The Commercial Appeal
By Ronald Tillery
Monday, October 29, 2012
Lionel Hollins once graciously asked a specific group of players, coaches and support staff to leave a team meeting.
They were all white.
This happened during a Grizzlies road trip when Hollins’ ears ached from the language he routinely heard on the team’s plane.
The people who remained in the room that day were all black.
And so the man everyone knew as the head basketball coach didn’t seem much like one in the moment. Hollins slipped into the role of historian. The time had come to lecture the black players about their reckless and relentless use of the N-word.
“You don’t see that very often where a coach is that comfortable to be able to do that,” point guard Mike Conley said. “He gave us a history lesson that day. It was powerful.”
Beyond the Xs and Os and a burning desire to win, Hollins aims to make a broader impact. He never misses the chance to intertwine basketball with real-life values. When he talks about the 2012-13 season that starts Wednesday at the Los Angeles Clippers, Hollins’ mantra is the same as when he took over in 2009: No matter what happens on the court, you can sleep at night if you know you did all you could every time out. That’s life.
“He wants us to be a better man when we walk away than when we came in,” center Marc Gasol said. “He’s really preaching on that. He has great experience on life. Some stuff some of the guys already know. But he just wants us to be better men.”
Soon after Tony Allen fought teammate O. J. Mayo on a team flight in 2011, both players met privately with Hollins. The incident reportedly had to do with a bad ending to a card game. Hollins talked to them about the big picture.
“It wasn’t about the card game,” Hollins said. “That was about respect. A lot of these guys don’t know how to talk to each other. The last thing I told Tony and O. J. was to let this be the end of it. Don’t involve your family and friends and make it some kind of war. It’s not worth it. … I tell all of these guys to respect yourself and those around you. That’s important.”
General manager Chris Wallace said Hollins is serious about teaching young people. At one time, Hollins juggled coaching an AAU team his son, Austin, played for, mentoring behaviorally challenged students at the request of Griz limited partner Staley Cates, and helping inspire inner-city youth through Lionel Hollins Charities.
“Lionel is more vigilant than anybody I’ve seen,” Wallace said. “There’s a difference in having a sincere interest and then doing something. That’s a whole different ballgame.”
Rudy Gay, the player whom Hollins has known the longest, agreed.
“It’s great that he wants to see us grow up because that’s really not his job,” Gay said. “His job is to create great basketball players, but for him to worry about us off the court says a lot.”
It’s not uncommon for Hollins to interrupt his pregame chat with reporters to throw a parental line of admonishment at a player just entering the building. Veteran forward Zach Randolph walked into that situation one day with his pants sagging off his butt.
“Pull your pants up, Zach,” Hollins said. “You’ve got kids.”
Randolph grinned and kept walking while raising the pants above his waist.
“He does it in a respectful way,” Randolph said. “Coach can relate to us. He understands because he’s from where we’re from.”
Hollins, 59, imparts the wisdom and no-nonsense discipline he received from a maternal grandmother who raised him in Las Vegas. His upbringing was like that of a lot of current NBA players. Hollins grew up in a loving household that was also impoverished and demanding. His grandmother couldn’t care less about sports but Hollins did and used athletics as an escape.
“These are the types of things that young people have to understand,” Hollins said. “It’s a fight out there and nothing is given, nothing is promised. You have to go earn everything.”
Hollins recently asked boxer and former inmate Dewey Bozella to reinforce his message. Hollins saw that Bozella spoke to Nick Saban’s University of Alabama football team and invited him to Memphis.
Bozella served 26 years in a New York prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Two years after his 2009 release, Bozella achieved the goal of fighting professionally. Bozella, 52, won his debut on the undercard of the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson bout at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Bozella’s speaking tour takes him around the country at least 10 times a year. He’d never been asked to talk to a professional sports team.
“I was very surprised when I got the call,” Bozella said. “I talk about several things — morals, obligation, responsibility and discipline. They had to have those four things to make it here whether they know it or not.
“Part of my message is that if you haven’t put money away, if you have no education, if you haven’t done anything beneficial, then you’ve done nothing. All you did was play ball. But you did nothing with your life.”
Grizzly tweets of admiration and excitement filled the Internet as if rapper Jay-Z had performed. Bozella’s message was similar to Hollins’ daily word in a different package.
“If you don’t think you’re bigger than the game … then you’ll be able to go into your post-playing career with good attitude to make that transition,” Hollins said. “But if you think this is just who you are then you’re going to struggle. That’s why you have former athletes who commit suicide, go into depression, get into drugs and alcohol and lose all of their money. They’re trying to find something and it’s not in the things they’ve accumulated.”
Everyone knows by now that Hollins is the coach because of his relationship with outgoing owner Michael Heisley. New boss Robert Pera will determine if Hollins receives a contract extension beyond this season — the last of a three-year deal.Heisley, however, always insisted that Hollins was a no-brainer hire for personal reasons.
“It isn’t that he doesn’t know the game. He knows the game as well as anyone,” Heisley said. “But he has something else. And that’s he’s a very good leader of young men. I don’t think anyone who knows Lionel would question that. When you’re around Lionel you recognize he has great character. I don’t care if you’re white, black or green Lionel’s position is always the same. He’s always a man of integrity. He doesn’t put up with shenanigans. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth so he doesn’t suffer fools in a lot of ways. He’s always on message. Important things are important things.”
Conley said players have long since disregarded how Hollins might come across and focus more on what he’s saying.
“You might think sometimes that he’s too honest with you,” Conley said. “The truth hurts a lot but at the end of the day you realize it’s for your best interest. A lot of guys have taken the things he’s said to heart.”
About three months after Hollins’ speech about the N-word, Allen used his Twitter account to ask his followers to stop using it.
Hollins, who doesn’t use Twitter, smiled at the revelation.
“All of a sudden people say things and do things that show you they’re listening,” Hollins said. “I’m not going to change them. I’m not trying to. But I can inform them. Hopefully, some of them get the point and keep growing.”