The pungent smell of ammonia in hair-perm formula is hard to forget.
“James smelled a lot of perms in his life,” said Lydia Borrego, mother of new Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego.
For the Borrego family, that was the scent of industriousness. Lydia was a single parent raising James and his sister, Jessica, in Albuquerque, N.M. She had to provide for them financially and was determined not to be away from them to work. She had a beautician’s license, so if someone needed a cut or a hair color or a perm and could only be available at odd hours, Lydia and her home were open for the work.
“Even at midnight, if somebody worked and needed a perm, I’d be up. I’d get my $20 or $30,” Lydia recalled, adding that hair clippings were a common sight on her door step when she’d get the kids off to school the next morning.
She sometimes worked two or three jobs: house cleaning, then later a teacher’s aide and secretarial work with the school system. Eventually, she’d sign up to sell tickets at basketball games when James played or Jessica cheered. After her husband left the family when the kids were young, Lydia was determined they wouldn’t feel abandoned, so she brought them along to the houses she cleaned.
This taught the kids about logistics and persistence. Lydia recalls James never complained about being too tired to practice while juggling basketball, baseball and football. It was common for him to change clothes in the car ride between a ball game and an AAU practice.
When Borrego decided to pursue a Master’s degree at his alma mater, the University of San Diego, it was no surprise that leadership studies would intrigue him.
“It taught me, ‘Just figure it out. Just figure it out!!” Borrego recalled of the example his mother set. “No matter what you are going through, no matter what the circumstances, figure out a way to get it done. And she did.
“She believed at her core that she wanted her kids to feel loved and supported and safe. She did everything in her power to make that possible. I’m not perfect at it, but I try to stick to core values. And get that done at any cost.”
Lydia Borrego regrets repainting James’ old bedroom, because it now covers a reminder of James’ boyhood dream: to overcome genetics and somehow grow tall.
Near his toy basketball hoop, James scratched out a makeshift measure along his closet door.
“When he was a little boy, he wrote, “Thank you, Lord. I want to be 6-5.’ And he did!” Lydia recalled. “We don’t come from a tall family. I’m 5-3.”
He needed size because his offensive skill in basketball was in the low post. Borrego, now 40, had a playing style somewhat modeled on former Boston Celtics big man Kevin McHale, coaches told his mom.
Both James and Jessica were designated gifted students in elementary school. Lydia heard about an academically-elite private school in town, Albuquerque Academy, so she had both her children take the testing required to be considered for admission there.
Tuition was far beyond Lydia’s income. At the time, she recalled, it cost around $20,000 annually. But Albuquerque Academy has a tradition of assembling a diverse student body and the endowment to award scholarships. So James was admitted and provided the financial aid.
“I didn’t pay one penny,” Lydia said. “I would always get judged -- “’Oh, only rich people go there!’ -- but, no, a lot of parents were like me, making $300 a month.”
As a kid growing up in the ’90s in the Southwest, James was a big fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. But Lydia noticed he’d watch games for more than entertainment; it was an education of sorts, and he didn’t want friends around distracting him from what he was absorbing.
“When he was in grade school, he always had notebooks with all these Xs and Os, and I had no idea what that was,” Lydia recalled of him diagramming plays.
She kept a paper James wrote on what makes champions different from the rest of us. She can recite that report’s theme from memory:
“You have to put the hard work in - not only when people are looking, but when no one is around. I remember it saying, ‘Get up 3 or 4 hours before everyone else does to put in that hard work.’ “
Getting up before sunrise was a given: Albuquerque Academy’s campus was on the other side of town from the Borregos’ home. Initially, Lydia drove him. Then, when she got a job in the school system requiring her to be at work earlier than she could drop off James, a teacher at Albuquerque Academy gave him rides.
James played varsity basketball as a freshman, a rarity at Albuquerque Academy, and his teams won two state titles. His junior season he played in three state tournament games with a torn ligament in one of his ankles. That reflected what Borrego wrote in that report about champions.
“I remember him talking about integrity,” Lydia recalled. “For you, for others and for your team.”
Borrego’s college basketball career was less than glorious: Per sports-reference.com, he played 15 games off the bench at San Diego over two seasons. But that experience pointed him toward coaching. He was a graduate assistant at San Diego, where he worked with now-New York Knicks coach David Fizdale.
“He was smart and reliable - an all-around great person,” Fizdale told the Observer during Las Vegas Summer League in July. “Every day he was consistently the first guy in the building and the last guy to leave.. He always had a thirst.”
Borrego would drive to Los Angeles in the summer to work youth camps; the pay wasn’t much more than gas money, but it helped him network. That led to a job with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant video coordinator - the definition of entry level in the NBA. But it launched a career.
Borrego’s boss, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, can be brutally demanding, but he’s also known for inclusiveness. If someone on the staff has an idea, you’re welcome to express it regardless of title. Borrego made a sufficient impression that he was promoted to assistant coach, then moved on to the New Orleans Hornets when another Spurs assistant, Monty Williams, was hired as head coach in 2010.
Williams tells a story from that time about him being so exasperated with a player that he planned to cut the veteran. When Williams brought that up in a staff meeting. Borrego took the other side emphatically, saying he’d take personal responsibility for getting that player back on track.
Williams wouldn’t divulge who that player was, but he said Borrego talked him out of what would have been a major mistake.
“If there is something you believe in, you have to stand for it,” Borrego said when asked about Williams’ story. “You have to carry yourself with a sense of conviction. That ties into your loyalty; I’m loyal to our players and to our staff. I tried to be an assistant coach who pushed the coaches that I worked for and the players I’ve worked with to see the good in people.”
This is Borrego’s first true head-coaching job in the NBA, but it’s not his first experience in the role. He served as interim coach for 30 games with the Orlando Magic in the 2014-15 season after his boss, Jacque Vaughn, was fired. (The Magic went 10-20 in those games).
After that season, Borrego returned to Popovich’s Spurs staff and was on several short lists for head-coaching jobs. He interviewed in Houston and Memphis prior to last summer, and was also a candidate in Phoenix and New York this off-season before Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak hired him to replace Steve Clifford.
Listen and lead
Ask Lydia Borrego about her son’s defining trait and she doesn’t hesitate: He’s decisive and assertive but, like Popovich, he’s authentically interested in what he can learn from others.
“He’s the best listener in the world. He won’t interrupt you. When you talk, he listens,” Lydia said. “And when he does say something, it will hit the nail on the head.”
He learned that from Mom, just like he learned not to accept limitations others construct.
“She said, ‘Why not you?’ And I’ve never sold myself short,” Borrego concluded.
“I’ve had my moments of doubt: if playing Division I level was right for me, if coaching was right for me. But I always believed at my core that God had something bigger in mind for me. And I stuck to that.
“I live in that world of ‘Why not me?’”