A boisterous roar takes place at Target Center — not in the arena, but in the back hallways — roughly three minutes before the national anthem is sung before a home game and Timberwolves players are introduced.
It comes not from the players, but the coaches — a group of grown men mostly ranging from 35 to 65 years in age.
But, for a brief moment before every game, they’re teenagers again.
All of the assistant coaches line the hallway leading from the locker room to the court. Then, at the three-minute mark on the pregame clock, the quality control coach — who in the past was Nathan Bubes, and this season is Jeff Newton — will knock on head coach Chris Finch’s door. Finch emerges and makes his way through the tunnel, fist-bumping every assistant, with a straight face as he heads toward the floor.
Behind him, chaos ensues.
In past years, Bubes would follow behind with Finch’s iPad in tow. He, too, would go through the tunnel of coaches, receiving one “atta boy” smack after another — usually beginning with director of player programs Moses Ehambe — to a chorus of cheers, while doing his best to maintain a straight face.
Now in that role, Newton’s plan of attack is to leap up and body bump assistant coaches as he makes his way down the line.
Assistant coach Micah Nori joked the loud cheers are far more for the other assistants than the head coach.
“But don’t tell Finchy that. We don’t need him to get upset,” Nori quipped. “Maybe his ego is like, ‘Yeah, they’re cheering for me!’ No, no, no.”
Finch is well aware.
“The pregame hype line, hype tunnel, it’s not for me,” Finch said. “In Europe, we used to all put our hands in just like players do in a huddle. It’s just something to bring the staff together. I don’t like the thought of all the staff just meandering out there on their own. I’m just very big into connectivity in all the ways that we can accomplish it. And it’s a little thing to say, like, ‘Hey, it’s our time to rally together, too.’ ”
“We usually walk out in a really good mood,” assistant coach Pablo Prigioni said.
Prior to Minnesota’s lone home preseason game this fall against Maccabi Ra’anana, Nori and Co. were well aware there was a camera documenting the pregame ritual. The assistant coach made sure to overly elaborate his claps and even deliver a thumbs-up while staring directly at the lens. The staff approaches the hype line the same way in the preseason as it does ahead of the most important games of the year.
“We’re not taking anything too seriously,” Finch said.
And that’s the magic of this staff.
“It’s light, it’s fun,” assistant coach Elston Turner said. “It’s stress-less.”
Stress is synonymous with coaching in professional sports. Turner said it’s “very rare” to achieve the type of atmosphere the Wolves have cultivated.
“It’s a pleasure to come to work when you’re allowed to work and it’s fun for you,” he said. “It makes it pleasant to be around.”
It’s not the case everywhere. Minnesota’s veteran coaches can attest to that.
“All I can say is I’ve been on some teams, some places, that are the other way, where you kind of dread it,” Turner said. “You do your job, because that’s what you’re there for, but you just understood that the day was going to be stressful.”
“I’ve been on some great staffs,” Nori said, “and then I’ve been on some staffs that I couldn’t wait for practice to end. I couldn’t wait to go home.”
This staff, by all accounts, is the former. A major reason for that is because of the general lightness with which they operate. Turner made it clear the Wolves coaches do a heavy amount of work. It’s not unusual for him to be up until 2 or 3 a.m. after games, putting together plans for the next game or day of practice.
All of the coaches described an accountable culture in Minnesota. You’re hired to do a job, and you’re expected to do it.
But you’re also trusted to do it. Turner said no one is “breathing down your neck” as you operate. And there is an understanding that this isn’t life-or-death work.
“You come to work with a mindset that you’re going to have fun. Yeah, we have a lot of work to do and everybody is responsible for their own things,” Prigioni said. “But just sharing all those moments, which is breakfast, lunch, a meeting or pregame or whatever, with people that you really get along with well, it’s so much more enjoyable.”
That can include pregame football watch parties in the coaches locker room, which allows everyone to take a breath prior to battle. It also features a copious amount of humor.
Timberwolves assistant coach Joe Boylan needs laughter like he needs oxygen.
“It’s probably my No. 1 priority, even above basketball,” Boylan said.
He gets his daily fill at the practice facility.
“We have a hilarious staff. Micah is probably one of the funniest people I’ve been around,” Boylan said. “So I just like sitting by him on the plane. I like being around him the locker room before the games. We just have a really fun atmosphere. There’s a lot of funny guys.”
Nori said Finch is the funniest member of the staff, citing his wit. That sets the tone for everyone around him.
“If you aren’t a little bit self-deprecating, a little bit witty, Finchy isn’t going to enjoy being around you,” Nori said, “and he’s making those (staff) selections.”
