Lawrence Frank is hardly your prototype NBA coach. He stands a mere 1.72 meters. His last head coaching stint was with a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) team. For years his only connection to the NBA was that his family and commissioner David Stern were neighbors in Teaneck, New Jersey. But, at age 33, he's the youngest head coach in American professional sports.
Frank's 9-0 record since taking over for Byron Scott as interim coach of the New Jersey Nets has been a source of amazement in the NBA and in basketball circles in general and has people asking, who is he and what is he doing right?
Frank's route to NBA coaching is unprecedented. Despite being cut from his high-school team, Frank was determined to find a place in the world of basketball. At age 16, he applied to the famous Five Star Basketball Camp but was denied admission because he wasn't playing competitively. Eventually camp director Howard Garfinkel found Frank a job as a canteen boy, selling refreshments.
Five Star has produced more then 300 NBA and college head coaches throughout the years, and Frank spent the next four summers soaking up coaching knowledge from the staff and expert guest lecturers like Hubie Brown and Rick Pitino.
Until three weeks ago, Frank was virtually unknown in America and totally unknown in Israel. One of the few Israeli basketball personalities acquainted with Frank is Simi Rieger, Channel 5's NBA color commentator and coach of Ironi Hadera of the National League. Rieger, a long-time participant in Five Star remembers Frank as a friendly, intelligent kid who, "always had a pencil and paper in his hand when he wasn't working. He was all over the place, furiously writing down notes, active, involved and on the go, all the time."
Garfinkel was so impressed with Frank's eagerness and hard work that he recommended him to Indiana University coach Bob Knight as student manager of the school's basketball team. Knight is one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history and upon Frank's graduation from Indiana in 1992, Knight recommended him to Kevin O'Neill.
O'Neill, the current head coach of the NBA's Toronto Raptors, hired Frank as his assistant coach at Marquette University and took him along, when he later was named head coach at the University of Tennessee.
Frank progressed through the coaching ranks, serving for three seasons as an assistant with the NBA Vancouver Grizzlies and then four seasons with the Nets until his promotion. Frank's recent promotion has prompted many comparisons between himself and former New York Knick and current Houston Rocket coach Jeff Van Gundy. Both were named NBA head coaches before the age of 35. Neither made a mark as a player nor had either one of them been a head coach beyond high-school level. Both were unknown and appointed to positions with high profile teams, under the intense media glare of the New York City area.
Though Van Gundy was improbably successful during his six years with the Knicks and brought them to one NBA championship final, Frank has traveled an even longer road. Van Gundy came from a basketball family, and his father was a college coach, while Frank has scrapped it out on his own to achieve his current status.
The Nets' 9-0 mark under Frank, ties him with two other men for the best head coaching start in NBA history. After a lackluster performance in the first three months of the season, the team is now playing inspired ball under Frank's intense and highly personal style of leadership.
Frank's coaching style is in marked contrast to his predecessor's. Scott was often criticized as arrogant and aloof. Despite leading the Nets to the NBA Finals the past two seasons, he was almost fired last summer.
Frank is using the same system that Scott employed with the Nets. The main difference is that the players, including superstar Jason Kidd, feel freer and looser with their new coach. According to Rieger, "the players respect Frank for his knowledge, hard work, warmth and sincerity."
The few changes that Frank has made, seemed to have worked out beautifully, like inventing ways for Bosnian rookie Zoran Planinic, to get more involved and more playing time, despite his problems with English, in game adjustments, like changing the defense against Allen Iverson in the last quarter to secure a victory over Philadelphia or simply inspirational oratory when the going gets rough.
Not everybody can coach in the NBA, but Frank like Van Gundy before him has shown that experience is not a necessity. When his interim status is removed, Frank should be proving that for a long time.
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