Melbourne United head coach Dean Demopoulos has enjoyed a record-breaking start to his NBL career. His has been the best beginning to a debut head coaching season in league history – a remarkable 9-0 start that unsurprisingly delivered him Coach of the Month honours for October.
Born and raised in America’s North East, Demopoulos arrived this offseason with mountains of NBA and NCAA experience, but almost all of it as an assistant coach.
It was a fascinating appointment by Melbourne United. After all, the history of American coaches arriving in Australia and immediately taking the reins of NBL teams is a poor one.
From 1983 onwards, Demopoulos served seventeen years as an assistant to Hall-of-Fame coach John Chaney at Temple University. He then spent one season as the head coach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and then eleven seasons as an assistant coach in the NBA; nine under Nate McMillan (in Seattle and Portland) and two under Vinny Del Negro (at the LA Clippers).
To Demopoulos, coaching basketball is more than just a job or a passion, it keeps him alive.
The record-breaking coach sat down with Downtown earlier this week for a one-on-one conversation.
Coaching at the professional level in sports can be a very stressful endeavor, what is it that you enjoy so much about it?
I can breathe when I do it.
The two years I spent before I came here, I wasn’t doing it and I was having trouble breathing. I just wasn’t ready to be out of the environment… After 30-something odd years in a row I just hadn’t had enough of it yet. I have to do it to breathe right now. That’s the simple answer but it’s the truth.
You’re lucky to be able to do something for a living that you’re passionate about and that’s in you. I mean, that sounds like it’s part of your make up.
Well, a lot of times you go in a certain direction because you can’t do anything else. I really haven’t ever been very good at anything else. Maybe I’m not very good at this either but I’ve managed to make a living out of it. So it’s what I can do, what I feel comfortable doing and what I want to do.
All those years at Temple and in the NBA I imagine you never would have really entertained the prospect of coaching here in Australia… Do you ever kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘this has worked out interestingly’?
You guys here in Australia know who Christopher Columbus was right? I mean, in our country he was a very big deal…
Of course. My surname was one of the boats in his fleet.
Oh that’s right, that’s right, the Santa Maria. Well I read a quote from him once and it said: “Life has more imagination than we carry in our dreams.”
An explorer would have to think that way, but everybody’s journey can take some turns that you never quite expected. I can’t say that I never thought about coaching in a different country, I had thought about that, especially after being an assistant for a while and having been a head coach and wanting to be a head coach. I sure thought about it – not Australia in particular – but conceptually, just somewhere other than the United States.
Speaking of that journey… the legendary Coach Chaney, how important was he in your development?
A very brilliant, very smart man. A very worldly man as far as instincts. He taught me a philosophical approach that I understood from the inside out. I felt it. It made sense, it was logical. It struck a nerve. It was easy to accept because it made sense to me. I had played for a long time and didn’t have the same view of the game as he taught me. And it stood the test of time, he was way ahead of his time in a lot of things.
Between him and a guy named Jim Maloney who was a great coach also, another assistant there, who passed away in the mid-90s… between those two there couldn’t have been a better place for a coach to learn the game.
What was that approach that Coach Chaney taught you?
His philosophical approach was nuts and bolts for me. It was what possession of the ball means. What the ball actually means and how to structure an offence so that you can get a shot every time and not throw it away. And how to have floor balance so that you can get back on defense.
It was never like an offence/defense thing. In fact, I haven’t seen in the game in offense/defense for years, it’s so intertwined. One affects the other so much. Your first line of defense is the selection of your offense. It actually starts when you have the ball, in order to have an orderly retreat which is what transition defense is, its starts with the offensive patterns that you select.
And the same thing going the other way.
Exactly. But, I’ll approach it from having possession first, because I feel you have more control when you possess the most important thing in the game than when you don’t. So that’s where your philosophical approach starts, when you have it. That’s just the way he taught me. I know it sounds simple and it sounds fundamental and it is… but you know it took me 25 years to actually be exposed to it, for one, and then it took me years to really understand it and know how to teach for it to happen the way you want it to happen.
