John Kuester talks Pistons stint
His players staged a walkout in the middle of the season. The Detroit Pistons unsettled ownership situation created instability that clouded the better part of two years. And for nearly two months after John Kuester coached his last game for the Detroit Pistons, he had to wait uncomfortably to be fired while the sale from Karen Davidson to Tom Gores was finalized.
In other words, Kuester has every reason to feel a little apprehensive about his first trip back to Detroit since being fired. He's just choosing not to.
"I have no complaints, no complaints at all. I wish we had won more games. I wish some things could have been different. But you're dealt a certain hand, and now we go ahead and move on," Kuester told ESPNLosAngeles.com as he prepared to travel to Detroit as a member of the Lakers coaching staff.
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"The bottom line, this is a game where you've got to win, and if things don't work out the way you want them to, then obviously they make changes. But I am very appreciative to the fact that I got an opportunity. The people of Detroit were great. I wish them nothing but the best."
Since being fired last June with a 57-107 record, Kuester has not spoken publicly about his two seasons in Detroit.
Privately, he said he's had several conversations with many of the players who essentially mutinied on him by missing at least part of a shootaround before a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 25 of last year, and has mended several fences.
"It's interesting because I've known a number of those guys for a long time," Kuester said, referring to the fact that he was an assistant on Larry Brown's staff in Detroit in 2004, when they beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals. There were three holdovers from that team to the one he coached from 2009-11: Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace.
"One person I will bring up is Rip Hamilton," Kuester said. "Rip and I have a very good relationship. We had a conversation where we came to an understanding. I felt very comfortable at the end of the conversation."
While he declined to say what they spoke about, Kuester added:
"Sometimes, in all situations, it's not always what's being done on the floor. There's a lot of things that are outside that are either pulling a player to go in a different direction or feeling uncomfortable or whatever. "
Hamilton, who reportedly had several blowups with Kuester during the 2010-11 season, seems to feel the same way. He even told ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell that he hoped Kuester would get another opportunity to be a head coach someday.
"The media made a bigger deal about the situation than anything. A lot of stuff wasn't him. It was kind of over his head," said Hamilton, who is now with the Chicago Bulls. "So the media's going to always talk about it, but like I always say, you never heard any foul comments come from me. You never heard no foul comments from him.
"It was a thing (where) we talked; communication is everything. When you don't talk, people always have their own perception of a situation -- so it was a thing where we communicate, we communicate now, and I'm just happy for him for being in the situation (in Los Angeles)."
Asked what he thought of Kuester as a coach, Hamilton said:
"I thought he was great. He's a great X and O guy. A guy that can really draw up plays. He did that during the championship days when I was in Detroit with Larry Brown. Larry Brown would let him control the huddle and things like that. I think he's a great X and O (coach). Any time you have a first year head coach, it's always hard. It's always hard. But I thought that he did a great job and hopefully he'll get another opportunity."
Neither man would point directly to the unsettled, frustrating ownership situation after Bill Davidson's death in March 2009 as a reason the Pistons struggled so mightily in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.
Kuester would only address the issue obliquely and was careful to note how well Karen Davidson, Bill Davidson's widow, had treated him.
"You realize, everything starts from the top," Kuester said. "From ownership to management to coaches to players," he said. "When I was there in 2004 Mr. Davidson was one of the best owners in the league and I came a year after he had passed and Mrs. Davidson couldn't have been a nicer person to me.
"It's like anything in life, if your heart is not in your work, then you're not going to be successful. A lot of times I think we were in the middle of a lot of situations."
Davidson had hoped to sell the team before the 2010-11 season. But when negotiations with Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch collapsed, it took until last June to complete the sale to billionaire financier Tom Gores. General manager Joe Dumars has said publicly that the organization was essentially paralyzed from making moves during the sale process.
"There was a definite moratorium on doing anything," Dumars told the Detroit Free Press after Gores' introductory news conference.
Still, Kuester insisted that injuries are what sent the Pistons' 2010-11 season into a nose dive.
"No coach ever takes a job with the expectations that you're not going to win right away. But you have to be realistic," he said. "I've been in the business for 20 years and you realized that we had a number of things to improve upon.
"So we had to stay healthy and we had to have guys that are going to stay committed the entire time. Unfortunately we had a number of injuries that we hadn't had in the past."
Asked about his handling of the injuries, Kuester said, "We tried to get the most out of all the players that we had regardless of whether they were playing in the game or not playing in the game (injured). That's how we handled it.
"We approached practice every day as if that was our game and that's how serious we had to be on everything we were doing. But nah, it's like anything, you have to move on. It was a chapter in our lives, our lives being the players and the coaches."
While Kuester was left to twist in the wind for nearly two months to learn he would be fired, it didn't take long for him to find a new job with the Lakers.
Lakers coach Mike Brown had worked with him previously in Cleveland and had little hesitation about bringing him to Los Angeles and entrusting him with the team's offense. He was also being reunited with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, his former college teammate at North Carolina.
"I just know what I get from him is something that helped me in Cleveland," Brown said. "And it's something that can help me here, the biggest thing being loyalty."
Brown said he kept in touch with Kuester while he was in Detroit, but couldn't fully grasp the problems his friend was dealing with.
"It was his first time as a head coach so there's a lot to learn," Brown said. "It was tough situation. They'd had a lot of veterans that had had success there but there were a lot of dynamics going on ... in terms of of them making a change with the team and the environment.
"That's tough to handle especially when you have guys that want to and expect to win. It was a tough situation for him and everybody else there. But that's part of this business."
After everything that happened, it's hard to imagine nine months is enough time for everything to settle comfortably.
Kuester said he'll focus on what hasn't changed, though.
"I have a lot of dear friends there and I look forward to seeing those people," he said. "You've got two ways of looking at it. Are you going to work on the negative or are you going to work on the positive? I've always tried to learn from my experiences. There were great moments and there were enough trying moments that you can look at them and say, 'Wow.' "
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.