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Climbers reach top step

Vincent and Iavaroni head coaches at last

SAM VINCENT Paid his dues SAM VINCENT Paid his dues

When organizing practices for the Nigeria men's national team, Sam Vincent worried about more than pick-and-roll defense and 3-point shooting. He worried about whether the vehicle he used to pick up players would break down before it reached practice. He worried about the toll of working out on cement courts.

But by using the training difficulties to build a tough, cohesive team, Vincent coached Nigeria to the most surprising victory of the 2006 World Championships: an upset of No. 2-ranked Serbia & Montenegro, 82-75, on the opening day of group play.

"I gained an appreciation for how wonderfully everything works in America," said Vincent of his time with both the Nigerian men's and women's programs.

After stops in Nigeria, South Africa, Greece, the Netherlands, and the NBA Development League, Vincent returned to the NBA as an assistant coach with the Mavericks this season. When the Bobcats named him the second head coach in franchise history May 25, he became the first D-League coach to reach the same position in the NBA. The accomplishment was proudly recognized by commissioner David Stern as proof that the D-League can develop not only players but coaches. Vincent also became the 20th former Celtic to enter the NBA head coaching ranks.

With Billy Donovan backing out of a five-year, $27.5 million deal to coach the Magic last week, it seemed a good time to recognize the dues-paying coaches who finally earned a shot at a top NBA job. For Vincent, the D-League served as a "complete assimilation to what you do at the NBA level," while working abroad taught him how to deal with different kinds of athletes and different approaches to the game. Playing for the Celtics from 1985-87 under K.C. Jones showed Vincent the importance of valuing every player on the roster.

For Marc Iavaroni, hired as the Grizzlies coach May 31, 10 years as an NBA assistant, including the last five with the Suns, made him a fan of an up-tempo, high-energy style. Expect to see the Grizzlies borrow from the Suns' fast-paced approach.

"We want to attack the opponent," said Iavaroni. "We want to make sure that the opponent is feeling uncomfortable. We want to bring out the energy, the talent, the athleticism that we have in our players. We want them to play instinctively. They can't do that unless it's simple. I'll be a simplicity and execution coach."

A coach with less experience in the NBA might not have the confidence to advocate simplicity.

But as excited as Vincent and Iavaroni sound, the move up to an NBA head job is, in some ways, bittersweet. With the NBA Finals under way, both men expected to have front-row seats at the big event.

But the Warriors upset top-seeded Dallas in the first round, and San Antonio controversially defeated Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals, freeing Vincent and Iavaroni earlier than expected.

So instead of assisting at the Finals, Vincent and Iavaroni are busy scouting and nurturing talent. Vincent was hard to miss at the predraft camp in Orlando, sitting beside longtime friend Michael Jordan, now the Bobcats' managing member of basketball operations. Iavaroni recently traveled to Europe to meet with Pau Gasol. Like Vincent, Iavaroni has international experience on his résumé, having played in Spain and Italy.

When asked how his many coaching stops would influence his strategy with the Bobcats, Vincent referenced the European game and said, "The main thing from overseas will be ball movement. The one thing I really liked about the European style was that there's less isolated play and more ball and body movement, more guys are involved.

"It's a team sport. When you're running an offense and five guys touch it and you utilize the strengths of all five guys to create that one offensive strike, I think that's better than what we've seen when you bring the ball downcourt and you drop it into one guy and everybody else gets out of the way."

No one in Boston needs a primer on the pitfalls of the one-man game. With an emphasis on ball movement and a relatively healthy roster, Vincent believes Charlotte will be a playoff team next season, theoretically bumping Boston farther down the list of contenders.

Hunter takes aim at issues

With LeBron James dominating the headlines en route to the Finals, the controversy-riddled path taken by the Spurs has been largely forgotten, or at least charitably overlooked. Whenever asked about the suspensions in the Suns-Spurs series, commissioner David Stern defends the league's action.

