MEMPHIS, Tennessee — It had been a decade since Lionel Hollins left the Grizzlies and the Grit ‘n’ Grind era ended. Hollins coached the Nets. He won a championship as an assistant on the Lakers. He spent this season with the Rockets, helping mentor players who weren’t born when he took his first head coaching job in Vancouver.
The thought of entering the FedEx Forum for the first time this season has once again brought a wide smile. Those were glorious times, with a franchise and community as connected as teams can ever be, even without a championship parade rolling down Beale Street.
Hollins has played in Portland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit and Houston. He coached from Los Angeles to New York. He was past the years that still fill much of his reputation. But he never left, in more ways than one.
“I know a lot of people,” Hollins said of his annual arena return to the city he still calls home. “I talk to the ushers and all the people who still work here. There are no players there yet, but it’s a good feeling to go back. And a lot of fans that I know, a lot of fans have supported me, so it’s always fun to see everyone and just catch up because even when I’m in Memphis in the summer, I don’t get out much.
“I’ve been in Memphis for 20 years. I mean, I was there before I became head coach. And then I was there after being head coach. Even when I went to Brooklyn, I kept my home. I have never changed location. It’s still the headquarters. It’s still Memphis. When you dive into a city with businesses, grandchildren — I have three children who live there and three grandchildren — it’s home.
Yet as he considered his annual return to that rink and the familiar faces that will hail the winningest head coach in Grizzlies history, Hollins didn’t enjoy returning to the place of those halcyon times, or even the city that embraced him as much as the awareness that feels this way every day.
At 69, and a coach since becoming an assistant with the Suns in 1988, he could have called it a career. Would have been nice. He won a championship in 1977 with the Trail Blazers. He had been an All-Star, a two-time All-Defense selection. He finished his playing career with the Rockets in 1984-85.
With the Grizzlies, he led a team that went 24-58 (13-26 after he took over) to 40-42 in his first full season followed by three winning seasons capped by a franchise record 56 wins and Western Conference run Finals in 2012-13.
Hollins, however, happily joined Stephen Silas’ staff and the Rockets’ youth-filled rebuilding for one simple reason.
“I always enjoy being in the gym,” she said. “I tell the players. It gives me energy. We played three in a row. And then the next day, we’d go to practice, and it would be in some dank little high school gym up the road somewhere. I would be tired. But once we got out, the energy filled me up and I was ready to go.
“Likewise now. And that’s how I know I’ve been gifted to do it. Because when I come to the gym, I have energy to be in the gym. This is what it takes. If you don’t, you might as well go home.
This has become the message to share, teach and take home. After all the seasons and all the losses this Rockets season, Hollins still sits in field side as the teams warm up and is still excited to be there. Plus, he makes sure players feel the same way.
This isn’t, however, a basketball lesson so much as a life lesson.
“There’s never a bad day,” Hollins said. “It’s raining and snowing. Obviously, the earth needs all of this to survive. So, it’s a good day, because it’s filling the Earth or serving the purpose of the Earth. I always tell them, “When you wake up in the morning, it’s a good day.” There are a lot of people who don’t wake up and a lot of people who have ailments and can’t get out of bed or have no money or food. It’s a nasty day. But even then, it’s not a bad day because if you believe in Christ, you know it will be temporary.
“It’s nice to have this influence. Also, Bill Russell used to say, … ‘I play basketball but I’m a man.’ And it’s true. All right. These guys all warp. No matter how many people are clapping, no matter how much money you’re making, who you are in, you need to find out who they are and appreciate that and don’t compare yourself to anyone else and don’t let people bring you down because you didn’t meet their expectations.”
Hollins learned this when he was traded from the 58-24 76ers who had gone to the 1982 NBA Finals to the 25-57 San Diego Clippers (coached by Paul Silas, Stephen’s father).
“It was tough for me because I had always been around winning, winning a championship, going to the Finals,” Hollins said. “And then I got there, and the expectations were so low that when we finally won (25 games), they wanted to take the good money and have a party. I didn’t want to have a party. And it was frustrating.
“It was also an eye opener for me that I am a veteran player, but I don’t want to go to the store, I don’t want to see my neighbors, they will look down on me because we are not winning. And that’s when I realized that I am the one who I am regardless of how many games I win or how many points I score.”
As much as Hollins is tasked with teaching young players taking their awkward first steps in the NBA how to play the game, he teaches that perspective. There was a need.
“It’s just him,” Stephen Silas said of Hollins’ even-handed intensity. “I remember him in Memphis as a more intense guy. But in the role we have of him, he can go back and forth and relate. Boys love it. He relates to them because he has been playing and has been around for so long. He has that great way about him. He’ll lead with a joke or a funny story and then get into the nitty-gritty of what’s really important.
He doesn’t talk about his achievements as a player as much as he will explain what life in the league was like. This isn’t some grandpa telling kids about the climb both ways to get to school. The point is to teach gratitude, a valuable lesson in a season in which the Rockets lead an 18-54 record going into a five-game road trip.
“I am not a writer. I’m not a singer. I’m not a dancer,” Hollins said. “I was a basketball player. That was a gift. And he created a platform so that I could serve my purpose. My purpose is to mentor young men and teach them how to be productive and good human beings outside of this arena.
“If you are always unhappy about something because you want more, you can never be happy because how much more will make you happy? Be thankful for what you have. Appreciate what you can. We are all gifted by God. We all have a purpose when we were created. To honor him, we go out and maximize our gifts.
Rockets players know Hollins’ playing career, if not the details. When the Rockets were in Portland, Silas pointed to Hollins’ retired #14 in the rafters. Trash talk is backed up by years of locker room practice.
“I’ll tell Alpi (Sengun) when he teases me, ‘Alpi when I was 25, I’d rip your butt off again.’ ‘Josh (Christopher,) do you want me now, or do you want me when I was young and athletic like you?’” Hollins said. “It’s not very important (his playing career) because my relationship shouldn’t be based on that. It should be based on me as a person in relation to them as a person.
He will tell about washing his uniform and training after matches and training sessions, going back to the hotel to take a shower because the changing rooms were so lacking. He will cite years of playing through pain, regulations at the time which he said led to knee and hip replacements, and a left hand with fingers pointing in multiple directions. But that’s all, he said, to teach gratitude.
“We know he knows what he’s talking about,” Rockets forward KJ Martin said after his nightly iPad session with Hollins. “I try to absorb all that knowledge and put it into my game. I like stories.
“He has lived a lot. When he talks to me about anything in life or basketball, I take it all. Be grateful regardless. We can do what we love. And the stories ultimately get around the point she was making.
That’s why Hollins still coaches, because she still loves him. So much has changed since the Grit ‘n’ Grind years. He won’t look back, unless a story brings a lesson or another reason to smile.
“I know a lot of kids who have given up playing,” Hollins said. “They can’t do anything because they can’t live without worship, they can’t live without the big salary, without traveling first class, living first class, eating first class on someone else’s money. They should be thankful they have it because it won’t last.
“Chuck Daly used to say ‘it’s better than working’. You guys should have a smile on your face and energy in your heart.’”