Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on new OU men's basketball coach Lon Kruger
Atlanta Hawks general manager Pete Babcock's first choice in 2000 was longtime Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo. When Izzo turned down the job, Babcock almost immediately turned to Lon Kruger.
Babcock's rationale was Kruger, who had revived men's basketball programs at Kansas State, Florida and Illinois, could do the same in the NBA. Babcock believed Kruger was a good fit for a team that featured eight players between ages 20 and 26.
Hired in April as Oklahoma basketball coach, Kruger said his inability to turn around the Hawks a decade ago is the biggest disappointment of his 28-year career.
“We were hired to come in and change that culture, and we didn't get that done,” Kruger said. “It was disappointing we didn't do what we set out to do. It was humbling as far as not getting it done and seeing (basketball) from a different perspective.”
Gar Heard, who played at Oklahoma and was an NBA assistant coach for 18 years, was on Kruger's staff in Atlanta.
“The roster wasn't very good, and it was hard to get everyone on the same page,” Heard said. “We had a lot of young kids. But we also had some veterans who had been on different teams. They didn't mesh well together.
“And he really didn't have the control he needed to turn it around the way he wanted. He didn't get the draft picks he wanted. I don't know how much management was behind him.”
Kruger discovered one major difference between coaching in college and the NBA: He didn't have the final say on personnel.
“It's different, there's no question about that,” Kruger said. “I was a little naive going into that situation. It was very much a learning experience, a very good experience other than the losing. The losing got old.”
Similar to John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Jerry Tarkanian, Mike Montgomery and Tim Floyd, other college coaches who failed to duplicate their college success, Kruger compiled a losing record while in the NBA.
The Hawks lost 122 losses games during Kruger's 21/2 seasons.
In contrast, he had lost only 174 games in 14 seasons at Kansas State, Illinois and Florida.
“I'm sure it was weighing on him, but he never really showed it,” Heard said. “He was always upbeat. He always came to practices and games with a positive attitude. He's always been that way.”
Jason Terry, who played a key role in the Dallas Mavericks winning the 2011 NBA title, was a second-year guard with the Hawks when Kruger was hired.
“Coach is great,” Terry was quoted during Kruger's first training camp 11 years ago. “He works you hard. He helps you learn. His practices are so organized that we get the most out of them. He challenges us. That's very good for young players.”
College coaches can address problem areas in practice. In the NBA, once the season starts most adjustments are made watching film.
“You play 82 games in roughly 165 days,” Kruger said. “You play every other day on the average. You factor in travel, and you don't practice as much in terms of quality practices.
“And, obviously, the other major difference is you're coaching people at different stages of their life. In college, all the guys are aspiring to get to the NBA or play after college. In the NBA, guys have agents. Some players have families. Without question, that's a major difference."
Kruger was fired by the Hawks the day after Christmas during his third season.
The Hawks finished 25-57 and 33-49 in Kruger's first two seasons. Babcock made a change when the Hawks started with an 11-16 record.
“You're disappointed, but that was healthy, too,” Kruger said. “Anytime you play almost 90 games a year you learn things.”
Following a trading deadline deal during the 2000-01 season, current Thunder forward Nazr Mohammed played for the Hawks all three seasons Kruger was in Atlanta.
“He's a good coach. He's an intense coach. He asks a lot from his players,” Mohammed said. “It was a collection of guys (that) hadn't meshed together. That can be tough on a coach.
“Both sides have to take some of the blame. But it was more on us the players. If we win games, he doesn't get let go.”
Now retired, Heard works with youth in Atlanta. He's stayed in contact with Kruger. They play golf together at least once a year.
“That team had some young guys, but it also had some veterans,” Heard said. “It's hard to change some veterans' ideas, to get them to buy into your program with a college coach coming in.
“Lon is the type of guy who always makes adjustments. Given time in Atlanta, he probably could have turned things around.”