Damon Stoudamire fiddled with the microphone at the press conference before wiping away the tears that had begun to swell up in his eyes. The former seventh overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft and Rookie of the Year had just officially been named the head coach of the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team. For the first time in his 15-year coaching career, the former Boston Celtics assistant is helming his own high major hoops program.
Ahead of his inaugural season with the Yellow Jackets, we sat down with Stoudamire at SLAM’s HQ to learn more about his coaching style and how he transitioned to the sidelines after 13 years on the hardwood.
SLAM: People know you from your NBA days in the ’90s and ’00s. What made you get into coaching?
Damon Stoudamire: I was in Houston and I was working out at Rice University. When I was an undergrad at Arizona, there was a guy named Chris Del Conte who was working under our [Arizona] AD Jim Livengood. He was the Athletic Director at Rice at that time and he was the one who said, Man, you should coach. He was like, We’ve got a new coach [Ben Braun], go talk to him. So I went and talked to him, and he said he could bring me on. He couldn’t pay me but it wasn’t about the money, obviously.
That’s how it started, just being around the game. It went from watching practices to, Coach, is it OK if I come to your office and shadow you? Talk to you, pick your brain? Yeah, sure. Coach, can I come to recruiting meetings? Yeah, sure. Coach, can I come on a road trip with you? I want to see what that looks like. So that’s kind of how it started. He let me get an apprenticeship—I would call it being a high-level intern. I was doing that for maybe a month and a half, two months. Then the Memphis Grizzlies, who I played for, had hired Lionel Hollins, and Lionel called me to see if I would be interested in joining the staff. That’s when everything started going in that trajectory.
SLAM: When you landed with the Grizzlies, was coaching something that you were actively trying to pursue?
DS: I’m still trying to figure it out [at that point]. Lionel let me get my feet wet, so I was in charge of player development. I was basically working out with guys that I just got through playing with. I played with Mike Conley. I played with Rudy Gay. Darius Miles was on the team. It was crazy, because it was like three to four guys I had actually played with in the NBA. And now I’m coaching them. So Lionel told me, I’ll never forget this, When you’re ready, we’ll give you some scouts. That’s kind of when I knew I wanted to coach.
I’ll tell you one thing about me coaching is that I learned from some of the best, and they taught me a lot and they allowed me to grow. That was the biggest thing—they allowed me to grow.
SLAM: At what point did you start to formulate a plan and a timeline for your coaching career?
DS: I never formulated a timeline but this is what I told myself—with my background as an NBA player, and then going to college, that’s the best of both worlds. That makes a man desirable. That’s how I looked at it. The only timetable I set—I haven’t told a lot of people this, only a couple of people know—was by the time I’m 50 years old, I want to be able to pick the job of my choice. Whether it’s in the NBA or whether it’s in college, I want to make myself the most desirable coach that I can be to where if a job opens, they say, We want Damon Stoudamire.
SLAM: How would you describe your coaching style now that you’ve got your own team?
DS: My style is simply how it fits my team. You cannot say you’re going to play one style or another if you don’t have the right team. So you’ve got to see what your team looks like. You have to see where the strength of your team lies. And then you’ve got to formulate your plan from there, on both sides of the ball. My style is, I’m a player’s coach. It’s a feel. I always put myself in the position of a player. Being a player’s coach is being relationship driven, and it’s understanding the room. And from the standpoint of who I am, that’s my greatest trait. I’m a guy who understands what each player needs individually to be successful and how that fits into the whole to help the team be successful.
SLAM: When you were hired by Georgia Tech, you and the Boston Celtics were in Atlanta to face the Hawks. Tell us a little bit about that weekend.
DS: It’s a 13-day road trip and about five or six games. There wasn’t even time to think, that’s how fast it happened. I get to Atlanta and I meet with the AD and everybody. Probably five minutes into the conversation, I was like, This is real right here. We were talking, getting to know each other, trying to gauge if it was a fit. Let’s see if Damon’s personality, his demeanor and his style fit Georgia Tech. So we go from that dinner to, Well, can you meet in the morning with the president? And that’s the morning that we’re playing the Hawks. We ended up meeting at seven in the morning. And as I’m getting on the first bus, I get a call and they said, Hey, man, it looks like you might be the guy. They want to start speeding this up. So we get through the game, get back to the hotel and start hammering out contract details. It was bittersweet, honestly. But things happened so quickly. And then right after that game in Houston, I got [on] a plane, came right back to Tech, had a press conference that morning, [and] then boom, you’re hitting the ground running.
SLAM: After you were hired, you said, “I always tell people, unless somebody tells me different, I have never known a guy that’s gotten a job that he chases.” What did you mean?
DS: Only a select few are chosen to accelerate the process. But most of us have to go through the process. There’s a trajectory to get to where we’ve got to go. I always tell guys, You’ve got to be patient and don’t be ambitious. Do the best job in the position that you’re in, because trust me, people notice that. I remember when Lawrence Frank got the Detroit Pistons job. I didn’t know Lawrence from a can of paint, and he didn’t know me. But I got a call from him about joining his staff because he had talked to people about me and they told him I was a hard worker, I’d be great for him. For me, that’s one of the biggest compliments I ever got. For somebody that you don’t know to call you and want you to join their staff—man, that doesn’t happen a whole lot.
SLAM: There have been so many great point guards who have come through Georgia Tech. Are you going to continue that tradition?
DS: The point guard has been synonymous with Tech, and I want that tradition to continue. But at the same time, there’s been some great forwards to come through Tech. I’m looking for the next Chris Bosh, Derrick Favors. I played with John Salley in Toronto.
For me, the biggest thing is getting Tech back to prominence. It’s a great city, it’s a great institution and it’s a great basketball conference. I remember growing up and wanting to play in the ACC. The ACC Tournament was the biggest thing for me growing up, even as a West Coast guy. When I look at the league and the success the league has had over the course of time, it just makes it more exciting for me to be at Tech.
Portraits by Marcus Stevens. Photos via Getty Images.