If life indeed is a journey and not a destination, then you can consider Timberwolves assistant coach Bryan Gates a rich man.
A man who once essentially lived out of his car for a time while chasing the basketball dream, Gates spent a decade in the game’s minor leagues before he reached a new life as an NBA assistant coach as well as a husband and father now of 4-year-old triplet daughters.
“Everybody has their different path to the NBA,” he said. “Mine just happened to go through a lot of states, a few leagues and a couple countries.”
He has coached in the IBA, the CBA, the CBL, the USBL, the NBA Development League — everywhere from Boise, Idaho, and Rapid City, S.D., to Enid, Okla., and Hickory, N.C. — and one season in Beirut as well. He was a head coach in the USBL at age 27 and for several years worked as a CBA assistant coach in winter and in the USBL in spring and early summer.
Gates coached in Beirut a decade ago, some 20 years after civil war reduced many parts of the city to rubble. He remembers passing over the Lebanon-Syrian border to play two games just as Syria was starting to become what it is today.
“One of the most disturbing sights I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “People living in tarps, it rained and it was wet and mud and tarps. People were trying to get out and here we are, riding a bus over the border to play a basketball game.”
A regular participant in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative now, Gates knows a little bit about what it’s like to travel to basketball’s far ends of the Earth. After all, he grew up in Alaska, a far-flung hockey state that still produced basketball stars Carlos Boozer, Trajan Langdon, Mario Chalmers and a kid from Anchorage who grew up eating his cereal and watching NBA games televised live four time zones away, starting at noon in Boston or New York.
“I never watched cartoons,” he said. “Those games were my cartoons.”
An uncle took him every year on Thanksgiving weekend to the Great Alaska Shootout college basketball tournament, where he was a ball boy. When he was 8 or 9, his dad took him to a Lakers preseason game played in Anchorage, and he recalls high-fiving Kurt Rambis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When he was a 5-10, 110-pound seventh-grader, he wrote a school report about what he wanted to be.
“I wrote I want to be an NBA coach,” Gates said.
Years later after he attended Boise State, Gates called his dad to tell him he turned down a “nice career job” with a tech company to intern with the new minor league team in town.
“He hung up on me,” Gates said, “but my mom reminded him of that report.”
Now he is where he always wanted to be, in his sixth NBA season: His first was with Sacramento. This sixth one is his first with the Wolves. The other five were spent working for head coach Monty Williams in New Orleans.
While with the Pelicans, he remembers celebrating his 40th birthday at a Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles, preparing the team’s scouting report for the Lakers the next day. He remembers celebrating his 30th birthday by driving from a scouting combine to Portsmouth, Va., to interview with a minor league team in North Carolina called the Hickory Nutz.
“I just laughed at what a crazy 10 years it had been,” Gates said. “You know what you want to do. This is what I’ve always wanted to. I never thought it was work. I still don’t think it is.”
NBA short takes
Goodbye, Easy Street
Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell returned last week to Toronto, where he coached a decade. While there, someone asked if he missed being a head coach these past six seasons.
“I never looked at it from that point because I was happy doing what I was doing,” said Mitchell, who did television and radio work in the U.S. and Canada and was a Nets assistant coach for a time. “I was hanging out with you guys, having a good life, second-guessing the coaches and telling them what they should have done after it happened. I loved it. I never lost a game, never made a bad decision. No one ever booed me or wrote anything bad about me. I enjoyed it.”
Better than Shaq
New Orleans star Anthony Davis joined Shaquille O’Neal (2001) and Wilt Chamberlain (four times) as the only players in NBA history to reach at least 55 points and 20 rebounds with his 59-20 game at Detroit last week.
“His game was way better than what I did,” TNT analyst O’Neal said on Thursday’s studio show. “He was all over the place, moving without the ball, inside and outside. We know he has this ability.”
The new Dirk and KG?
Wolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns is headed toward winning Rookie of the Year, just like teammate Andrew Wiggins did a season ago.
How good can Towns be?
“He’ll be very good,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “[New York rookie Kristaps] Porzingis is going to be like Dirk [Nowitzki] and this kid can be like Garnett, probably more skilled out on the perimeter than Garnett. I think being around Garnett has given him some of that fire and intensity. It’s rubbing off on him.”
Wolves’ Week Ahead
Sunday: 6 p.m. at Dallas
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Washington
Friday: 7 p.m. at Milwaukee
Saturday: 7 p.m. vs. Brooklyn
FSN all four days (NBA TV, too, on Sunday)
Player to watch: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
Time is ticking, so relish every remaining chance to watch the man who, along with Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett, revolutionized the power-forward position these many years and still can put up 33 points any given night.
“This is bigger than both of us. Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan weren’t able to do it on their own.”
— Wolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns, refuting the notion that these Timberwolves are a two-man show featuring him and Andrew Wiggins.