One of the things that’s been remarkable about your team so far this season, is the up-tempo style that they play versus their super low turnover count. It’s interesting that the team has learnt a lot about that from you so quickly.
So far so good. We’ve had our moments where it looks like they haven’t learnt so well.
It’s always been a little bit of a misconceived notion I think, that you can’t go fast and take care of the ball. I actually think you can take care of the ball better going fast because you shoot it quicker. But you’ve got to dance different dances. The game requires different things at different times. Right now we’re going fast and we like that but we’ve got to be able to play slow too. You’ve got to be able to change speed and change styles at certain points in a game based on time, situation and score. Right now we’re not even close to being there, in my opinion, but we’re working at it.
How difficult was the decision to move on from Temple. Coach Chaney said some things about you and his desire for you to take over when he eventually retired…
Oh you read that stuff?
Yeah, they were really powerful words from him. Was that hard?
It was very difficult, but I didn’t think that they would honour his wishes. I was at a point in my life where I didn’t want to leave it in anybody else’s hands and I had an opportunity. It was, if not the most difficult decision, one of the most difficult decisions in my life because it impacted more than just me. I grew up there. It was hard because it impacted my family.
That decision and the way things work out over time…
Well I went to UMKC (University of Missouri – Kansas City) as a head coach. That was the second hardest decision I had to make because at the end of that year, for some crazy reason, the phone started to ring. I had a couple of calls from other schools – bigger schools – for head coaching positions and I had a couple of calls from the NBA. For whatever reason, the phone hadn’t rung for a long time and all of a sudden it started to ring.
I spent that year with those kids and they did everything I asked – another team that went from averaging 17 turnovers to 9.5. We came in second to Temple that year in the nation for fewest turnovers. We led until the last game of the year. At that point I’d been to 16 or 17 NCAA Tournaments and UMKC hadn’t been to any in their short existence. I didn’t get them there either, but we had a better year. I knew that the kids there looked up to me, because of my background. I knew I could get that group to play the style that I wanted them to play and I really loved those kids.
When the NBA called, though, I knew it would be flipped. I knew that the NBA players wouldn’t feel the same way as the UMKC players felt; they wouldn’t be looking up to me. They would quite possibly be looking down because I hadn’t played at that level and I was a college coach. Quite frankly that was really a beacon for me and I realized that if I made myself uncomfortable and put myself in that position it would make me a better coach.
As far as coaching basketball and learning it, it was the best decision I’ve ever made. In terms of just the nuts and bolts of coaching. The NBA – the number of games in itself, just the amount of basketball, the saturation of your life with it – you can’t help but learn.Do you think over that time you learned more from coaches like Nate McMillan or from players like Gary Payton, Chris Paul, etc.?
That’s a great question. First of all Nate was a pretty new coach himself. He had coached, I think, about 40 games as an interim coach the year before he hired me. I felt experienced because I had coached for so long, even though it wasn’t in the NBA. Coach Chaney coached the NBA style of offense for sure and we studied the NBA after our seasons were over. So it wasn’t as unfamiliar to me as maybe some college coaches.
The players were unbelievably mature and hard-working. I was astounded by the overall motors that these guys have. Don’t get me wrong, I think we coached 16 or 17 NBA players at Temple over those years but to have 15 there all at one time, it makes it a little bit different. Guys like Gary (Payton) and Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus (Aldridge). Plus, one of my favorite players that people don’t talk about, one of the great, great, players was Brandon Roy but injury cut him down. And then Blake (Griffin) and DeAndre (Jordan).
I’ve been very fortunate and now I’ve got some fine players here and some really interesting men… I mean, there’s not too many more interesting guys than Chris Goulding.
Speaking of Chris Goulding, a lot of people have been comparing his play to Steph Curry recently but do you see any similarities between him and Brandon Roy?
I mean, they’re very different but here are the similarities: they’re both guys that aren’t afraid to make a mistake and want the big moment. They have that in common. The way they go about it is totally different and the style of play is totally different. But they have that same moxie; they want to be in the middle of it all and they’re not afraid of the outcome.