The incident in question occurred at the end of Game 4 and resulted in one-game suspensions for Suns Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving "the immediate vicinity of their bench" during an altercation. After much public debate over whether the players' actions merited suspensions, Stern said he will let "the owners take the lead" on revisiting the rule in the offseason. Executive director of the Players Association Billy Hunter went further.

"It's already being raised," said Hunter. "There was a pretty loud reaction from others who were not necessarily impacted this time around. I think there is going to be some modification between now and next year."

Asked if he had any concrete suggestions, Hunter said, "Maybe there has to be some leeway whereby you're not locked in, that you don't end up forgetting about the spirit and purpose of the rule and following some kind of rigid practice, whereby if a guy goes 1 or 2 feet over the line or he steps on the court, then he's suspended for the upcoming game. I think you've got to look at what he does."

Hunter also voiced his thoughts on Sebastian Telfair, who was arrested April 20 and charged with felony second-degree possession of a weapon and a misdemeanor motor vehicle violation, leading the Celtics to remove the nameplate from his locker. If Boston attempts to terminate Telfair's contract based on what transpired April 20, Hunter said, the association would be "compelled to represent him."

"I hope that Sebastian and Boston can come to some resolution, something beyond what has already been announced," said Hunter. "As far as we're concerned, our contracts are sacrosanct and they're guaranteed.

"We wouldn't idly stand by and let it happen."

In Portland, they buy tickets after hitting the lottery

There are comebacks, and then there is the resurgence of the Trail Blazers. Even before winning the draft lottery, Portland was shedding its "Jail Blazers" image with the success of Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and the promise of rookie LaMarcus Aldridge. Now the franchise stands as a beacon of hope for all foundering teams. (You know who you are.)

But beyond the encouraging performances of young players, the numbers off the court may represent the true magnitude of the turnaround.

Before the lottery, the Trail Blazers had 92 percent renewal of season tickets. On the night of the lottery, the team's sales staff fielded ticket inquiries until 2 a.m., selling 500 season tickets that night and generating a little more than $1 million in revenue.

Since the lottery, Portland has sold 3,000 season tickets to make $6 million. It is rare for a team to top the 3,000 mark during an entire offseason.

To get a better idea of what lies ahead, Portland executives have been phoning Cleveland.

"We've been spending a lot of time with our brethren in Cleveland, finding out what they learned after they picked LeBron James," said Blazers executive vice president of business operations Mike Golub. "They had a similar dynamic with LeBron in 2003.

"My understanding was that they sold 4,000 season tickets during the offseason between the lottery and the start of the season. We're hopeful we'll be able to exceed those numbers.

"There's another interesting dynamic here. We've had a rough couple seasons. Last year was a real turnaround. The conditions were really right and ripe for us to take advantage fully of the lottery results."

The Trail Blazers have aggressively sold their city on an image change, with general manager Kevin Pritchard at the forefront of a successful PR campaign.

"A year ago, a lot of people were wondering if the Trail Blazers were going to be staying in Portland," said Brian Berger, Portland-based host of the national radio program "Sports Business Radio." "The focus was on broken economic models and not what was happening on the basketball court. So what happened a few weeks ago when the Blazers won the lottery got the attention focused back on basketball."


A smarty-pants answer
When Qatar needed a great basketball mind to motivate its men's national team before facing the Chinese team for the 2006 Asian Games championship, it called upon none other than Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. Giving what he called his best "Lou Holtz/Jimmy Johnson college football speech," Wallace addressed the Qatar team. "I told them, 'You're going to win this game, you can win it, you're prepared,' " said Wallace. "I told them to capture the moment, all those coaching clichés I've seen watching halftime speeches. To make the point that anything's possible, that there is no team that is an insurmountable power, I used the American adage that the Chinese players put their pants on one leg at a time, everybody's human, everybody's beatable, everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time." With those words, a confused looked crossed the faces of the players. "One player stepped forward and said, 'But in Qatar, we wear robes, and you have to put your robe on both legs at a time. You can't put them on one leg at a time,' " recalled Wallace. "I had no retort. I was speechless for the first time in my life. I ended the speech at that point." China defeated Qatar for the title, 59-44.

