The challenges facing Eduardo Najera are threefold after his retirement from playing last spring. His new roles include minority ownership of the NBA D-League’s Texas Legends, where the 36-year-old will also be head coach, and an unspecified front-office position with the Dallas Mavericks. The NBA’s first Mexican-born player ever drafted thus became its first Mexican-born coach under its umbrella, too, and with those already on his resume, another milestone he hopes that can be achieved is next: bringing the first NBA franchise to Mexico. If it sounds like a stacked workload, it is, Najera said in a recent interview with Dime.
Najera was drafted 38th overall by Houston in 2000, but he’s held a special place in himself in Dallas ever since his draft-night trade to the place he played the first four years of his career at. He bounced around to five other teams in his 12 years in the NBA as a 6-8 forward whose career averages of 4.9 points, 18.1 minutes, 48 percent shooting and 3.7 rebounds per game were never what made him employable. His toughness and intelligence on the court were two reasons for that, and brought him back to Dallas now, to close the circle, in his new roles.
The new part-owner/coach/consultant/dreamer carved out enough time three weeks into his second career to speak with Dime about his newest challenges.
Dime: You have three roles, really, with coaching and part-owning the Legends, consulting with Donnie Nelson and looking big picture at an NBA-in-Mexico dream. How does those work together in a daily sense for you?
Eduardo Najera: I always see there is a lot of stuff to learn but I love that there is time right now because the season doesn’t start until late November. I’m trying to get caught up on everything when it comes to the Legends. I’m trying to be a better coach so I’m going back to school and speaking to all the head coaches in the NBA, Developmental League and around college, and I’m just trying to get the right preparation so when the season starts I’m OK. In the meantime I have a lot of time talking about the players who might join the Legends and targeting them, watching a lot of film. In a way that helps me see how the team played last year and it helps me figure out the way I want to play next year.
Dime: Do you feel like you’re split between a number of roles, not getting enough time to concentrate on one thing?
EN: With the other responsibilities with the Mavericks, in fact the only thing I’m doing right now is I’m meeting with (Mavs head coach) Rick Carlisle every so often. He’s been a huge source for me and his time to help me in every possible way. The way I see it I’m like a sponge and I’m learning as much as I can. Just keep my ears open and mouth shut and now and then I’ll give my opinion but with everything said I’m loving everything right now. It’s a big, tough competition, but also you know I was used to working out and working on my body and spending a lot of time preparing. It does give me a lot of time now now that I’m not doing all those things. I’m not sure that’s a good thing because I don’t want to get heavy like some of these coaches (laughs) but it gives me a lot of flexibility. Bottom line I’m extremely happy with the position.
Dime: Were you partial to the Mavericks with your history there, or were you open to any opportunity?
EN: The Mavericks was where I started my career and when I ended my career in Charlotte it was more like a player-coach relationship. Talking with owner Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, they believed in me and I’m blessed. I made them know I wanted to be here with my family in the Dallas area and when the time is right I was going to come back and ask for an opportunity. They were so great to me and gracious and I’m really thankful. It was my dream to come back to Dallas and finish up, not only my career and to continue helping the organization and because we live in Frisco (where the Legends play). The two go hand in hand: To be a good executive you have to have the coaching ability and also to be a great coach you definitely have to know about the transactions and act as a GM or president.
Dime: I want to go back to what you said about being a sort of player-coach in Charlotte. What did that mean in practice?
EN: That’s where I really started thinking about becoming a coach. The last couple years we had a young team and they were honest with me and told me to stay ready but they needed me to be a difference in the locker room and my knowledge and speak to the younger guys. They sort of gave me that role with the team and that’s what I did. Later on there was some sort of opportunity to play because of injuries or, in fact, because last year it was to show them how to play the right way, that’s what Paul Silas asked me to do. In a way it woke me up and opened my eyes where I started thinking I could be a head coach.
Dime: I know you were reluctant to talk much about it in your introduction press conference, but you spoke about this goal of bringing the NBA abroad, and to Mexico. How much of a reality is that right now?
EN: Right now it’s far, far away. It might not even happen but obviously the doors are open to explore that possibility. Right now my job is to be the most experienced as a coach and executive with the Mavericks. I would love to learn the business side of the NBA. When the time comes I could have questions if I explore or somebody is interested in owning that possibility. I understand right now it’s far away but I’m not going to lie, every time I think about it I know that it’s possible but it would be very difficult. Especially because the last few years have been rough with our country so I think the best way to do it right now is to just go back to the basics and learn about the business. I’m still young, I have plenty of time to accomplish that. Right now I don’t feel comfortable talking about it because I want goals that are baby steps and that would become being a great coach or having an important role on the management side.
It’s been kind of a busy time, I’m sure I’m going to get the opportunity to talk with different representatives. I definitely would like to be that bridge between my country and the U.S. I’m not afraid, I would love to be that and hopefully I can be that type of guy who can introduce or give the opportunity for players from Mexico or coach from Mexico.
Dime: You played for a long time but you’ve never coached before until now. So do you find yourself thinking, what am I doing, or, where do I start?
EN: I was a rather intelligent player and that’s my prowess, but I’m just trying to learn this. I have many many ideas, I just need to be a well-organized coach. When it comes to evaluation and coaching I’ll take advantage of a few programs the NBA offers and the basics. The things I need most I took for granted, such as getting prepared for a game with film as a coach, or things I never knew about as a player. When I meet with Rick it’s more about how to get the right preparation for a team like a San Antonio. I think Donnie has stated clearly just keep things really simple and sometimes you have to go with what you got.
Dime: Do you already have a style of play you want to emulate now as a coach?
EN: That’s the thing, those are the ideas that are there. Obviously I played for Rick and George Karl and they played that up-tempo. George wanted to get shots up within a certain part of the shot clock, while Rick did too, but it was more of a mix. I obviously played for other coaches, like Larry Brown, a defensive-minded coach, Don Nelson, a mismatch coach. All those ideas I have to put together and come out with the basic offense I’m going to run. It could be a combination of all four (laughs).
Dime: Anything that’s surprised you from either coaching or management side that you didn’t realize as a player?
EN: The level of competition wasn’t that good when (the D-League) started. Now I’m watching players who could return next year, and also the opponents, and they are great athletes who know how to play the game. They just want to get back to the NBA and everyone is on an agenda. It’s the ultimate goal for me to get them back to that level. These guys are hungry. They know how to play the game and that was the biggest surprise. I thought I was going to have to go back to fundamentals — how to throw a pick and different things — but these guys are way past that.
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