When it came time for Michael Jordan to hire another basketball coach for his Charlotte Bobcats, he considered several candidates, almost all of whom had a higher profile than the man he chose.
Jerry Sloan. Brian Shaw. Quin Snyder.
Then Jordan listened to Mike Dunlap, 55, talk about basketball theory and how he would apply it to a franchise that had just concluded the worst season in NBA history and Jordan had found his man.
It wasn’t about what was on the Dunlap’s resume, which read like a travelogue of basketball’s back roads – from head coaching jobs at Division III Cal Lutheran, Division II Denver Metro and the Adelaide 36ers of the Australia National Basketball League to assistant coaching roles with Lute Olson (Arizona), Steve Lavin (St. John’s) and George Karl (with the NBA Denver Nuggets). So much for glamour and ego.
What was it that separated Dunlap from the others?
“When I sat down with Mike and I heard him explaining what he’s capable of doing, I said I can play for this guy,” Jordan says.
“I said if that’s a guy I can play for, then that’s a guy everybody can play for.
“He’s very fair. He’s very honest. He’s straightforward. There are no curveballs. He has a strong passion for the game and that’s hard to teach people. I’m a strong believer if you have a passion for something, you’re going to figure it out. That’s the thing I saw in him more than anything else – his passion for coaching.”
Russell White wasn’t sure he could play for Mike Dunlap.
White was a freshman at Cal Lutheran, imagining himself to be a better player than he was. He had been recruited to the Division III school in Thousand Oaks, Calif., by an assistant coach. When he met Dunlap, sensed his focus, got a taste of his dedication to discipline, heard his thoughts and saw basketball through his prism, White had a thought.
“He was scary,” White says.
Here’s what White remembers:
“As an 18-year-old kid, I committed to him without ever meeting him. We were working Magic Johnson’s summer camp at Cal Lutheran and he called the four freshmen over. He told us we needed to do something like grab 50 chairs.”
“I rolled my eyes. He pointed at my face and said if you ever look at me like that again, you’ll never play basketball here.”
White says he took the reprimand like a man and said it wouldn’t happen again. It wouldn’t be the last time they clashed.
“He was just intimidating,” White says.
That was 22 years ago, the first year Dunlap was a head coach.
Three-hour practices, White says, were normal. He recalls getting into a defensive stance and staying there for what seemed like half an hour.
“I was crying,” White says. “He didn’t stop.”
Why would he?
Dunlap once ran a 100-mile race in 24 hours. It started in Reno, Nev., climbed through the Sierra Nevada mountains and ended near Sacramento, Calif. He calls it “a very positive experience for me.”
This comes from the son of a high-risk surgeon who set up his practice in a log cabin in Fairbanks, Alaska, in the 1950s, going where he was needed despite the challenges.
“That work ethic is in the DNA,” Dunlaps says.
At Cal Lutheran, Dunlap routinely ran the hills around the Thousand Oaks campus and the threat of having to run with him tended to scare the players straight.
“I remember getting kicked out of practice one day,” White says. “I’d never been kicked out of anything in my life. I was a good kid. I was a military brat.”
“I was distraught in the locker room. The other kid who got kicked out was OK with it. He said he was going to go get something to eat and he was glad he didn’t have to practice.
“When coach came out of the gym, I said, ‘I’m so, so sorry.’ He said, ‘You weren’t working hard. You weren’t getting better. Come back tomorrow and get better.’ I remember that like it was yesterday. He kicked our butts but, afterward, he loved us up.”
White is now a high school basketball coach in California, a branch on the Mike Dunlap coaching tree.
“I didn’t know what great was then, but I was amazed by his knowledge and commitment,” White says. “I just knew he was so good. I didn’t really know why. But having been a high school coach for almost 20 years, now I understand.”
Bryan Cantwell played alongside White at Cal Lutheran in the early 1990s. He felt what White felt – Dunlap’s demands. Precision. Accountability. Punctuality.
