He’s a perfect example of a person who has had success through hard work and perseverance. Gradually, without much pomp, Igor Kokoškov walks the path towards the pinnacle of his profession as a basketball coach.
A little over a month ago, Kokoškov and the Slovenian national team became European champions. He achieve this in a very impressive way – a team that has never won a medal before took home the gold without losing a single game in the competition, beating perennial powerhouses like Serbia, Spain and Greece along the way, as well as the always-improving Latvia.
That was the end of a very important chapter in the book that Kokoškov began writing in 1992 as the coach of the OKK Belgrade youth squad. He worked with the younger squad in Partizan as well before moving to the United States of America, where he quickly proved himself and gave the Americans a reason to never let him go back across the Atlantic.
He was an assistant coach in Missouri and at the age of 29, he became the first person who was not born in America to become the assistant coach of an NBA team when he joined Alvin Gentry and the Los Angeles Clippers. That was the beginning of an odyssey which continues today.
As an assistant for the Detroit Pistons, Kokoškov won an NBA championship. He also worked in Phoenix, Cleveland and Orlando before joining the staff of Quin Snyder and the Utah Jazz in the summer of 2015.
At the same time, he worked as an assistant under Željko Obradović for the Serbia-Montenegro national team while leading the Georgian national team for seven years, taking basketball there to a higher level. His most recent success with Slovenia has put him in the epicenter of European basketball.
The gold medal with the Slovenian team was one of the many topics that the 45-year-old Kokoškov spoke to Sportifico about. We talked about how he created relationships within the team, how coaches should approach their players, how to deal with assistants. We even talked about the work habits of the legendary Steve Nash, motivational speeches before games and much more.
After winning the gold with Slovenia, all of the players agree and highlighted the fact that you were able to perfectly distribute roles and responsibilities within the team. How does one achieve that?
Regardless of the existing contours of the team, with the arrival of a new player and his personality, the entire structure changes and, in a way, you need to start from scratch. As a coach, you anticipate possible problems and you visualize them, you anticipate the strengths and weaknesses of your team (how you’re going to be most effective on offense and where you are going to be attacked on defense) and then based on that, you create your team’s identity. That was my foundation for the Slovenian national team as well.
We know how many players we are going to invite to camp, we know how many players are going to be attend preparations and we know how many players are going to be available for the competition and then you start solving things as you go. I don’t think it’s fair as a coach to make any decisions ahead of time, but it is your responsibility to have a basic concept – you need to have an idea of how your team can play and then assign roles based on that.
Careful with veterans
Some older players are satisfied with playing the role of a mentor, but there are many who believe that they should be playing more even as their age starts getting the best of them. That’s why it’s always a delicate situation.
“One thing that I learned from older coaches – you never invite a veteran to camp unless you have a defined role for them and you know how you are going to use them. I don’t think that you invite veterans to camp to try them out, unless they are coming back from an injury”, Kokoškov said.
Of course, it’s important in every team for people to recognize their roles, for the role to be well defined and for the players to accept them. This summer, I didn’t have a problem with the guys because I already knew all of them very well. Adaptability is also very important – I know how to put together the team, but camp and preparations for the game are there so that you can get a better idea of everything and things tend to come together themselves at that point. Not everything went according to the way I planned it out the first day, roles changed from game to game, but there was always a high level of trust.
How were you able to get the players to believe in you so much and give you full control? Not all coaches are able to achieve that.
That comes with time and is solved by the approach you have towards people – if you show respect, you will get respect in return. I always say that the team is based on the players and that the coach is there to make decisions. I was very open with the players, we worked hard to create healthy relationships and communication.
There were no problems there, but it’s not all up to the coach, it has a lot to do with the players and their personalities – our best basketball players showed their true human passions, and when the captain does that, the rest of the guys follow him.
And that’s exactly what happened – Goran Dragić was the Eurobasket MVP averaging 22.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. However, what also set Dragić apart was his role as the leader and the main supporter of his teammates. How does Dragić get along with the rest of the team and how does he behave on the court and off?
I have known Goran for a long time, back when he was a kid in his first NBA season, and he is now a veteran. His playing talent is clear to everyone, but his personality is what impresses you further – he is a normal guy, he doesn’t act like a star, he acts like part of the team and he is very easy to communicate with and never forgets where he came from and where he got his start. Money and fame have not changed him and I have a deep level of respect for him.
Also, there are different types of motivation – one type is when a player plays for a team that is paying him to play, another is when you are playing for the national team out of good will and when there’s nothing forcing you to play. That’s why I stress the fact that the players made my job easier because I could focus strictly on basketball things, and I didn’t have to act like a police officer and try to control them. I always reminded them that the freedom they have been given comes with its own set of responsibilities and that they should always keep in mind why we have gathered together and what our goal is. They received that message in the right way.
