I’d heard enough about Mike Dunlap to know he was unknown and yet hardly unproven. A guy perennially stuck on a “best coaches you don’t know” list, who’d tutored Carmelo Anthony even if you couldn’t pick him out of a line at your grocery store.
I was walking to the gym to meet Dunlap for the first time in person. He had just been hired by Oregon to be its assistant and came with recommendations from around the hoops world, and a glowing review from George Karl. One of my closest friends had grown up going to camps at Denver’s Metro State campus that Dunlap ran as a two-time national title-winning head coach. He swore by Dunlap’s coaching a year before he even hit town. I knew he was the right hire then for a listing Duck program. What I saw from just that day and that season from Dunlap tells me he’s the right â€” and yet an unquestionably head-scratching â€” hire for the Charlotte Bobcats now, too.
It was an innocuous enough question posed to Dunlap then, the spring of 2009, during his first week on the job at Oregon after a season on Arizona’s bench. Before Arizona, he’d been with Karl in Denver from 2006-08. Now he stood on UO’s McArthur Court before the media scrum, a reputed basketball genius we knew little about (sub out “UO’s McArthur Court” with “Twitter” and you have a picture of how Monday night was after the news broke). His answers were nice, but here’s what was telling: Once it was over, a TV reporter had one more question about defense. Instead of a stock answer, Dunlap walked the reporter to the elbow of the free-throw line, and carefully took him through a drill for five minutes. This was wholly outside the norm of how any other coach had answered a question all season. It struck me not as a PR grab but as Dunlap Standard Operating Procedure. He wants anyone around him to think with a basketball mind, and in doing so, let us see inside his. Instead of relying on what I’d heard about Dunlap, I had evidence he was an equal-opportunity teacher.
He will also come cheap. At least, he’ll be cheaper than finalists Jerry Sloan, Quin Snyder or Brian Shaw and that point is just as important to Michael Jordan as Dunlap’s knowledge as a St. John’s assistant. What’s disconcerting is that the decision has taken the leap from “Who?” to “Here we go again, Bobcats” all while the fact that Dunlap is a terrific X’s and O’s coach is left behind.
The AP’s Brian Mahoney summed it up thusly:
All of Twitter is divided into 2 parts: Those mocking Jordan’s Bobcats, and those saying “This guy really knows basketball.”
â€” Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) June 19, 2012
The night became less about who Dunlap was but who the Bobcats are as an organization. Namely, a losing one with an owner in Jordan who can seem to be only mildly engaged in its success at times. Plenty of teams have hired unusual choices before â€” though I’ll grant you going from a college assistant to NBA head coach is a new precedent â€” but because the Bobcats did it, Dunlap became the disposable set-up to the evergreen punchline. It’s perfectly justifiable to question the judgment of Bobcat owner Michael Jordan on personnel issues, dating back to choosing Kwame Brown as the No. 1 pick in 2005. It would be a surprise of unseen proportions if Dunlap took the Bobcats roster and turned it into a Thunder-esque revival. I get that. In all honesty, he’s likely the guy-before-the-guy who gets that franchise to a contender. While his Division II national titles at resource-strapped Metro State bode well for his relatively austere setup in Charlotte, the difference is some of his new opponents will have unending resources at their disposal.
But I know this: Dunlap quickly makes his teams better. At Oregon, his hiring was the condition for which Ernie Kent kept his job an extra year. The team’s once-suspect X’s and O’s foundation improved subsequently. At Arizona, he and Russ Pennell shared duties when Lute Olson suddenly retired in 2008, leaving the staff in disarray. The team went to the Sweet 16 and when Dunlap left, Pennell absolutely raved about him to me in an interview.
“He’s extremely detailed,” Pennell said then. “He spent a lot of time with Pete Newell. He’s been to John Chaney‘s practices at Temple. He’s spent time with John Wooden. He really, really studies the game. George Karl is still very close to him. He’s very detailed. That’s how I think the players get better.”
Karl is indeed close with Dunlap, and has been telling anyone he can since the announcement about the wonders of Dunlap’s coaching. It isn’t hyperbole when Karl told the Denver Post “might be the brightest, smartest guy I’ve ever been around.”
“Mike Dunlap is a great soldier for basketball and coaching â€” his brilliance has always been there,” Karl said. “If you work with him, if you’re around him, you know he’s a committed, passionate guy who will do anything it takes to get his team better â€“ and get his team in a place that’s constantly improving. He’s a great teacher of the game. I’ve said many times that he might be the brightest, smartest guy I’ve ever been around. And he loves the gym. I’m really happy for him. …
“I’m so happy because he’s swung and missed so often â€“ he couldn’t get (the job) at Colorado, Colorado State, Wyoming. There were jobs we thought we were going to help get him. I’m glad someone recognized his brilliance. In a strange way, it’s kind of a unique hire â€“ but the karma says it can work. And that’s really exciting for Mike. He’ll do everything they want him to do â€“ he’ll take the bullets, he’ll take the losses and I think he’ll build a good foundation and culture. It reminds me a little of what they did here in Denver with Jeff Bzdelik â€“ they brought him in, they knew they weren’t going to win a lot of games, but they wanted a teacher and a director of the culture. That worked out in a positive way.”
Dunlap missed out on jobs as an official finalist at UNLV and Colorado and had been considered at many more recently, including the Bulls in 2008 (according to the Chicago Tribune) and Oregon in 2009. He’s ambitious and has shown he’ll put his name in the ring anywhere if he can lead a team again. I thought it was a huge mistake when Oregon passed him over for Dana Altman, even if Altman’s coached well. It was no surprise he’d been mentioned for the job in Charlotte. His hiring was the shock; anyone who’s spent time with him knows what he’ll do with the team next shouldn’t be.
What do you think of the hire?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.