In the offseason, Dunlap asked his players to stop by his office every day or two so he could keep up with where they were and what they were doing. One weekend, Cantwell and a teammate decided to blow off two classes and they headed to San Francisco to meet some girls.
Dunlap’s problem wasn’t with Cantwell and his buddy going to San Francisco. It was not following the established protocol. It was about not meeting a responsibility.
“We get back on Monday and see our names written on the board,” Cantwell says. “He found out we missed class in the offseason and he talked to us not about going to San Francisco but about our responsibilities. So he took us on a run… “
“He was laying into us about being responsible. Ripping us. Just ripping us. He said there were noises coming out of our bodies he had never heard before. It was horrible. He just left us alone out there and I had to find my own way back. My legs were so tired, I only got out of bed to go to class.”
“It taught me a lesson about being responsible. If I had told the professors I was going out of town, it would have been no problem. But I tried to be sneaky.”
Another time, Cantwell was late for a team meeting. He knew what was coming.
Dunlap asked Cantwell to meet him at his office at 5:30 the next morning. Another run.
Cantwell was there at 5:30. No Dunlap. At 6 a.m., still no Dunlap. Soon, it was 6:30 then 7.
At 8:30 a.m., Dunlap arrived.
“He said, ‘When you tell someone you’re going to be somewhere at a certain time, be there,’ ” Cantwell recalls.
‘Coaching for dinner’
The Australia National Basketball League is half a world away from the NBA, literally and figuratively. For three years beginning in 1994, Dunlap was head coach of the Adelaide 36ers.
The NBL plays a schedule about half as long as the NBA and in arenas about half as big as American basketball palaces. It’s a place where games tend to be played on weekends and team members – players and coaches – are required to make sponsor appearances during the week. They visit schools and hospitals and, after games, Dunlap would drop in to talk with sponsors of his Adelaide team.
“You’re coaching for your dinner there,” Dunlap says. “I had three kids and they could fire you the next day if they wanted. But doing that for three years really helped me.”
“I coached 12 guys I had never met. I was in another country. I was in a highly competitive league and being under the hammer all the time gave me poise.”
Leon Trimingham was one of the top players in the league when Dunlap convinced him to leave Sydney to play for the 36ers in Adelaide. Trimingham liked the idea of being recruited to another team but he wasn’t fully prepared for Dunlap’s approach.
Dunlap made his point quickly by not starting Trimingham.
“He’s going to test you mentally,” Trimingham says. “He didn’t start me and he let me know this was a different team, different mentality, different concept. I had to earn my way.
“He doesn’t just give you respect. He makes you earn it. It’s the same with him. He wants to earn people’s respect. I think he expected me to rebel. Instead, I accepted it and did what I had to do.”
Trimingham describes Dunlap’s coaching philosophy in three words: “Defense, defense, defense.”
The lessons Trimingham says he learned in his one season playing for Dunlap made him a better player and helped him have a 14-year career playing professionally around the globe. The toughness that defined Dunlap on the court, Trimingham says, is matched by his interest in his players’ lives off the court.
When Dunlap decided to leave Australia after the death of his father in 1996, he pulled Trimingham aside in the parking lot and told him before the news broke publicly.
“There are no surprises with him,” Trimingham says. “I think people (in Charlotte) will be very surprised…I know they will be surprised.”
Master of details
In his first month on the job, Dunlap has plunged into changing a roster, a culture and a playing style. While others have wondered if a guy who never had a high-profile head coaching job is ready to rebuild an NBA franchise, Dunlap has been busy.
When he interviewed with Jordan, Dunlap had broken down film of the Bobcats last season, evaluating the strengths among the many weaknesses. He also spliced together tapes of each player, ready to offer individual evaluations and how he would work to improve each player.
Dunlap saw the team’s lack of depth but he also saw youth. Because of that, he wants to add more pace to the offense in hopes of getting shots earlier in each possession. He hopes to cut down on the number of layups the Bobcats allow and defend the basket better.
