The rise and fall of Kurt Rambis as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves PDF Print E-mail

Those of you who have followed the Morning Links over the last couple of days may be somewhat familiar with the story of Kurt Rambis -- now the former head coach of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves.

Rambis started off as a player who was drafted and released by the New York Knicks, before becoming a Greek League champion with AEK Athens. From there he returned to the NBA where he won four titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, and eventually became a head coach, assistant coach, and assistant general manager with the same organization, winning two more titles for the city that gave him a chance.

However, since that long stretch of success, things slowly took a turn for the worse for Rambis. In August 2009 he was hired by David Kahn, head of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, to be the team’s next head coach. The Timberwolves were a team that Rambis wasn’t all that familiar with, and as it turns out, the Timberwolves would eventually realize that they weren’t all that accustomed to him either.

It was a partnership that was doomed to fail from the start.

In saying that, here’s a look back at the rise and fall of Kurt Rambis as head coach of this struggling organization…

Kurt Rambis was hired as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves on August 8, 2009, after being brought aboard by the team’s new head of basketball operations, David Kahn. Kahn hired Rambis based on his accomplishments both as a player and as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he was under the impression that the best was yet to come for his new recruit.

You see, when you’ve won four championships as a player alongside such talents as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and then you go on to win another two as an assistant coach under the legendary Phil Jackson (who was well on his way to becoming the most successful coach in basketball history) it’s pretty safe to say that you know what it takes to win in the NBA.

That was Kurt Rambis. A winner where ever he went, surrounded by people who wanted to win just as bad as he did.

It all began for Rambis back in 1980 when he was drafted by the New York Knicks out of Santa Clara University. Shortly after that, he was released by the team, and decided to try his hand at professional basketball in Greece, where he also holds citizenship under the name Kyriakos Rambidis. While in Greece, Rambis played for AEK Athens, and helped guide the team to a Greek Cup in 1981. He had turned his misfortunes as an NBA draftee into a chance to gain experience in another country. Greece gave him that opportunity, and later that year Rambis returned to the United States.

Upon his return to the NBA, Rambis signed with the Los Angeles Lakers – a team littered with talent. Rambis earned a reputation in Los Angeles for being an overachieving underdog who defied the odds. He was known as the ultimate team player, and he quickly blossomed into a fan favourite as the Lakers would go on to win four championships in a span of just six years.

In 1993 Rambis retired from playing after 14 seasons in the NBA, and would eventually move on to coaching. His first opportunity to coach came in 1999, and again, the chance was given to him by the Lakers. After one season as head coach, Rambis joined the front office as the team’s assistant general manager. Then, in 2001, he became an understudy to Phil Jackson, where he served as an assistant coach on an off-and-on basis, helping the team to titles in 2002 and 2009.

Things were looking up for Rambis, and he felt as though the time was right to leave Los Angeles and try coaching elsewhere.

It was the second title he won as an assistant in 2009 which led Rambis to interview for the head coaching vacancy in Minnesota, and as the head of basketball operation, Kahn was subsequently involved in the hiring process. In Rambis, Kahn saw a former seasoned and experienced player who was now being groomed under one of the league’s most respected and accomplished coaches. He saw the future coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he presented him with a four-year deal worth a reported $8 million.

Rambis jumped at the opportunity, and signed on the dotted-line.

His job as the bench boss in Minnesota wasn’t going to be an easy one. The ‘Wolves were constructed a lot differently from those Lakers teams that Rambis had won championships with. They were a franchise well passed their winning years when All-Star Kevin Garnett used to anchor the ship. They were a team in transition with no real superstar, and they were competing in a conference that was at its peak as far as talent was concerned.

Rambis told Kahn of the system he intended to implement, and trusted that Kahn would provide him with the right players for the job. As it turns out, Kahn’s roster didn’t mesh well with Rambis’ style of play, leading to two dreadful seasons in the Twin City.

Over those two seasons the ‘Wolves won a beleaguering 32 games out of 164. Rambis was coaching a team that was in a rebuilding mode, which was something he wasn’t used to. The young players on his roster were too inexperienced, while the veterans weren’t patient enough to stick around for the payoff. In his second season (2010-11) they finished dead last in the NBA and were the laughingstock of the league. Rambis now had two years left on his contract and he knew exactly how crucial the next couple of seasons would be. Improvements needed to be made in the lacking bond between himself and his players.

The only problem? Rambis wasn’t given a chance to turn his grief-stricken franchise around, after the team announced Tuesday that he was relieved of his duties. And while the decision to dismiss Rambis may have been the right one, it’s the handling of the entire situation that I feel the organization should be embarrassed about.

Ever since Rambis’ hiring it had slowly become public knowledge that his relationship with Kahn was not a strong one. The more the team began to lose, the less Rambis and Kahn would see eye-to-eye on basketball-related subjects. Communication between the two was deteriorating rapidly. As this past season ended, rumours naturally began to swirl that Kahn intended on firing Rambis. However, as the summer played out, instead of terminating Rambis’ contract and paying him out the remaining two years left on his contract, Kahn instead decided to proceed by interviewing potential replacement candidates for Rambis, while Rambis was still employed as the team’s head coach.

But it didn’t stop there.

Last week, in a blatant attempt to sway the public’s perception of his character, Kahn decided to offer Rambis a position in the team’s front office. To people on the outside it was supposed to look like a promotion of sorts. However to Rambis, it was merely a consolation. Being a man more passionate about coaching than front office politics, Rambis respectfully declined the offer, while Kahn didn’t even flinch. He just continued on his merry way, interviewing more potential replacements.

Why Rambis didn’t just resign after being offered that backhanded promotion is beyond me. I know I would have. But then again I sometimes don’t think things through. It could have easily been a classic case of “You can’t fire me… I QUIT!” But it wasn’t. Of course Rambis did the smart thing. He rolled over and played dead, allowing himself to be fired so that he could at least be paid out the remaining $4 million left on his contract. He basically thought of himself and his family which was the sensible thing to do in the long-run, making the only loser in this entire situation Kahn and his handling of the entire fiasco.

So my question to you is this: Can you compare Rambis’ short coaching tenure in Minnesota to a period of time in his playing career? I personally think you could. This current low point in his career can be measured up to when he was released by the Knicks soon after he was drafted. And what happened then? He managed to bounce back in no time by playing in Greece. He never let a bad situation get the best of him, and hopefully the same will happen for him in this case.

For the younger people who only know Rambis as the man who coached Minnesota for two abysmal seasons, let us not look at those numbers as a reflection of his career. Rather, let us look at it as a blip on the radar in a career that has yet to take off, much the same as those who did when he left the NBA in 1980 and turned his career around in Athens.

Who knows… maybe there will be another opportunity for Rambis in Greece, only this time as a head coach. After all, history does have a funny way of repeating itself.

By Jonathan Bliangas