It was first time former Indiana University head coach Tom Crean had seen them – the three huge, bold words stamped above Loud City inside Chesapeake Energy Arena: Committed. Community. Together. Something about seeing those words struck Crean in a way he didn’t expect, and so before he got down to the x’s and o’s, he spent some time talking about culture.
At the seventh-annual Thunder Coaches Clinic on Saturday, Crean was joined by assistant coaches Mike Boynton from Oklahoma State, Adam Cohen from Stanford University, and Kenya Hunter from Nebraska University, along with former University of Florida women’s head coach Amanda Butler as the guest speakers. Oklahoma City Blue Head Coach Mark Daigneault kicked off the proceedings and served as the host of the day, and Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan capped it off as the final speaker.
Watch: Talking Culture at Coaches Clinic
Before Donovan had his chance to grab the microphone, Crean laid out the core tenets of offensive spacing, attacking a press and running crisp offense. He also gushed about this, his very first experience with the Thunder organization, and reminded the 450 local middle school, high school and collegiate coaches in attendance that the Thunder’s Coaches Clinic is a rare and special opportunity that doesn’t exist in every NBA city.
“You get it,” Crean said of his experience with the Thunder. “Anybody that gets a chance to be around this, to watch the Thunder, to see how they live out community and how they live out the togetherness, that’s a privilege.”
“They put their best foot forward to include people,” Crean continued. “You can see how well they treat their own people and how well they treat their players.”
Boynton was the first to speak and even at 8:30 a.m., he brought an immense amount of energy that got the coaches invested from the get-go. His topic was defense, specifically the intense, pressure man-to-man that the Cowboys play up in Stillwater. “The only way that gets it done is if you emphasize it every day,” said Boynton, as he utilized the Thunder’s Youth Basketball coaches to show the crowd the exact footwork and technique to prevent opponents from getting to weak spots on the floor.
Next was Cohen, who has worked at University of Arizona, Rice, Vanderbilt, Harvard and now Stanford, learning under some of the brightest minds in college hoops. He showed off some quick hitters on offense, and plays that can be run with just seconds left on the game or shot clock. He also ran through some offensive sets that can be utilized to confuse the defense because of the easy changes and tweaks that can be made out of them.
Butler, who has known Donovan for years going back to their days at Florida, went through zone offense and how to be a confident, comfortable team in those scenarios. The most important aspect of going against a zone defense, Butler explained, is not allowing your team to get concerned or complacent when they see something different on the floor.
Skill development has always been a hallmark of the Thunder program, so it was fitting that Hunter focused entirely on how his guards, wings and big men work on their shooting, dribbling and passing through drill work. The creative skill challenges were easily transferrable to any setting, and something that the local coaches could take back to their squads.
“I really enjoyed Kenya (Hunter) from Nebraska. I liked the drills and the guard development that he talked about,” Pretty Water School coach David Dotson said.
“It was just a good day overall for basketball lovers,” said Dawon Foreman, basketball coach for Rogers Middle School. “Team culture, that was big. Just setting the tone as far as what happens inside of the locker room. How the kids love one another, accept one another and care for one another, and making them go out and be able to play for each other.”
Crean spoke next, waxing poetic about the way the Thunder talks the talk and walks the walk. He then showed the coaches how the ball finds energy and how to not just beat, but attack a press defense by using full court spacing and strong decision making.
“I enjoyed watching (Tom) Crean out there. He was excited and getting after it,” Dotson observed. “One of the things the coaches said is that when you show up excited, the kids are excited. That’s something that I think I need, to keep my coaching level up.”
Over the weekend, Crean had the chance to spend time with Thunder front office and coaching staffers, but his history with Donovan goes back decades.
When they were both graduate assistants, Crean at Michigan State and Donovan at Kentucky, the duo used to have to share scouting tapes with one another. As they both advanced further in their collegiate careers their teams somehow never crossed paths on the court, but a mutual admiration grew. That’s why Crean wasn’t surprised in the least that Donovan earned the opportunity to coach the Thunder, and has had success doing so thus far.
“I don’t think it’s any accident that a sustained success program like the Thunder would hire a sustained success person and coach like Billy,” Crean remarked.
To Donovan, the platform in Oklahoma City gives him a chance to pay it forward to those that are in the position he was decades ago – aspiring young coaches looking to grow and get better.
“Coaching is about sharing ideas,” Donovan said. “I remember always being appreciative and thankful for all the coaches that took time to help me grow and learn.”
“Just getting a chance to hear him speak a little bit about his experiences, how he’s dealt with players, built a winning culture and maintained a winning culture, that’s big for a lot of us to hear,” said OCU Men’s Basketball Coach Vinay Patel.
So as a perfect balance, Donovan took the big picture approach while the other coaches speaking at Saturday’s clinic were there to help with the on-court work. The Thunder head man shared personal stories about some of the trials he’s faced as a head coach, but also discussed ways to overcome some of those issues that can pop up for coaches during a season.
The primary drivers for most people, according to Donovan, are fear, meaning and a desire for greatness. He explained that tapping into what drives each player, and as a coach connecting to that on a personal level, can cut off many problems on a team before they ever happen. Showing empathy, compassion, love, care and acceptance as a coach will often be rewarded because players will in turn do the same to their teammates.
“When you’re bringing a group of people together, equally as important as the x’s and o’s, is what kind of team are they going to become,” Donovan explained. “How are they going to play and perform with each other? How are they going to sacrifice and help each other?”
As a result, the coaches who attended the 2017 version of the Thunder’s Coaches Clinic received a holistic seminar on how to improve as a coach, and in turn improve their teams. Each summer, the Coaches Clinic provides what can’t be found anywhere else in the state of Oklahoma – the chance to learn from some of the best and brightest basketball minds in the country, and to share experiences and make networking connections.
Crean, who had never stepped inside Chesapeake Energy Arena before the weekend, was blown away by what he experienced, and what the coaches seated in the lower bowl had the chance to learn.
“When you do a clinic like this for as many years as they’ve been doing it and allow the access that they allow inside of this, that’s great,” Crean noted. “It’s fantastic. I think it just says that if the highest profile pro franchise in this state and this area can treat people like that, there’s no excuse for anybody else not to do that.”