MINNEAPOLIS There he was, hunched over his little table in the corner of a gym in downtown Minneapolis, shuffling his papers and making his notes and happy to have 12 players practicing. Happy, you'd think, to even be sitting there at all.
He looked older than he had just 15 months before, when he took the Timberwolves gig, his fifth stint as an NBA head coach. His beard a little grayer, brow tilted just so as to be more furrowed, more worried, Rick Adelman stood and then talked, the tired coach of a team about to finish its second straight season under him with a losing record.
It was March 20, and just two nights before, the Heat had surged to their 23rd consecutive win with a comeback victory over the Celtics. They'd assumed sole possession of second place on the list of longest winning streaks, surpassing the 2007-08 Rockets' 22-game stretch.
The conversation with Adelman veered in that direction, but not to so much to extoll the Heat as to consult the man who'd just been eclipsed. Adelman had to weigh in on what had just happened, what was still happening, and the magnitude of it all.
Because those were Rick Adelman's Rockets, and that was Rick Adelman's streak. He did it with far less talent and a far greater force of will than did the Heat. He did it with players devoted to his system a system he'll deny exists, most days and a dusting of magic. He did it, and he moved on, and with a coach who permits so little nonsense, who's at once endearing and acerbic, who has no time for the trappings that could adorn his job, it's so easy to forget.
But that afternoon in that gym in Minneapolis, 1,200 miles from where that winning streak ended in Houston and 1,700 from Portland, where Adelman first paced the NBA sidelines, it was impossible to forget. This is one of the greatest active NBA coaches, perhaps one of the best in the history of the league however unremarkable or underrated he might appear, however short of a championship he's fallen.
Saturday night, Rick Adelman assigned a number, however meaningless, to his success. He won his 1,000th game, cementing a legacy that seems far more grandiose when conjured on pages like this one than it does in the praise-deflecting, unpretentious flesh.
"Rick, he never changed. He was that way from the first day 1 was there to the last day. He was always on an even keel. Never got too high. Never got too low."
"Being around that long, having that much success, it just shows that again, he's just very underrated at what he does, and he's been doing it very well for a long time."
Byron Scott, Cavaliers coach and former assistant under Adelman in Sacramento
"I've said it many times: I think he's the most underrated coach in the league. He's always done a great job, and he's one of those guys, he doesn't try to get the camera. He (couldn't) care less. He just wants to do his job and go home, and he does it well."
Gregg Popovich, Spurs coach since 1996
Adelman remembers his first win, when he took over the Trail Blazers job 47 games into the 1988-89 season. His first game as head coach, they lost, 116-115 to Seattle, and then the Blazers went on a four-game road trip, dropping the first three. The win came in Miami, on Feb. 26, 1989, and as the coach remembers, his players told him to relax, that they'd get this one.
It's always been one that's mattered to Adelman, the first, and then the next, all the way to now, finally, the 999th and 1,000th.
"No," Adelman says when asked whether 1,000 was ever a goal. "But one was."
He laughs, but it's not quite a joke.
"I got the team in the middle of the season, and I was just trying to get one win."
Sometimes, it's too easy to overlook Adelman due to the sheer nature of his unassuming approach to the game. The numbers show it, though: 21 full seasons as a head coach, 18 playoff berths, four trips to the conference finals, two to the NBA Finals and now those 1,000 wins. He's one of just eight coaches ever to reach the mark and has more wins than any active coach save Denver's George Karl. There's a career .587 winning percentage to note, as well, but the most striking number on Adelman's rsum may well be one of a very different nature.
There's a list of players a mile long, from Clyde Drexler to Kevin Love, who will swear by the man. He's coached all kinds, from the wildest in Ron Artest (whom Adelman still can't quite call by his new moniker) to the most endearing in Ricky Rubio, from players like Drexler, who had previously butted heads with coaches, to those like Shane Battier who are every coach's dream. Players follow him from destination to destination. They seek him out.
Above all else, they believe in what he does.
This is not a story to parse the worth of one man's career, one that may well be drawing to a close in the near future. Instead, this is the story of the later years of that career, a reclamation project that's gone haywire and the man who has stood by, buffeted by injuries and his wife's health problems. That's Rick Adelman in Minnesota, where no amount of losing should overshadow the presence of one of the game's best minds.