Trade action could pick up
At least one NBA executive figures the Celtics will trade the No. 5 pick before the draft rolls around June 28, and he sees Phoenix as a prospective partner. The Suns are looking to dump salary and picks. New Phoenix president of basketball operations and general manager Steve Kerr has the No. 24, No. 29, and No. 59 picks. One of the scenarios raised by the executive had Shawn Marion and the $33.6 million and two years remaining on his contract headed to Boston for the No. 5 pick and Theo Ratliff, who has one year remaining worth $11.7 million. The Celtics would throw in another player or two with one year left to make the money work -- say, Delonte West ($1.9 million), Tony Allen ($1.9 million), or even Sebastian Telfair ($2.6 million). One way or the other, Celtics assistant executive director of basketball operations Leo Papile predicts a lot of deal-making in the days and hours preceding the draft, because there are teams with too many picks and teams with no picks. Look for an organization like Indiana, without any picks, to try to deal its way into the mix.

Celebrity ball
Like many observers, Papile was surprised by the twists and turns in the Billy Donovan saga, though he has known the Florida coach a long time. Papile proposed a plan to ensure successful transitions to the NBA by college coaches. "There's no reason a college guy can't succeed in the NBA," said Papile. "But in my opinion, if I was the president of a team, I'd make sure that that college coach had at least a two-year incubation period as an assistant to learn the personnel. Because the personnel that you feared as an NCAA coach, you do not need to fear at this level. There are individuals you may not have feared as a college coach that you will have to fear at this level. It's a different game, rule-wise, structure-wise, schedule-wise." But the Papile plan doesn't address the likelihood that a college coach as successful as Donovan wouldn't jump to an assistant job in the NBA. Besides, the Magic threw money at Donovan in large part because he was a hot commodity in the state and they wanted to parlay that into attention and ticket sales. "A lot of teams are hiring celebrities," said Papile. "When you hire celebrities, just like in Hollywood, you've got to roll with the punches, the good and the bad. Billy never wanted to be a celebrity, but because of his acclaim, especially in Florida where he had great success, he became a celebrity."

Help not wanted
While NBA executives busy themselves by hosting workouts and reviewing tape of top prospects, the Players Association is preparing to welcome top high school players to the 14th NBPA Top 100 Camp. The nearly weeklong event will take place at the University of Virginia starting June 19. The camp, whose alumni list includes Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Mike Conley Jr., and O.J. Mayo, as well as enough NBA players for an impressive All-Star roster, places an emphasis on life skills as well as basketball skills. It also educates parents about what they can expect as their son's basketball career progresses. Last year around this time, Stern advocated for more youth/high school development camps with an emphasis on life/classroom skills as well as fundamental basketball skills, citing how the US system with its shoe company sponsorships and travel teams exploits promising young players. The league has held brainstorming sessions about how to better serve young players. According to Hunter, the NBA did not seek advice from the Players Association, even though the Top 100 camp has funds provided by the collective bargaining agreement and could serve as a model program. "I was surprised when [Stern] first made the announcement because they know that we've been in this business at least since 1994 and I think we really have the premier camp," said Hunter. "We were the first camp to adopt life skill training. I don't know, unless it's part of the league's overall plan to control basketball whether it be amateur or professional."
Summer schooling
Speaking of summer camps, local boys looking to learn some of the Celtics' training tricks can sign up for the Fastbreak Basketball Camp run by Celtics director of player development Michael Crotty and his father, Mike Crotty Sr., director of the Middlesex Magic AAU program. The camp will be held at the Boston Sports Club in Waltham June 25-29, July 9-13, and Aug. 13-17 for boys ages 7-16. For more information or to register, call 781-522-2054 or 617-470-3819.

Shira Springer can be reached at