So the jokes fly frequently. Bubes noted if he shows up 15 minutes later than usual, he’ll get ribbed for sleeping in. And if he’s still at his computer while others are heading home, he’ll get knocked for never being willing to step away from work.
“It is Micah, and then he gets Coach to pile on,” Bubes said. “And Joe gets involved, (and assistant coach Chris Hines).”
“When it comes right down to it, we laugh a lot. We have a lot of guys that make each other laugh,” Finch said. “That just helps. It helps keep the mood light, no matter what. And many times in our meetings, we’ll get off track and we’ll be laughing, and then we’ll get right back on track. It is very unique.”
The levity is almost a requirement to survive the seven-plus-month grind of an NBA season.
“Eighty-two games, you’re gonna lose 40,” Boylan said.
And you need to not mentally and emotionally crush yourself after each defeat. That’s easier said than done in coaching, where wins and losses determine job security.
Finch even described himself as “moody” during the season.
“That’s just kind of how I’m wired, unfortunately,” he said.
But the coach noted his staff helps him remain even-keeled.
“After a tough loss, when Nate is eating wings, and it’s a total mess, we look at each other and just break out laughing,” Boylan said. “And it’s super awkward, and you’re not supposed to be laughing.”
And yet those moments are exactly what’s required throughout the course of a season. That, Finch said, is a staff’s job. He said his assistants have to be the ones who are bringing energy every single day. Players, he noted, will inevitably show up in various moods at various points of the season depending on current circumstance, much like he will himself. The staff has to be consistent. He doesn’t want there to be fewer jokes the day after a defeat.
Boylan said the Wolves coaches are big on celebrating wins. They remind themselves of that even when they win “ugly.”
“It’s great to have coaches that remind you, ‘Hey, let’s put a smile on our face here. We won tonight. We can’t be down when we win and down when we lose. We’ve gotta ride the wave,’ ” Boylan said. “And I think that’s helped keep us just that steady, kind of consistent, just bringing good vibes, good energy, which I think carries onto the players. They can feel it when you’re coming in and you’re in a dark place or you’re depressed in a losing streak. We want the gym to feel like you can’t tell what happened the night before in the game. And that’s not what it is in some places. They want you to be much more business-like after a loss.
“For us, it’s more about just being consistently who we are, and that’s awesome.”
Do *your* job
What allows the Wolves coaches to get along so well is they aren’t constantly competing with one another. Boylan noted there is a “typical NBA competitiveness or people trying to climb the corporate ladder.”
“It becomes really draining and really awkward,” he said.
That’s not the case in Minnesota. The Timberwolves staff members all described their work as collaborative, from the top down. Finch helps ensure that by handing each coach a printout of their specific responsibilities — from day to day to gameday — for the season.
“We all know exactly what we’re doing day to day, and what our role is,” Bubes said.
So there is no trying to outduel one another or stepping on toes. And as part of that divvying of responsibilities, Finch does his best to ensure every staff member has a “meaningful role” void of busy work.
He built a staff full of people he hoped would complement one another and cover for his weaknesses. Finch, an offensive mind, knew he needed an experienced defensive coordinator — enter Turner. He wanted someone who was adept at managing the small parts of the game — enter Nori.
It’s a collection of people who have similar values, but varying skillsets and approaches. That pops up in film studies, where Bubes said Turner will deliver his message to the effect of “Yeah, you know, we messed up here” in his southern drawl, while Finch “will go kind of after (players).”
Maybe not everyone has the same-sized role, but they all matter.
And everyone has a voice.
For example, when there are decisions to be made about a scheme or game plan, all input is welcomed in group discussions. Boylan said Finch will withhold his opinions on matters to start, so as not to “influence the room.”
“If we don’t have different ideas, what are we here for? We’re definitely not ‘Yes’ men. I think Finchy appreciates that, and I know we do,” Turner said. “Sometimes during the season, everything is not peaches and cream.”
Conversations get heated.
“I have no problem getting into saying my perspective, that’s different than Micah’s perspective, in a coaches meeting, debating it, even getting upset about it, even getting emotional and wanting to stand on your point,” Boylan said.
That’s a major part of being a coaching staff. But, Nori noted, when you get along with everyone, it’s clear those discussions are centered on “personnel, not personal.”
“It’s like your brother or one of your close friends,” Williamson said. “I can have an argument with you, but it doesn’t mean I dislike you. We’re going to push it to the side once we walk out that door.”