Dragić’s behaviour sets itself apart further with the fact that many people get carried away by the money and the fame – how do these types of changes manifest themselves in the character of the player and his behaviour and how do coaches deal with those types of players?
I always talk about the balance between productivity and the problems that a person creates – that balance is not only important in the coach-player relationship but in other phases of life. Many great players were not good people and that, of course, creates a problem. As a coach, you need to strike a balance – to use his playing value and try to protect your integrity and the integrity of your team. That’s where a coach’s talent and ability come to the forefront.
There are no rules, it’s important to feel the personality of someone and that’s what good coaches can do – the work you put in on the court can be learned, but you need something else when it comes to creating relationships with players. A coach must have something healthy in himself, to be able to control human relations, and that’s an area which cannot be defined because it is very individual, you need a different approach for every person.
Slovenia had some very close and exciting finishes during the Eurobasket competition – in the group phase, and then with Latvia in the quarterfinals and Serbia in the finals. Many spoke about your temperament and the fact that you always seemed to be calm on the bench – how much did that help you to make rational decisions in key moments?
It helped a lot because in that state you are completely aware that this is your job, that you have to make decisions and protect your team. In basketball, there is nonstop action, the crowd is there, the referees, the opposing players, your players… So many aspects that are attacking your brain and it is normal for your emotions to be active, but you must stay rational above all that, especially when you are the coach, because you need to be thinking about the next step, the next situation – as one of my friends likes to say – how to land the plane without crashing. The coach has a greater responsibility and there is not much acting, even though we are performing publically – the camera is on the coaches, a lot more than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago, but the coach can’t think about that, he needs to think about his decisions.
Choose the battles you need to win
Chuck Daly is a legendary American coach who won two NBA championship rings with the Detroit Pistons (1989, 1990) and won the gold with the USA team in the 1992 Olympic Games. Kokoškov shared an interesting anecdote about him with us.
“He always used to say: ‘Choose the battles you need to win.’ You can’t win every battle, but choose the right ones to fight for and the ones that you need to win in order to control the team. There is no clear formula, but there is instinct. For example, he led the Detroit Bad Boys. He once substituted Dennis Rodman, and Rodman walked off the court slowly and cursed him out so that the whole arena could hear it. However, Daly pretended that he couldn’t hear him, he was talking at the scorers table and the assistant coach asked him: ‘Chuck, did you hear what Dennis said to you?’ Daly said that he didn’t hear or see anything. Because, if he did hear or see anything he would have to react, he would have to punish him and that would probably cause a chain reaction, who knows whether it would have led to a serious conflict. This is how he won two titles and became a Hall of Fame coach.”
We talked about the mutual trust you built with the players of the Slovenian national team – what does your communication with the players look like, group meetings and one-on-one talks?
Discussions are daily, but everyone has different buttons that can be pushed – some need more independent space to “breathe” while others don’t need those types of discussions and can’t absorb them, and on the other side, there are players with a mentality that requires everyday communication and showing them love and trust. That’s why it is very individual – I have the same relationship with every player, I value all of them the same, but relationships are never exactly the same because different people function differently.
I will repeat what I said earlier, because I think that it’s very important – I give players enough freedom, because I believe they are responsible professionals, and I always remind them that freedom comes with responsibility. If that freedom is abused, there will be consequences because the team needs to be protected, and that is my role as a coach. However, the days when a coach would control everything and act as an absolutist are over.
What do your “speeches” look like before a game? Every game is different and demands a different approach, but do you focus more attention on tactics or on motivation?
It does depend on what type of competition it is, what part of the season or tournament we are in. In any case, the coach has to be flexible and get a feel for the team, because there is sometimes too much information and the players need room to breathe. When a coach stands before his team and speaks, the players are like kids in school and they feel his energy – regardless of the content of what you are saying, they feel whether you are excited, nervous, whether you believe in them or not, whether you believe in what you are saying and so on.
Sometimes it’s a motivational speech, that’s how it was before our games against Spain and Serbia during Eurobasket. We worked so much on the game and on preparing for the games during the championship that the speeches didn’t have too many instructions, it was more a message of simply continuing to be who we were up until then – why change something that’s showing positive results? We agreed to enjoy the moment because it might not happen again – in those moments it was a lot more important to say that than to repeat basketball tactics that we’ve already gone through many times before that.
The players, coaches, commentators and fans commonly talk about “chemistry” sa a key to the success of a team – how would you define that term when it comes to team sports?
You just made me laugh because I recalled the words of one of your most famous coaches who used to say: The key to success is winning. If you win, everything is as it should be – that sentence sounds as if it’s understood and that’s how it is. I’ll explain – we talk about the great chemistry we had in the generations of the former Yugoslavia, and then statements by Spanish players who were happy and motivated to play together because they had great chemistry, etc. Yes, they had the right chemistry in the team because the only question they had was which medal they were going to win.
