
"People act like it's weird for Luke Walton, at 31, to be planning what he'll be doing for work when he's 40. Holy mother of treating players like little kids! The rest of us have to start planning and working towards building a long-term career from age 18 or so. 31 is a fine time to think a decade or more ahead. And don't try to sell me some story about their income! Plenty of athletes end up broke, and the antidote to that is some kind of plan like this, which ought not be treated as odd. It's smart."
It's beyond smart. He's using his current professional situation to get a head start on his NBA afterlife. I asked Luke point blank, "What do you want to get out of this? When the lockout is over and you leave the University of Memphis, what do you want to leave there with?" He put in perspective a life's journey that prepared him for this and exposed how this is far beyond his just doing something to pass the time until the lockout is over.
"What I came here for is to teach these young kids, to help them realize and reach their dreams. I've been blessed to have had Lute Olson and Phil Jackson as coaches; I want to leave [the Memphis players] with that knowledge [I've picked up along the way].
"Selfishly," he adds as a caveat. "I'm doing this to find out if I want to do this at the college level, or do I want to one day coach in the NBA, where it's basketball all of the time."
It must be nice to be able to make ingenious post-career decisions in the middle of a career.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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