LAS VEGAS – A man now suddenly without a team, future Hall of Fame coach George Karl, nonetheless attracted quite a crowd while he walked the arena concourses at the Las Vegas Summer League last week, although a trailing television crew with a boom microphone helped draw attention.
Former head coach Sam Mitchell, too, gathered a steady stream of well-wishers as he sat at far-flung table and conducted interviews for satellite radio.
And then there was new Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, a gainfully employed up-and-comer hired in June who navigated the crowds and sat courtside wearing a team logoed golf shirt unnoticed.
“I don’t have any problem going wherever I want,” he said. “I don’t think that’ll ever be a problem.”
Of course that could change if the 39-year-old, first-time NBA head coach reaches the same levels of success he achieved by winning five titles in seven seasons in the sport’s minor leagues — the International Basketball Association, Continental Basketball Associate and the NBA’s D League — last decade.
A guy who once aspired to coach the same Staples-Motley, Minn., high-school team for which he played now belongs to a very select club that numbers only 30 men in the world.
It’s an opportunity for which he has worked nearly his entire adult life, even since he volunteered for a minor-league team called the Fargo-Moorhead Beez and worked his way up from there to Bismarck, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D., and in doing so won more minor-league titles than Karl, Phil Jackson, Flip Saunders and Eric Musselman did combined in their years starting out there.
“You’re all the experiences you go through and maybe this isn’t the end for me, either,’’ said Joerger, who played collegiately at Division II Minnesota State Moorhead.
‘‘I certainly have a lot more to learn.”
A Grizzlies assistant coach for the past six seasons, he was promoted on draft day after his team couldn’t agree with head coach Lionel Hollins on a new contract. Hollins entrusted him with the defense the past two seasons, and the Grizzlies have become one of the league’s best defensive teams while winning a franchise-record 56 games last season under Hollins.
“Lionel is comfortable in his own skin,” Joerger said. “He does a great job being who he is, and that’s something I need to be also. These guys know me as an assistant coach and now I’m going to be a head coach in demeanor and everything, but I still have to be who I am. If I try to be something different, it’s not going to work.”
He is a hard-working career coach who washed jerseys and booked halftime acts when he was assistant coach/general manager in Bismarck and credits part of his success to coaches such as Karl and Saunders, both of whom welcome him to their training camps a decade or more ago.
Joerger spent several days watching Saunders during the Wolves’ 2003 training camp when Saunders taught his intricate offense to newcomers Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell on a team that reached the Western Conference finals that season.
“I love the way Flip coaches offense,” Joerger said. “I can’t get enough. I’ve stolen a lot of stuff. Flip, George, Phil Jackson, those guys are legendary in the CBA. They set the bar pretty high, and I wanted to be like those guys. I never worried about the NBA.”
But here he is, six years after then-Grizzlies head coach Marc Iavaroni brought him to Memphis and two months after the team decided to move on from Hollins by promoting Joerger after it had interviewed Karl and two others.
Here he was back at summer league for the 15th consecutive year, ever since he was 24. Many years, he came searching to recruit players bound for Europe or the American minor leagues after their NBA dreams died in July or looking for a job.
Now he has arrived at the top of his profession with a four-year contract that reportedly will pay him $1.5 million annually and with an established, veteran, winning team no less.
At his introductory news conference in June, he called Memphis a “blue-collar town” and himself a “blue-collar guy” and promised the Grizzlies under his leadership would play at a faster pace without betraying their defensive principles or disintegrating into what he colloquially termed “vomit basketball.”
This time, though, he will make a lot more money than when he was washing jerseys and booking the “Blue Brothers” tribute act on the side in Bismarck.
“I’ve loved coaching, wherever you are,” he said while watching his Grizzlies summer-league team play in Las Vegas. “And I always felt if you can keep coaching, that’s a great blessing. It’s hard to be a head coach on any level, so I’m very, very lucky.”