Fred Hoiberg’s relaxed manner this week belied his busy schedule.
If we had enough time Tuesday, I would’ve asked him 100 NBA questions. But the first-year Nebraska men’s basketball coach obviously has plenty on his plate with an overhauled roster and a four-game trip to Italy looming early next month.
So I zoned in on Hoiberg’s stint playing for the magnificent Larry Bird.
That would be the Larry Bird, who captured imaginations of all ages with his deft passing, prolific scoring ability and overall savvy on some marvelous Boston Celtics teams throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
You can learn plenty about a coach by asking him what he learned from those who coached him.
Bird took over as the Indiana Pacers’ head coach in 1997-98, Hoiberg’s third year as an NBA player. Hoiberg played his first two seasons in the league for Larry Brown.
“Larry Brown was a detail guy,” Hoiberg said. “Larry Bird was more of a concept guy. He let Mark Jackson call the plays. Larry Brown called every play.
“We had a flow package, but if it was a set situation Larry Brown was calling the play. Bird was really more about freedom, you know, let the guys go. He didn’t say a lot. But when he did, it obviously mattered.”
Bird had instant credibility with players.
What’s more, “He had two great assistants,” Hoiberg said. “He had Rick Carlisle as his offensive coach and a guy named Dick Harter, who was the Knicks’ defensive guru back in the Pat Riley days. (Bird) let those guys handle a lot of practice, and Larry kind of oversaw everything.
“Larry Brown was much more hands-on with everything. I mean, he was a guy who was always talking.”
So, an obvious question: Is Hoiberg more like Brown? Or Bird?
“Probably somewhere in the middle,” he said. “Probably more like (Kevin) McHale.”
Hoiberg has high regard for Brown, Bird and McHale, who played alongside Bird in Boston.
“I think I’m the only guy in (NBA) history to play for both Bird and McHale,” Hoiberg said.
Bird coached only three seasons (1997-2000). By the time Hoiberg played for McHale in Minnesota (2004-05), many of Bird’s players were out of the league.
After Hoiberg retired as a player in 2006, he worked for four years in the Minneapolis Timberwolves’ front office under McHale, who became a general manager.
“Those are some of the most important days of my basketball career, sitting around talking basketball with Kevin McHale for two hours a day,” Hoiberg said. “I learned more in those one-on-one settings, just sitting there talking about the game and watching film with him ... He just had such a clear picture of the game.
“His spacing concepts were so good.”
You often hear Hoiberg make reference to the NBA. He watches video of the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in an effort to pick up knowledge about offensive concepts. Hoiberg’s love for the league makes sense. He was part of it for 18 years, 10 as a player. He has some incredible memories playing with Reggie Miller, Chris Mullen, Jalen Rose and Kevin Garnett, among others.
“We had the Bulls down 18 in Game 7 at the United Center in the (1998) Eastern Conference finals,” Hoiberg said.
Then some dude named Jordan took over the show, as Bird did so many times in playoff games.
Bird as a coach instilled confidence in players. Which brings us to a critical part Hoiberg’s current job. He’s getting to know his players as quickly as possible so he fully understands what makes them tick.
His players also are learning about Hoiberg and his staff. In that regard, I asked Hoiberg what he’s like right before a game.
“A lot of it is about preparation leading up to that moment,” he said. “At that time, you just talk about the last details that you think are important going into that game plan. I’m not in there screaming at them. You try to get those last points across to them that you feel are going to be the difference in winning or losing the game.”
“I talk a lot to our players about, you know, they have to be able to hold each other accountable. Obviously, (the coaches) are a very important part of it. But we’re not out there between the lines playing the game.”
He mentions Garnett as a player who held teammates accountable.
“He’d come over to the bench, and he’d be right in your face,” Hoiberg said. “You had to know who he was and be able to handle it. If you did (handle it), he was the greatest teammate in the world. If you didn’t like it, you hated the guy.
“I loved him. I loved it when he would come over because I knew he cared about me. That’s what it’s about. When I jump on a guy, it’s not because I don’t like him. It’s not because I’m picking on him. It’s because I’m trying to make him better, and I’m trying to make a point.”
He sees Tennessee transfer Derrick Walker holding teammates accountable in summer workouts. Walker is the most vocal Husker (so far). But Hoiberg still has plenty to learn about his team even as his players are learning about him.
They should ask him about Bird and McHale. That’ll tell them plenty.