You should look at the time out of a team that’s winning, where all the players are together and everyone is following along with what the coach is writing on his whiteboard, and then look at the time out of a team that is losing by a lot and compare the two – when losing, the players are fragmented, the are not united, that’s just the way human nature goes. It’s true that it’s very important to separate who the leaders are and who the players are that stand behind them and follow them, and to make sure that the personalities of the players are compatible and that they aren’t creating conflicts. However, a team has never existed in this world and in any sport where there was good chemistry when they were losing.
Not just in basketball, but in all other collective sports – in your opinion, what are the main personality traits that every coach needs to have?
Times change and relationships with players change with them, as well as the mechanisms of motivation and punishment. I would not be able to put those personality traits in a certain box, but the key thing is for the coach to be what he is – the only way to truly pass something along to the people around you is to believe in your philosophy and in what you are doing. Many of you like the way a coach who is always angry and anxious works, and it looks good on the court, but you can’t copy that style if it’s not in your nature – be honest with yourself and stay true to yourself.
There are so many great coaches who are completely different in terms of how they understand basketball and what their personalities are like, but they are all successful. We have coaching legends like Željko Obradović, Kari Pešić and Duda Ivković. Duda, for example, was an authoritative type – he is what he is from Monday to Sunday and he is the model of a successful coach, but that’s just one model and not everyone can be like him. Instead, we have to learn and to find the path to winning games in our own style.
Also, a perfect coach doesn’t exist, there are only coaches who are a perfect fit for certain teams and that is what general managers know best – whatever the team profile is, that’s the kind of coach they need. If it’s a young team, they need someone who is going to insist on work and discipline, but if it’s a team like the Golden State Warriors of today, all they need is someone who can focus them and keep them as relaxed as possible because that’s how they play best.
In line with this, I would stress that there is no right way to play basketball.You often hear the term “modern basketball,” but that’s actually winning basketball – who ever wins dictates the trend. I always go back to the Detroit Pistons and the 2004 championship we won, and we didn’t play that “modern basketball” style, quick tempo, up and down the court. We dictated the trend then, and now the Warriors are dictating it as champions.
Substitutions are one of the most important weapons that a coach has to influence the game. In that sense, what is your philosophy – how many rotations do you plan ahead of time and how much depends on reactions based on how the game is going?
I worked with coaches who did both. As a coach, while you are preparing for a game, you are going through various scenarios that could possibly occur. What I can control is the starting team, because I know who is starting for the opposing team as well. I know the rotation a bit for the first 10 players (sometimes eight or six), but I am flexible and completely open to having the game dictate the substitutions, because I am aware that I have to be ready to react at any second.
The most recent example where unexpected things occurred was the European championships, the game never goes exactly as you planned it, and that’s why coaches can’t strictly be tied to the piece of paper they wrote their rotations on. Of course, you are always trying to think as far ahead as possible and in as many directions as possible – what if your best player commits his third foul, what if one of your best players gets injured…
My coaching staff and I discuss these things – our job is made easier if everything goes as we predicted it would, but if it doesn’t, then we have to react quickly and that’s when it’s most important for a coach to be brave. In terms of substitutions, I think it’s much harder in a basketball game than it is in football, where the coach has more time to make a decision.
Why was Dragić on the bench at the end of the finals?
Goran Dragić scored 35 points in the finals of the Eurobasket championship against Serbia, but he wasn’t on the court for the last four minutes of the game. In the chance that Slovenia had lost, many would have probably posed the question of why their best player, even though he was clearly tired, was not on the court.
“Every decision comes with risk, in life and in coaching. You turn to reason, trust your instinct and you cannot be afraid of making a mistake. Even if we had lost, that’s not the only move that would have been analyzed, everything else would be analyzed as well – the morning practice, the rotation, timeouts… The media is not needed for that, we would be analyzing all of this ourselves. The finals are the most memorable, but we had the same situation with Goran in the game against Greece in group competition. He was equal, with seven minutes left in the game Goran got into foul trouble – he wanted to stay in, but we pulled him out, and then Nikolić went in and changed the game and that’s why we didn’t put Goran back in”, Kokoškov said, adding:
“Something I say a lot to my players is that all of my decisions are based on considering what is best for the team, it’s not based on my personal opinions nor is it related to who I like more or less. I let them know that every decision is objective and never subjective – when you put things that way, then there’s no problem when one member of the starting five (Edo Murić) because of the opponent’s profile, doesn’t play at all in the semifinals.
Rado Trifunović, a member of your coaching staff, will take over for you as the coach of the Slovenian national team – how did you function as a team with your coaching staff and how did you distribute responsibilities?