The Rick Adelman that Minnesota has come to know has been dealt more injuries than any coach should be dealt over a two-season span. He's been given a bona fide star in Kevin Love and a fledgling one in Rubio. He's attracted talent, from the tragic in Brandon Roy to the veteran in Andrei Kirilenko. He's guided Nikola Pekovic into a successful starting role, let Alexey Shved work out the kinks of an idiosyncratic and streaky game, shaken his head as his prized offseason acquisition, Chase Budinger, rehabbed and returned from a torn meniscus.
He was frustrated and irritated last season, frustrated but proud this one. His time in Minnesota has not been the sweet swan song many imagined it might be, but the NBA is no place for fairy tales.
"Rick, he's a great coach. He does a heck of a job. He gets his guys to play into a system. He does a great job wherever he goes. Since he's been in Minnesota, he's been hurt by injuries. But give him a chance, and get the team healthy, he'll do well."
Mike D'Antoni, Lakers coach, whom Adelman lost his job to as a point guard on the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1975
"He puts guys, I've always said this, too, even my first few years in the league and talking to him in high school, he's always put guys in the position to succeed and played to guys' strengths. In practice, he works on the weaknesses. He gets guys out of their comfort zones to work on different things. He's won at every place he's been at. He's won where he's had superstars. He's won where he hasn't had superstars. He's a special coach."
Kevin Love, Timberwolves power forward, who played in high school at Lake Oswego in Oregon with Adelman's son, Patrick
Over the course of his career, Adelman has become known as a player's coach. He's not one to overwork in practices or micromanage, and he holds no one on a tight leash. There's a certain notion of being responsible for oneself on a Rick Adelman team, of knowing the system and one's role and then meeting expectations in whatever way one sees best.
That system, at least on the court, hasn't quite taken shape in Minneapolis. The "SAC" meaning Sacramento offense (other teams call it by that name) hasn't really surfaced with the Timberwolves, with too many injuries and a healthy dose of bad luck. Cutting to the basket, fluid ball movement the tenets of Adelman's offense have more been talking points than actually put into practice, save glimpses when Kirilenko and Budinger have been healthy.
But the other system, the one of trust and responsibility and the culture of Adelman, that's installed and entrenched. This year's team is mature and accountable, if injured, and it knows what it has at the end of its bench. When Adelman missed 11 games this winter to tend to his ailing wife, Mary Kay, his return was greeted with a collective sigh of relief and what his team described as its best practice of the season. They missed him. They needed him.
And now, they got a chance to repay him.
"Just for him, just the career that he's had, for us to be able to be a part of it, obviously we wish we could have gotten (the win) a long time ago for him. Hopefully we can close this thing out and get him at least that."
Luke Ridnour, Timberwolves point guard, who has played for Adelman for two seasons.
"He deserves it. He's a great coach. One of the best, if not the best I've ever had."
Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves point guard, who has played professionally since he was 14 and on the Spanish Olympic team, seeing his fair share of good coaches.
Ask Dante Cunningham, just a week before the win comes, and 1,000 is in the back of his and his teammates' minds. They can't focus on the number, he says, because there are opponents and logistics with which to contend, but it's been lurking.
It was on March 29, after the Timberwolves' upset victory over the Thunder, when The Win became something less than taboo to discuss. After the game that night, Adelman sat at 997, and with 11 tries remaining in the season, 1,000 was looking more like a reality. And so players talked. J.J. Barea discussed how he tries to soak in every minute of playing for Adelman, how he's been watching the coach as long as he's been watching basketball.
Adelman is not a man who'll put stock in a number. (Or if he does, he'll never admit it.) But for a coach who's too often judged for having never won a championship, for having coached great teams and fallen short, 1,000 wins is something. It's a validation of his work, attesting to the fact that he's stuck in the league for this long when a lesser man or a lesser mind might have been forced out a decade ago.
There have been so many incarnations of Rick Adelman, up and down the West Coast, then in Houston, and now in Minnesota, plagued by injuries but persevering. That is the man whom basketball congratulates today, and he is who he is, of course, because of all that came before. And what's to come? That's up to him and him alone and largely dependent on the health of his wife, but it's been a coaching career in full.
Adelman's name will remain there in the record books, eighth to 1,000, right behind Karl's. His legacy will live on, through players and photographs, through an improbable streak and some epic playoff battles. Given the respect he's due, be an example for other coaches.
An example not of how to do things perfectly or easily, but of how to do things right.
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