“(Jordan) can see through the fact I don’t have a typical resume,” Dunlap says. “He works more from the inside out. That means it comes from his heart. I hope I evoke some of that same energy. We fortunately hit it off.”
Dunlap’s often up before dawn and works deep into the evening. He’s a master of details, whether it’s coaching a player to raise his chin 6 inches to better see the court or demonstrating precisely how screens should be executed.
Dunlap doesn’t like it when a screen is set for a shooter but the player doesn’t take the shot. He doesn’t like the body language of a player squaring up to shoot then turning away from the opportunity.
He also believes in pushing the tempo and every moment potentially being a teachable moment.
“He corrects me every time he sees something,” Bobcats big man Byron Mullens says. “He stops play and says, ‘Do this, do this.’ He gets his point across right away and then we get back at it.
“You’ve got to know your stuff and, if not, you’ll feel a little embarrassed. But he’s not going to tear you down too bad. It’s clear he wants you to be a better player.”
Dunlap says when he worked alongside Pete Newell at his legendary big man’s camp, he learned to tell players why he was correcting them.
“The gateway to a person’s intellect – and we have smart people – is to tell them why,” Dunlap says. “They’re not cattle. So capture the mind and the body will follow.”
Dunlap ticks off a list of coaches he’s worked with on some level, starting with Newell and John Wooden then goes to George Raveling and Lute Olson. He says he took many lessons, large and small, from his mentors, but one stands out.
“They told me to make sure I was good to everybody,” Dunlap says. “Be humble and keep connecting with guys who’ve been through it before.”
‘A show-me league’
Dunlap spent nine seasons as head coach of Metro State in Denver, Colo., where he led the Roadrunners to two Division II national championships and nine NCAA tournaments.
Three times, Dunlap was named national coach of the year at Metro State and his 328-105 career record as a Division II coach ranks ninth in all-time winning percentage (.758).
He left Metro to become an assistant to George Karl on the Denver Nuggets’ staff for two years. Then he spent a season as an assistant at Arizona, another year at Oregon and, most recently, stepped in for Steve Lavin when health issues forced the St. John’s head coach off the bench last season.
Dunlap is realistic enough to understand the flags that went up when the Bobcats hired him. What qualified him to be an NBA head coach?
“Being defensive about it is the wrong approach,” Dunlap says. “This is a show-me league. I bring a deep knowledge base. I have experience in Division III, Division II, an international pro league and the Division I level. It goes on and on.”
“I have thrown myself in to very different environments, so if this opportunity came I can assimilate quickly.”
Last season, White and Cantwell spent the better part of a week with Dunlap and his family, staying in their New York home when he was coaching the Red Storm.
Two decades after their Cal Lutheran days, White has been a high school basketball coach for nearly 20 years. Cantwell became a junior varsity basketball coach at Chaminade High in California after his college career and now he’s dean of students at the school.
“I hated playing for him, but when I graduated and went into the workplace I said, ‘I get it,’ ” Cantwell says. “He was so demanding because he wanted us to get to our goals. We weren’t going to the NBA. We were going to do something off the basketball court.
“I learned dedication, hard work, being on time, putting effort into everything you do. Do it on the court and it went off the court with me.”
White says he’s chuckled at online comments by readers questioning why the Bobcats hired a relatively unknown man to take over a team in need of so many things. White still marvels at Dunlap leaving Metro State after winning 85 percent of his games to become an NBA assistant coach because, as he told White, he wanted to learn more about the game.
That’s Dunlap, White says.
“We all think about how he’ll handle the pros who get paid millions of dollars,” White says. “I think he’s ready for it. The relationships he has with his players is off the charts.
“He challenges everything that is the norm. That’s his status quo. He wants to go outside the box.”
All these years later, White says, Dunlap’s influence remains as strong as ever.”
“I walk on eggshells around him,” White says. “I want to please him. I want him to like what I’m doing and to respect what I’m saying. And he’s someone I know will be there if I need something.
“And he’ll tell me the truth.”
Staff writer Rick Bonnell contributed.