How about a guy like Stephen Holt? He has just been so impressive. We obviously haven’t seen a lot of him but he really seems to understand how to win and what’s involved in winning; the way he approaches playing defense, etc. What’s he been like to work with?
I didn’t know Stephen but I knew ‘of’ him. When I was in Portland Stephen was a high school player there so I’d watched him in high school. I didn’t follow his career very much, but when we started to put together this team and I knew that there was a possibility that Chris (Goulding) and Todd (Blanchfield) would be here, I wanted to get a point guard that the Australians would respect. And the only way to get respect is via effort – effort on the defensive end which Stephen does. But even more important than that is the sharing of the basketball.
You see, there‘s ten players, three refs, six coaches, two baskets but only one ball. It’s the only singular thing in the game. Basically our whole lives depend on that ball and what happens around it. It really does. I mean guys get paid because of that ball basically. All good happens from it and all bad can happen from it. I needed a guy who understood possession the way I would like him to and understood that he needed to get respect by passing the ball to the open man and trusting his teammates. After watching Stephen a bunch, I trusted myself and I trusted my eyes.
Last year this team had some issues with spacing and chemistry. When you’re putting a team like this together, how important is it that the strengths of the players as individuals fit together as a group?
It’s like baking a cake. First you’ve got to know what kind of cake you want. Vince (Crivelli) and I decided what type of cake we wanted to bake and we went about getting the ingredients in the proper amounts. You don’t want it too sweet and you don’t want it too dry. If you’ve got too much butter it’s too greasy, too much sugar it’s too sweet. You need the right elements in the proper amounts and luckily, barring injury, you get it right. We had really good three point shooters on the team and we got the things to fit around them and to help facilitate their shooting and to help our defensive end of the floor.
Right now it appears to be on its way to being right, but this stuff can change pretty quick. The league is pretty even I think. There are some rough, tough groups in this league. I like the direction we’re going in, but that’s about it. If we can stay in the moment with this group and squeeze as much out of each one as we can, I think that will serve us better than looking at the big picture. Just be in the moment and try not to be too concerned about what the outcome is. So far so good but, like most coaches, you’re always waiting for the shoe to drop somewhere.
Starting 9-0 brings its own challenges in terms of complacency or peaking too early, etc. This team has legitimate championship credentials so it’s obviously a challenge you’d prefer to have. What are the pitfalls that you’re looking out for next?
I’ll tell you what, the first thing is for this team to start thinking like we’ve got legitimate championship credentials. I’ll tell you why: they haven’t won one. To me that’s ‘championship credentials’ whether you’ve won one or not. If you look it up in the dictionary what does ‘credentials’ mean?
Experience, been there and done it…
Exactly right, which means we don’t have it so that’s the first thing [laughs].
The second thing is, when teams are on winning streaks the players and coaches tend to… like my mum used to say… we start to smell ourselves a little bit. People start to take little shortcuts here or there that they really don’t even realise are shortcuts. But each one has an impact somewhere along the line. That’s my job. First, I can’t smell myself and I’ve got to make sure that I’m critical of myself as far as how I prepare, what I say and how my assistants are doing their jobs.
For me, teaching from wins is always much better than teaching from losses and I’ll tell you why… If you raise your team right, your guys will feel just as bad as you do when you lose and that’s the wrong time to get on them. After wins you want to really pick them apart and show them how many ways they could’ve won better. It’s a balance because you’ve got to celebrate what they are doing well and the fact that you are winning. But at the same time, you’ve got to caution yourself and make sure your team understands that winning has got nothing to do with the score, it’s an attitude.
That’s something I learned from Coach Chaney. It’s got to do with your attitude and how you approach things and what you do. Did you play to as much of your potential as you could have? Did you fulfill what you set out to do? I don’t set out to win or lose, I set out to be in the moment and try to squeeze as much out of it as I can, with the proper preparation preceding it.
Thanks for the chat, Coach, and good luck for the rest of the season.
Any time, that was fun.