“He had a motor that I still haven’t seen since,” said Davis, the former Philadelphia coach who guided Iverson in his rookie NBA season of 1996-97. “And he came to play every night — you never had to question whether he was going to show up.”
Davis was Iverson’s first NBA coach, putting him among the select few who have inherited a generational talent at the starting line. Kevin Loughery had Jordan; Matt Guokas had Shaquille O’Neal; Del Harris had Kobe Bryant; Don Nelson had Stephen Curry; Paul Silas had LeBron James. Those coaches were there at the beginning but not the end.
Unless he retires, Gregg Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in the NBA at 27 seasons, will get the first crack at the next can’t-miss prospect: 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama. The 19-year-old French prodigy is the consensus No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft, and Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs won the lottery.
Lightning has struck twice for Popovich. The Spurs selected Tim Duncan first in the 1997 draft, and Popovich coached him his entire 19-year career, which resulted in five titles. But the Spurs coaching legend is the outlier.
In June 1996, Philadelphia hired Davis, then a Portland Trail Blazers assistant, to take over a woeful 76ers team that won 18 games the season before. At his introductory news conference, Davis declared: “My goal is simple but lofty. I want to bring a championship to the city of Philadelphia.”
He didn’t stick around long enough for that vision to vest. The 76ers marginally improved to 22-60 and Iverson was the rookie of the year, but Davis was dismissed after one season, making way for Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who led the team to the NBA Finals in 2001.
“These talents rarely walk into a situation that is tailor-made for winning,” said Davis, now 67. He was also the first NBA coach of Dwight Howard, the top pick in the 2004 draft, with the Orlando Magic. Davis was fired there, too, before the end of Howard’s rookie season. “Everyone wants a worst-to-first scenario. Those things take time.”
Jim Paxson, who worked in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ front office from 1998 to 2005, has experience preparing for a generational talent.
“Can that player be a franchise player and win championships and change the course of how the game is played?” he said.
In 2003, Paxson, then vice president of basketball operations for the Cavaliers, had that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a transcendent high school star from nearby Akron. Selecting James with the top pick was a no-brainer; picking his first coach was less obvious.
For the search, Paxson consulted then-Minnesota Timberwolves executive Kevin McHale, a Hall of Fame player who drafted Kevin Garnett out of high school in 1995. Cleveland ultimately decided on the larger-than-life Silas (who stood 6-foot-7), an experienced and personable coach who could not only develop James but also hold him accountable.
“There are coaches that don’t want to be the first coach of a generational talent,” Paxson said. “That didn’t concern Paul.”
After the Cavaliers opened the season with losses to Sacramento, Phoenix and Portland on the road, several players — including their prized rookie — got to the team bus late on the way to the airport.
“He walked back to the middle of the bus and goes: ‘I’m not going to accept losing. I don’t want you guys to accept losing, either. And we’re going to be on time and we’re going to be professionals,’ ” Paxson said of Silas, who died last year. “And it wasn’t just directed at LeBron.”
Under Silas that year, Cleveland more than doubled its win total, and Paxson credits him with providing early and vital mentorship to James. Still, Silas was let go midway through the 2004-05 season. Two years later, the team reached the Finals (where it lost to the Spurs) under Mike Brown.
“Most of the time, the coach who coaches that generational talent won’t be there when that talent finally matures and is ready,” Davis said.
Even with unrealistic expectations and fragile job security, any NBA head coaching opportunity is a privilege.
“There are only two types of coaching jobs in the NBA: good jobs and no jobs,” said Harris, who led the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.
Harris, the 1995 coach of the year, had a generational talent in Bryant. But the circumstances were different. In 1996, the Lakers were coming off a 53-win season, had just signed O’Neal away from the Magic and had all-star-caliber guards in Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel.
The 18-year-old rookie with colossal talent was going to have to wait his turn.
“I told Kobe that he’d have to look at his position as if he were going into the ring against a champion boxer,” Harris said of Bryant having to beat out the veterans. “It has to be a knockout because it’s going to cause all kinds of problems for you on the team if it’s not.”
Bryant’s “Mamba mentality” revealed itself early. Because the Lakers did not have their own practice facility at the time, Harris recalls Bryant heading straight to UCLA or gyms in Westchester to put up extra shots after practice.
“He loved to play the game more than anybody I’ve ever coached,” Harris said. “Basketball was absolutely his life until he got married and had kids.”
In a playoff elimination game against the Utah Jazz on the road, Harris finally trusted the ambitious rookie down the stretch. The result: four air balls and a loss but a pivotal point in Bryant’s development.
“He’ll either make this and it’s going to be a big-time confidence builder for him, or he’s going to miss it,” Harris said. “But either way, he’ll know that he was a rookie and his coach had enough confidence to give him a shot.”
The Lakers started the 1999 lockout season 6-6, and they fired Harris following a 10-point loss to the Grizzlies in Vancouver. Despite winning 61 games the season before, Harris speculates the front office had already zeroed in on Phil Jackson as a replacement; he was available after leading the Bulls to six championships.
Harris went on to be the top assistant with the Dallas Mavericks for six seasons. Bryant won five championships and played for a total of nine coaches (10 if you count Bill Bertka’s single game) over two decades with the Lakers.
Harris, 86, said he maintained a cordial relationship with Bryant over the years before his tragic death in 2020. While he was not on the sideline for the banners or when Bryant scored 60 points in his curtain call in purple and gold, they are forever linked.
“When I go to speak to younger people, there’s only one thing that’s going to matter to these kids,” he said. “And that is that I was Kobe’s first coach.”