Twenty-five years and 1,042 victories since he coached his first NBA game, the Timberwolves’ Rick Adelman is expected to walk away from the sidelines after Wednesday’s regular-season finale into retirement and toward a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
When he does, he will do so with almost no fanfare, without even the public presentation of a single rocking chair to wish him well.
He could quite simply — given his silence about the matter in this season’s final weeks — just walk off into the mist.
“You know what? That’s him,” said Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin, who has played for Adelman in Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota. “That’s how he has always been. It has worked for him. That’s probably how he would want it.”
A family man who often says little unless he is giving an honest answer to a question, Adelman clearly has been careful not to address his future in these days and weeks leading to Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Utah at Target Center.
“You’re right,” Adelman said before Monday night’s 130-120 loss at Golden State. “One more day.”
Adelman is 67 and he is completing the third of three playoff-less seasons with the Wolves during which his wife, Mary Kay, has been treated for seizures. One season remains on the four-year contract Adelman signed in September 2011, but either he or the Wolves can choose to end it within a two-week window after Wednesday’s game.
“It’s a tossup right now,” Wolves star Kevin Love said when asked about Adelman’s future, “and everybody is feeling this could be it for him.”
Sacramento coach Mike Malone, the son of former NBA coach Brendan Malone, approached Adelman after Sunday’s game for an exchange that went beyond the usual postgame nod of congratulations.
“I think Rick’s respected to the point where Coach Malone went up to him and said his words to him at the end of the game,” Martin said. “He’s respected like that around the league and the front offices. He’s just a low-key guy. If you know basketball, you know what he has done and he’s OK with that.”
An early break
A point guard who played for five different teams in seven NBA seasons, Adelman figured he would teach and coach high school basketball the rest of his life after the Kansas City-Omaha Kings cut him in 1975. His first coaching job at little Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., attracted the attention of Trail Blazers legendary coach Jack Ramsay, who hired him over another candidate named George Karl for an assistant coaching job in 1983.
All these years later, Adelman and Karl are two of only eight men in NBA history who have won 1,000 games as a head coach. Coincidentally, Karl could be a candidate to replace Adelman as the Wolves’ next head coach.
Six years after he beat out Karl for that assistant’s job, Adelman was promoted to head coach in midseason and inherited a team that included Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and soon added Buck Williams. Adelman took the Trail Blazers to two NBA Finals in the next three seasons.
Over 23 seasons, he has coached 1,790 games in Portland, Golden State, Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota, winning 58 percent of them.
He won with talent and offensive rebounding might in Portland, lost during a brief but enlightening stay at Golden State and adapted to big men Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Brad Miller and their passing talents in Sacramento. During those eight successful seasons with the Kings, he borrowed many motion concepts from assistant coach Pete Carril’s “Princeton” offense, making them his own in a system that became known in the final half of his career as Adelman’s “corner” offense that influenced NBA coaches both young and old.
“Every coach in this league has taken some of his offense,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Even esteemed San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich — winner of four NBA titles and 967 games, ninth on the NBA’s career list behind Adelman’s 1,042 — admits it.
“I don’t know if all teams do,” Popovich said, “but I’ve stolen from him, very honestly.”
Coaching role model
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra — winner of the past two NBA titles — studied Adelman’s ways growing up in Portland, where his father Jon was a Blazers executive for a decade. He was a star player at the University of Portland when Adelman took his hometown pro teams to those two NBA Finals.
“I think everybody knows he probably was the biggest influence in my life to get into coaching,” Spoelstra said. “I loved his style, I loved the way he did it. I loved the class, the integrity, how he handled himself off the court. He was an incredible role model for me when I was a young person. His style of play, those Blazers were an extremely exciting team, but he has also done it different ways each stop he has been. That’s probably the true compliment as a coach: He has been able to find ways to win with different styles in different places and other teams mimic how his teams played.”
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers borrowed a play when he coached those formidable Boston Celtics teams that featured Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
“We won a game with it in Boston,” Rivers said. “We called it ‘Adelman,’ so you learn from him.”
Adelman long has been known as a “player’s coach,” a description he admits still baffles him on its meaning, other than “you don’t get hit by a guy?”
In essence, he has left players alone to do their work and holds them accountable if they don’t.
Quiet farewell just fine
His teams made the playoffs 16 times in his first 18 seasons as an NBA head coach, but they haven’t reached them the past five seasons, since he took Houston to the 2009 playoffs in his second of four seasons there. The Wolves haven’t made the playoffs in a decade, including Adelman’s three seasons as head coach.
“I’m sure they had greater aspirations of their year in Minnesota, but Rick Adelman will go down as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history,” Malone said. “His body of work speaks for itself and every player who played for him — whether it’s guys I’ve coached like Carl Landry or guys like Doug Christie, Peja [Stojakovic] or whoever — all speak glowingly of him.
“That’s how you know you’ve had an impact on a team: When the players you coached who don’t have to say anything — they’ll throw you under the bus, and most will — speak highly of him.”
The Kings honored Adelman before Sunday’s game with a scoreboard video montage commemorating his eight seasons there that played before the game.
“We were saying he’s hating this right now when they had the cameras on him,” Love said. “I’ve really enjoyed — and everybody’s enjoyed — playing for Rick. It is sad he doesn’t get quite the farewell he deserves. He has done right by this game and I think the basketball gods have been so good to him because he has been so good to it. He doesn’t like it to be about him. That’s what a lot of people admire most: kind of his genius behind the scenes.”
That montage might be as close to a tribute to him as he will get.
“There doesn’t have to be,” Adelman said of a personal exit lacking the usual fanfare and tributes. “It’s something I’ve told you before: I asked these guys when we were pretty much out of the playoffs to finish off the season. We won some really nice games. You have to approach it that way. When the season’s over, then everything happens from that point on.”
And if he does just walk off into the mist, then so be it?
“So be it,” Adelman said. “I think so.”