Turner said Finch has “the hard job” of making the ultimate decision after everyone lays out their arguments. And once a direction is selected, the staff forms a unified front to support it.
“That’s another thing that’s good, because there’s so many times, let’s say that you wanted to show and I wanted to drop (when defending pick and rolls). And then we show and it’s not working,” Nori said. “The worst thing that can happen is me being on the sideline and being like, ‘Well, I tried to tell him we should’ve been in a drop.’ Instead of, (a player asking) ‘Hey, Micah, why are we showing?’ (And I respond), ‘Well, because we thought that was the best thing. We’ll adjust it if we have to.’
“You don’t want to say you’ve got each other’s backs, but (if you don’t stand behind the decision), it’s like death by 1,000 cuts. And over the course of seven months, it tears apart everything you’re doing.”
The unification is again made easier by the lack of grappling for position on the staff. Finch applauds lack of ego. It helps that he is constantly rewarding good work. He has promoted lower-level assistants multiple times during his still-brief tenure in Minnesota.
“Keeping guys motivated, in a meaningful role and on a track where they feel like they can develop is at the forefront of my mind,” Finch said.
Sometimes, that means guys will have to leave. Kevin Burleson, for instance, took a job to become the head coach of the G-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers ahead of last season. Bubes is moving from Minneapolis to Des Moines to work as an assistant coach on the Iowa Wolves’ staff. His essential chief-of-staff duties — managing staff workflow and dynamics — will now be handled by Newton, who was previously the Iowa Wolves head coach.
But there is also only so much promoting Finch can do. He appreciates the remarkable stability he has had on his staff for three years — “It’s going to be our third season together for most of us, which is crazy. It’s not normal,” Prigioni said — but Finch insisted many of his coaches are ready for even bigger roles.
Kevin Hansen, he noted, is “100 percent” ready to run his own defense. Nori has the qualities you want in a head coach. Prigioni can take on even more. The list goes on and on.
If and when the time comes for current staples of the coaching staff to take on more elsewhere, it will be difficult to go. With Finch and Tim Connelly, Minnesota has created an environment in which people want to work, and feel empowered to do so.
When Finch got into the NBA, he asked someone “What’s the hardest part of working in the League?”
The response: “The people you work with.”
“I was like shocked,” Finch said. “It always struck me, and I didn’t think it ever had to be that way.”
It’s not in Minnesota, which matters to people in the organization.
“Your working environment, the more you enjoy it, it makes a difference in how long you’d like to stay around. A lot of guys on this staff have been around for a long time,” Turner said. “I love it here. I enjoy it, I enjoy the players, I enjoy the staff and even management, man.”
Both Prigioni and Williamson compared their current environments to that of their playing days.
“Every day you come to the gym, you’re in the locker room looking forward to seeing the guys, everybody has got a story to tell,” Williamson said. “It makes the days go by easy.”
In the summers, Finch promotes coaches pursuing their other life interests. For Nori, it’s watching his son play baseball. For Prigioni, it’s coaching with the Argentinian national team. On road trips, Hansen will visit with his family when the team is in Los Angeles, and Nori will do the same when the Wolves are in Detroit.
Bubes noted Finch never mandates anyone attend anything outside of work. Yet they always seem to find their way back to one another anyway.
On any given off night on the road, five or six of the coaches — with the exact group changing each time — will go out for dinner together. Boylan noted Finch has an Italian restaurant in Portland they always walk to together.
Prigioni drives Boylan to the airport for every road trip. When Finch invited his assistant coaches to Second Harvest Heartland, where he is a member of the board, for a food-packing event, everyone attended.
“This is a group of friends working,” Prigioni said. “It seems like that.”
“I definitely feel like I have lifelong friends that will exist always outside of basketball,” Finch said. “That’s just the type of people we have. I think there’s a real genuineness to everybody here.”
Boylan described the staff as a “family,” a word used far less in professional sports circles than it is at the lower levels. But these are the people, he noted, that he’s with for a number of major holidays, including his birthday. And given their relationships, that doesn’t feel like a bad thing.
“It’s the most fun environment I’ve ever been around. So yeah, it makes all the long hours, the crazy trips, the lack of seeing your family around the holidays just so much easier to stomach,” he said. “I think it’s super rare. In 14 years, this is by far the most cooperative, highest chemistry, most fun that I’ve had. And that’s just my own personal bias, but I tell people, it’d be hard for me to work for somebody else after this.
“After working for Finchy, how he is and how he lets us work and the people I’m around, these are the guys. I’m going to be calling Micah for the rest of my life when I need a laugh. So yeah, it’s special.”
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