SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – If indeed it is possible, new Kings coach Dave Joerger just might have found his little piece of Minnesota way out in California
Raised in Staples, Minn., and NBA-made for nine seasons in Memphis, Joerger was hired by the Kings in May, two days after the Grizzlies fired him when he expressed interest in another job for the second time in three years.
He has found a new home in Northern California, moving his family and horses to acreage east of town in the foothills that lead toward Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas.
“I’m very fortunate because Sacramento is a really cool community,” Joerger said before Saturday’s game against the Timberwolves. “It is as Midwestern a city as far as the people as you’ll find in California. The people are pretty genuine, pretty sincere and they’re very passionate about the Kings, so that part is all really, really cool.”
He watched from afar — all the way from Bismarck, N.D., which is about as far away as you can get from the NBA — those Kings teams featuring Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic coached by Rick Adelman that won 50 games over five consecutive seasons in the early 2000s.
He was part of both that history and the team’s new future Thursday, when the Kings played their first regular-season game in the $557 million Golden 1 Center that kept the franchise from moving to Seattle, Anaheim, Virginia or elsewhere.
Divac and Stojakovic now run the Kings’ basketball operations. Webber and former teammates Bobby Jackson, Brad Miller and Doug Christie, among others, attended Thursday’s emotional, loud loss to San Antonio that Kings fans celebrated with their signature cowbells anyway.
“I felt all that,” he said about the team’s history meeting its future Thursday. “I watched those teams when I was coaching in the minor leagues. There is passion there: The cowbells, the way they played, sharing the ball. It’s really cool to be here and try to get it turned around. There have been some rocky times lately, but we always try to link back to those heyday years they had.”
Two years after he interviewed for the Wolves’ coaching job while he still had one in Memphis, Joerger was hired by the Kings at age 42 to organize and unify a team that starting with star center DeMarcus Cousins is both talented and underachieving.
“It’s a lot of energy,” said Joerger, whose time in Memphis included the past three seasons as head coach. “It wasn’t like autopilot in Memphis, but I’d been there for nine years with those guys and the same guys were there for a long, long time. Right here, it’s all new, so it’ll take some time.”
His hiring in Sacramento came three weeks after Wolves owner Glen Taylor moved quickly and hired Tom Thibodeau for a very attractive job opening in Joerger’s home state.
“No, I was under contract,” he said without elaboration when asked about any discussions his side might have had with the Wolves.
Not often one to praise, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did so anyway after coaching against Joerger’s team Thursday, calling Joerger a “hell of a coach” who “knows what he’s doing, obviously” because of the defense he has the Kings playing already.
“You can see they’re playing together,” said Thibodeau, who arrived at the Kings-Spurs game 90 minutes before tip and watched warmups and the game by the fifth row behind a basket. “There’s purpose. They’re big. They can cover the rim. They can put pressure on the ball. You’ve got to take care of the ball against them. He’s got a good system, a very good system.”
Joerger shrugged when told of such praise after his team has opened its season by winning handily in Phoenix and losing to the Spurs by eight points.
“Well, we’ll see,” he said. “Hopefully we don’t have a honeymoon. There’s going to be bumps in the road and there will be nights when it’s not as good. But by and large, if we can do it more often and make it about our identity, that will help us. Same as Tom will do, I’m sure.”