When Jacque Vaughn was at the tail end of his basketball playing days as a backup point guard on the 2008 San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich helped him make a business decision.
At age 33, Vaughn, who prided himself on being “the most well-conditioned dude on the team,” could no longer keep himself in peak game shape for another season. He decided he was going to take a year off to spend time with his family, then decide later whether or not he’d give playing another go or transition into a different career.
Popovich, currently the most winningest coach in NBA history with 1,356 career victories, left the door open for Vaughn to join his staff in San Antonio.
”He said you can always come and shadow, follow, be around us and figure it out along the way,” Vaughn recalled. “And that’s kind of how it started.”
It’s been a roller-coaster ride of a coaching career for Vaughn, whose 58-158 stint as a young head coach of the Orlando Magic left most with more questions than answers.
Ahead of the first matchup between Vaughn’s Nets and Pop’s Spurs this season at Barclays Center on Monday, both coaches reflected on Vaughn’s path to coaching the hottest team in basketball, with the Nets entering the New Year on an 11-game winning streak.
“I’m in this position because of him,” Vaughn said. “He saw something in me as a player, saw something in me when I was done playing, to have me a part of that organization, to share an office with him to see how he prepared for regular season games, for playoff games, for shootarounds. To see how he cared for my family, to see how he’s still a mentor to me — I can call and talk to him about my kids, my wife, my job, all of the above.
”So very important person in my life, and I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Popovich said he spoke to Vaughn after he officially succeeded Steve Nash as the Nets’ full-time head coach after the team parted ways with Nash following his 2-5 start to the season. Pop’s only reservation for Vaughn, at this stage of his career, is the long, graying beard protruding from his jawline.
”The thing about Jacque is he doesn’t want the camera and he’s not going to seek attention,” Popovich said. “He’s a quiet dude. He’s very contemplative. He thinks things through and he’ll have a sort of peace that engenders respect.
“He doesn’t do anything unnecessarily. He’ll have standards, he’ll hold them accountable. He know what he’s doing. So I think with the experiences he’s had taking over now, it’s really a position. Not sure about the beard, though.”
The legendary Spurs coach said there were things he saw in Vaughn as a player that he knew would lend itself on the sidelines. He cited Vaughn’s natural basketball IQ for a non-star level player as one of the attributes he knew would translate to coaching.
“He knows what’s going on,” Popovich recalled after strolling the New York City streets for 80-to-82 pregame blocks with pit stops at three different restaurants ahead of tip-off on Monday. “He wasn’t the most talented player in the world, and usually those guys have to figure out how they’re going to make a career for themselves and what they’re gonna do to become important to a team, and what is important to a team and what makes you a valuable teammate, and you can see that in a lot of guys that are coaching now and he’s one of those.
“He just intrinsically understood what’s going on: time, space, clock, score. He engendered the respect of his teammates because of the way he played and the example he set. All those sorts of things.”
Vaughn has already commanded the respect of his players in the locker room. Most notably, Kyrie Irving, who suggested on a podcast before ever playing a game in Brooklyn that the Nets don’t need a real coach, said he learned some things from Vaughn since he took over as head coach.
“He adds a level of — I don’t know if it’s comfortability — but he gives you an ease when you come into the locker room, nothing’s forced,” Irving said. “He’s not too high or too low. He’s just holding himself to a high standard and exemplifying what a leader should look like. So as our head coach, as our leader, I think I’ve been able to learn some things from him, and that’s just being able to have relationships with everybody and being able to get the best out of everybody, and that’s just been the lesson for me.
“I felt like this year, learning how to get the best out of everybody instead of trying to do it all yourself or trying to overthink the game. When you’ve got good pieces in that locker room, good coaching staff, the level of play should raise and it should get easier.”
Perhaps Vaughn has been able to connect with players on a championship roster because his roots were planted in a championship organization.