Trifunović has been in the Association for five years already and he understands the problems and the work of the national team best, Aleksandar Sekulić worked with Boža Maljković and Džikić, while Jaka Lakovič might not have that type of coaching experience currently, his playing experience and charisma are invaluable. All three are great guys – my job as the head coach is to make decisions and stand behind them, but only a dumb person can believe that he knows everything and I never present myself that way at meetings.
Cooperation was great and now we are going back to the theme of chemistry, and this is another example that chemistry is built by winning in the coaching staff as well – for example, I still talk to all of my colleagues from the golden generation 2004 Pistons, but I don’t have much contact at all with my colleagues from Cleveland, with whom we all lost our jobs together.
When it comes to dividing up the work, Lakovič and I worked more with the guards, and Trifunović and Sekulić worked a bit more with the centres. It was important to me for everyone to be involved in the practices, to show initiative and everyone was allowed to speak up about something they had noticed at any moment. Each coach took scouting the upcoming rivals up on himself, they are very responsible for our success, which can be seen also in how much respect the players have towards them.
You have worked with many of the greats – what are the common characteristics that can be seen in all of the great players?
My work with Steve Nash and Grant Hill led to a higher set of criteria, both as a player and person. When you feel their greatness, then it can get very hard to work with players who don’t share their understanding in every sense, it’s especially hard for me to see an average player who does not have their work ethic and values. With Nash and Hill, it was a situation in which the best player on the team was also the greatest professional and the hardest worker, which makes the coaches job much easier and helps the team.
There is no team that has 12 good players and 12 good people. The leaders, the alphas of the team, give meaning to the rest of the squad – when you describe any team in the world, you describe their best players and the others follow their example. Goran had a great opportunity to learn from Nash, he played with him for three years and sat next to him in the locker room, he learned from him about preparation, rituals before and after practice and everything that you need in order to be a world class player.
Steve Nash is a two-time NBA MVP and an eight-time All Star, he led the league in assists five times… It would take a while to list all of his accomplishments, can you speak a little about his work ethic?
He was always the first one on the court, before which he had a ritual in the weight room where he worked on his balance. All of the young players are just getting on the court and you see a future Hall of Famer who is already sweaty because he has already finished his shooting drills that last in between 20-30 minutes. The way he behaves at practice, the way he eats when he is on the road, and the way he behaves and works during the summer… These types of players are invaluable for a coach and young basketball players, and now in Slovenia, for example, it was very important for Luka Dončić to have such a leader like Goran Dragić by his side.
Coaches, you need to have a Plan B
With the great love that he has for his job, Kokoškov tells young people that they need to be careful above all.
“There’s a huge difference between recreation and sport, professional sports are cruel. You shouldn’t be afraid of battles and I do not want to discourage young coaches, but the NBA is the great mountain of basketball and it’s easier to see the rest of the market when you’re standing on it. That’s why I want coaches to be aware of how difficult of a job it is, how demanding and competitive and how much risk comes along with it. My message to coaches is to always have a Plan B, to finish school, to be open, because the market is very small and there is not enough money to go around in professional sports”, Kokoškov stressed.
If you were to return to Serbia to educate coaches, what are the principles from the US that you would most like to get across here?
Organizationally, they are very ahead of us. When there is so much money going around over the last several decades, that gives the ability to coaches to deal with job more studiously. They are not smarter than us, but they have better conditions than we do.
Also, the American system is very big, it starts from high school, through college to the NBA. I won’t say that all the coaches are good, but the selection is such that there are many highly educated coaches with college degrees, who are eloquent and serious about their jobs. European coaches have a good feel of the game, they know how to play their cards, and they have always had a good idea of the craft, but the US is way ahead of us because of how studious and organized they are.
You have said many times that you are only worried about what you can control – however, how much has the gold medal with Slovenia increased your chances of becoming the first European head coach in the NBA?
The timing of the Eurobasket competition was great. Everyone was “hungry” and excited for the start of the new season, and there was no basketball because the NCAA and NBA camps hadn’t started yet. There were also many NBA players participating in Eurobasket, so even ESPN 3 was following the tournament. There were many general managers and scouts in Turkey, but I was surprised at how many people from the US were following the tournament and how many messages and calls there were as the competition unfolded.
Without demonstrating any false humility, I only think about the team I am working with now and I am happy to be there and will never forget where I came from. As my grandfather Veljko always said, “there are always 100 who are worse than you and 100 who are better.” Things change very quickly in this profession and you shouldn’t be ungrateful, it could be worse in life, so I don’t want to be unhappy if I never end up becoming a head coach in the NBA. However, things aren’t the same after this summer and the tournament and I’m sure that people have a different view of me as a coach both in Europe and in the US, but that doesn’t change my stance – I’m the same coach and person that I was two months ago.