As tired eyes scanned the consolation games from media row at Las Vegas Summer League, shooting analyst Bob Koss had his trained on the talent, watching for mental miscues in the closing minutes of each quarter. The former UCLA man specializes in performance under pressure, and spent decades teaching young players the psychological ins and outs of making their shots. In his time at UCLA and beyond, Koss had been close with storied college basketball coach John Wooden, working behind the scenes with the Bruins. He remains close to the game, looking to help athletes succeed.
One athlete to find success at Summer League, albeit vicariously, was Wooden's pupil and current head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Earl Watson. His assistant Nate Bjorkgren has thus far coached the Suns to the quarterfinals of the Summer League tournament. Watson inherited a project when he took over as interim head coach during the 2015-16 NBA season, but the Suns placed their faith in him, inking a 3-year contract and surrounding him with a glut of young talent to work with in the years to come. Koss sees this and is characteristically watchful of Watson's pilgrimage, obliging us with a Q&A about Wooden, Watson, and what comes next.
David MacKay: "Can you state your full name for me?"
Bob Koss: "Sure, I'm Bob Koss: K-O-S-S."
DM: "And what is your relationship with the UCLA basketball program?"
BK: "I used to teach basketball in Pauley [Pavilion] when it was first open, and when the top recruits like [Kareem Abdul] Jabbar and [Bill] Walton were there. I became friendly with the coaches and played against all the players in the gym-- especially in the summer times-- and became friendly with coach Wooden."
DM: "What was your relationship with coach Wooden?"
BK: "Just as a friend. We used to have breakfast together. A lot of the coaches would have breakfast every day during the season, then after I retired, which was early '70s, and Wooden was still there, we used to meet for breakfast and lunch at his favorite place out in Encina, which is in L.A."
DM: "What kind of man was he?"
BK: "Well, I always enjoyed John. He was a really intellectual person of high character and he understood not just the game, but life, and felt that life was a matter of self discipline and success, and basketball was team discipline and personal discipline, so that was a key to his success. He didn't just have good ball players, but they subordinated their individual talents for the benefit of the team."
DM: "And what kind of values did he instill in his players?"
BK: "Personal values were high up on his list. He valued good citizenship and character. He didn't tolerate indifference to others, he was sensitive to his players' needs as young people often have a conflict with discipline, especially when they have a superior capability and think they should be treated as special. He would calm them down and give them some perspective and realized that we're all equal and we're here to help each other and do the best we can.
"What I always valued with John was what I value for myself in terms of what I call a 'pursuit of excellence.' If you're going to do something, do it the best you can. Then when you strive to succeed, you may not always reach the pinnacle that you're striving for, realize that you did the best you could and that everybody can't attain the pinnacle, like winning NCAA championships. In his field, everyone strives for it, but just because you don't attain it doesn't mean you can't be successful in the effort.
"He was extremely successful and he had a good opportunity because UCLA was a big attraction at that time and being in Los Angeles and Southern California, a lot of his recruits wanted to play there. Then with his success, they wanted to play for him. So recruiting wasn't as difficult at that time for him as it is now. Well the question then becomes, how successful would he be now with players that are only here for pretty much a one-and-done and you have to keep reloading every year? But he was a successful person in his time, and he would have made the adaptations, in my mind, to be successful even in today's game and the type of players you have today."
DM: "How would you quantify his impact on the game of basketball?"
BK: "He was the best. People say Dean Smith or some of the coaches that were even earlier, but it's tough to compare records from different generations. He had his players for four years, even though they were only eligible to play for three years, but he was able to sustain a high level of achievement that set a standard that I think will be unsurpassed today. It's hard to imagine his level of achievement--just like Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics winning as many championships as he won in a competitive era of his generation-- it would be hard to imagine duplicating today.
"David Stern, at the NBA level, achieved what he was looking for: parity. And so, given a player or two here or there, every organization becomes capable of competing for a championship. Then it's a matter of health and the breaks of the game and the ability of the coaches to make in-game decisions in playoffs. But that's why it's hard to compare eras, different generations, just like you compare coaches-- we're talking about coaches-- you talk about players. It's hard to compare players from [different] generations. You have to see them at their time within the competition they faced."
DM: "Now, he was really close with one of his pupils-- not necessarily one of his players-- but he was really close with Earl Watson, who was a former Trail Blazer, kind of an NBA journeyman, and now he's the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. How does it feel to see him carry on John's legacy in coaching?"
BK: "I wish Earl the best of luck. Earl has always been a good competitor. He didn't have the most physical of talents; wasn't the biggest, wasn't the fastest, and so Earl got by with a capability that's going to help him today in the NBA-- he was a smart player. He played within his capability and he also saw the value of teamwork. It's still a matter of the sum being greater than the number of its parts. So together you can achieve more than you can individually. I think Earl always had that understanding, and he was a playmaker and he was a capable shooter.
"Earl was someone that you had to consider in your game plan, because if he wasn't going to hurt you penetrating and getting his own shot, he was capable and was always looking to set up the other players for their best shots. So, he's a very good role model for players today to look back on the type of game he played, because of his intellect and knowledge of the game and his awareness of being sensitive to the capabilities of the players around him. Everybody's not a shooter. He understood the concept of role playing and the key to success in having good role players. I'm sure he's going to do very well for Phoenix if the GM can provide him with some good talent around him."
DM: "Down there in Phoenix they've got Devin Booker, who's kind of an All-Star caliber-- on his way up, anyway-- he's really dominated summer league. It's exciting to see Earl have some real talent at his disposal to try and build something."
BK: "It will be a growth thing for the whole team, including Earl. Don't forget, this is basically his first coaching opportunity even though he did move in as an interim coach and did achieve relative success picking up a system that he wasn't really critical in developing, but he's a resourceful guy and that's a key to coaching; being resourceful with your players and your system so that you have flexibility because the other team has capable people too. They have players and coaches capable of making adjustments, and so it becomes a chess game. You develop your talent, the ability of your players, and then you try to put them into situation where they can be successful. Then you've got the other side of the coin of trying to deter the other team from doing what they want to do and from them being successful.
"So that's what makes it such an interesting competitive experience, and with the fan base that Phoenix has-- they're the only show in town basketball-wise, although Arizona State and Arizona are very competitive teams in the PAC 12-- Phoenix has a tradition there of being competitive. I think Earl will continue that tradition."