Friday, August 26, 2011 Updated: August 29, 1:38 PM ET
Luke Walton now coach Walton
By Dave McMenamin ESPNLosAngeles.com
Having played in four NBA Finals in his eight-year career, Luke Walton's calendar in June was usually booked solid.
But an unexpected sweep by the Dallas Mavericks this past May suddenly left the Los Angeles Lakers forward with all the time in the world.
He wouldn't be playing in Detroit, or Boston, or Orlando (or Boston again), so Walton booked a trip to Virginia to coach some of basketball's brightest young talent at the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 Camp.
Luke Walton has played in four NBA Finals in eight years in the NBA with the Lakers.
"I had been wanting to go," Walton said. "We have the NBPA meetings every year and they come and they tell us about different [things they offer]. They have one for coaching, they have one for if you want to be in the front office ... I kind of always told them I'd be interested in doing it but every year they're [held] in June and we've been in the Finals the last three years. So, this year was the first year it opened up."
They say when one door closes ...
Walton spent the week there with former Lakers teammates Brian Cook and Chucky Atkins, along with fellow NBA players Raja Bell, Royal Ivey, James Posey and Gary Neal, passing out pointers to America's next wave of basketball phenoms.
Then came a phone call from University of Memphis men's basketball coach Josh Pastner, or as Walton knows him, his former teammate and coach at the University of Arizona.
"[Pastner] had found out I was [at the Top 100 Camp] so he called me and we were talking and I was telling him how much fun we were having and I kind of apologized for being such a d--- to him when he was my coach," Walton said. "It kind of put a new perspective on things."
Pastner wasn't calling just to catch up or to rehash his and Walton's glory days on the beer pong table, either.
He needed a coach for his staff at Memphis. Walton, locked out of his job as an NBA player, needed a new cup to pour his love of the game into.
And so, on Saturday, Walton will shed his Lakers' purple and gold for the Tigers' blue and white to coach college kids in Memphis on the first day of individual workouts for the 2011-12 NCAA Division I basketball season.
He'll take the knowledge gained from playing with Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol, two of the best pivot men the game has seen in the past 25 years, and apply it to Memphis' Tarik Black and Wesley Witherspoon as the assistant coach in charge of the team's big men.
While Walton will be away from Kobe Bryant, perhaps the most dedicated basketball aficionado in the NBA realm, he'll reconnect with Pastner, who holds the same title in the NCAA world.
"The first couple months that I knew him in college I was like, 'There's no way this guy's for real. It's over the top,'" Walton said. "But after spending the following five years with him, I can honestly say he's one of the best people I've ever met in my life. He's up at 4-5 a.m. every morning working out, looking at game tape. He's just one of those people where his energy and being around him brings up the other energy of the other people -- coaches, players, etc."
Luke Walton's relationship with Josh Pastner began when Walton was at Arizona.
Walton said that former Arizona Wildcats Mike Bibby and Jason Terry tried to pry Pastner away from the college game and hire him as their personal coach, but Pastner wanted to be more involved in the game and not just take the easy money. Kind of the same way Walton is giving up a plush life in Manhattan Beach to start from scratch in Memphis teaching post moves to 19-year-olds.
The lockout has inspired many in the league to pursue playing opportunities overseas, made streetball leagues from L.A. to D.C. turn into NBA All-Star games, urged a gaggle of former UCLA players to go back to school and got Delonte West to apply to Home Depot, but Walton is the first to go the coaching route.
"I've had some major injuries over the last couple years and with those injuries comes a lot of time to think and a lot of time to reflect about what's going on, and from the time that I've had to think and reflect, what I've realized is that I love the game of basketball and when that day comes that my body doesn't allow me to play anymore, I want to still be involved in basketball," said Walton, who has played just 83 out of a possible 164 regular-season games over the past two seasons because of debilitating back pain. "Coaching is definitely something I want to give a shot at and this is kind of a great opportunity to get a sneak preview at it before the end of my career."
Make no mistake, Walton still has a playing career left and it remains his top priority. He is taking his shooting coach, Bob Thate, with him to Memphis and will be working out just as much to ready himself for Western Conference competition as his Tigers players will be readying themselves for Conference USA.
He has two years and $11.4 million remaining on his contract with the Lakers. While the lockout prevented him from reaching out to the Buss family, general manager Mitch Kupchak or new coach Mike Brown for their blessing on the coaching move, he is honoring his commitment to the Lakers by trying to transform his game to become the outside shooter the team desperately needs.
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"With the back issues I've had in my past, if I want to contribute and help the team, I can't play the same style of game that I used to really like to play, which was banging down low and getting in the paint and making plays and that type of stuff, as often," Walton said. "I'm going to have to turn into more of a perimeter shooter and let other people make plays and be able to be a consistent knock-down 3-point shooter, midrange shooter."
Walton shot a dismal 8-for-34 (23.5 percent) from 3-point range last season, but in his lone full season as a starter he was amongst the league leaders from deep, connecting on 38.7 percent of his 3s.
Working with Thate, who helped hone Mike Miller's, Jason Kidd's and Nenad Krstic's jump shots in recent years, gives him a good chance to make that happen again. And he might not need as much work as his shooting percentage suggests, if you respect Bryant's opinion. When asked last season to reveal something that Lakers fans might not know about, Bryant said Walton's shooting stroke was superb.
Walton is willing to try new things. His season ended in disappointing fashion and he took the extra time off to participate in a coaching clinic. His livelihood as an NBA player was put on hold by a messy lockout and he is reinventing himself as a college coach. Whenever the NBA resumes, he'll take his body that has betrayed him in recent years and teach it to do new tricks.
They say when one door closes ...
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLA.com.