A night of candor with Craig Hodges
The Lakers' assistant unplugged. Talks Lakers, Kobe and the triangle.
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Lakers shooting coach Craig Hodges is dressed just as he does before any Lakers home game. Black Lakers-logoed shirt covering his slim torso. Black mesh shorts over legs still sculpted enough to carry his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame up and down the court for a game with ease, even though he turns 50 in June. White NBA-logoed socks on his feet.
Only he's not wearing any sneakers. And he's home. As in home home, at his apartment in Long Beach, getting ready to watch the Lakers road game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday.
Hodges, who played for Lakers special assistant coach Tex Winter in college at Long Beach State and for head coach Phil Jackson when they were first together back in Chicago, is in his fifth season assisting the team, providing the shooting expertise that led to a three-peat of 3-point contest titles for him at NBA All-Star Weekend in the early '90s.
While Winter has been away from the team since suffering a stroke last spring, ("He's kind of struggling," Hodges says about Tex. "His voice is getting better, but the mental part of it ... man. I feel so blessed to have him when I had him."), his never-satisfied commitment to the triangle and tell-it-like-it-is candor stays with the team through Hodges.
Leaning back in a recliner as he watches the game on a wall-mounted television -- a nice TV, but not obscenely large or anything -- with his 24-year-old son, Jamaal, and 26-year-old nephew, Mike Riggins, the honesty spouts from Hodges' lips with the same purity as his picture-perfect jump shot as he answers my questions and offers his observations during the game. He's agreed to have me over to watch the game with him so that I can see what he sees.
"No," Hodges says flatly when I ask him at one point in the first half if any players on the team stand up to Kobe Bryant and critique him if he does something detrimental to the team. On this occasion it was Bryant not sprinting back on defense after turning the ball over with a bad pass.
"Not one. They all kiss his a--."
I follow up by asking whether anybody on the Bulls teams that he won rings with in 1991 and 1992 ever called out Michael Jordan, a similar ball-dominant, once-in-a-generation talent with just as domineering a personality as Bryant.
Hodges looked at me straight in the eye, slowly raised his hand like he had the correct answer at school and broke into a wide smile.
The chatter is constant, and it's not coming from just Craig. When Craig sees something going wrong with the offense, Jamaal will often chime in with an additional quip. The younger Hodges knows what he's talking about, too. He's been playing the triangle since junior high school on teams that his dad has coached.
"It's all about buying into it," Jamaal says. "Maybe I'm biased. To me it's better than most other stuff because there are so many options."
But don't more options make for more opportunities to mess things up?
Jamaal assures me the principles are simple.
"Get to the open area. Leave space for other players. Don't pass and stand."
So simple is the offense that Jackson is allowed to concentrate his coaching efforts to motivate, denigrate or put more Zen on his team's plate.
"Training camp, Phil doesn't have to say s---," Craig says.
"We've been doing that a lot lately, being patient enough to make the defender come and commit," Craig says.
I want to ask him about shooting, because, well, that's what he is actually hired to help the team do. Hodges is at every home practice, arriving early at the team's training facility in El Segundo to work with Shannon Brown, Josh Powell and Bryant, always the first three players to arrive. He is at all the home games too, engaging in shooting competitions with players such as Powell and Adam Morrison long before tip-off. (Hodges doesn't travel with the team.)
He's worked with every player on the squad, some more often than others. He admits that his competitive side is still there. He was working with Sasha Vujacic one time and asked, "Do you know why you miss?" Vujacic replied that he didn't. "I always know why I miss when I miss," Hodges boasted. Hodges apparently isn't just a great shot maker, but a great shot misser, too. He doesn't work with Sasha so much anymore.
Once he got a message from Lakers trainer Gary Vitti that some people on the team thought he was shooting too much before games, something he says he can't help sometimes because he feels like a "kid in a candy store" whenever he comes into a gym. But he isn't some old timer trying to re-live his glory days. He truly loves teaching guys the art of shooting.
"It took Lamar Odom three years to believe," Hodges says, likening his teaching to something mystical like Santa Claus, not just a series of muscle disciplines replicated in precisely the same motion. "Now you'll see it. Any time he shoots a 2-foot jump shot, that b---- is going in.
He has an innate recognition of players' shooting form that's similar to the way a jeweler can appraise a diamond.
When Pau Gasol misses a free throw in the second quarter with the score tied at 33-33, Hodges blurts out, "His heels should never come down. Now he's blowing on his hands? If you're coming down on a break and get the ball passed to you for a 15-foot shot, you're not doing any of that. You're not fussing with your hair. You're not blowing on your hands. You're shooting in rhythm."
The Lakers have struggled behind the arc, and Hodges notes that their shooting percentage goes up when the attempt comes after a couple of passes rather than off the dribble. He expects to see more of the off-the-pass 3-point attempts in the postseason when each possession is considered more precious.
Throughout the game, we talk a lot about shooting and Hodges says the true mark of great shooters is if they count how many minutes they go without a miss, rather than how makes they go without a miss. He says the most impressive shooting display he's ever seen was put on by George Gervin ("He was swishing left handed finger rolls from the foul line like it was nothing") and that he is still in awe when he sees Steve Nash go through his pregame shooting routine, "That s--- is beautiful."
Vujacic later makes a jumper near the start of the fourth quarter using the two-foot, jump stop technique that Hodges teaches.
"That's what I'm talking about," Hodges says. "That's just like catching it and passing it to the post. That's him catching it and passing it to the net."
The Lakers lead 49-48 at halftime. I ask what's being said in the locker room.
"Play some damn defense," Hodges says. "A couple games ago, Phil didn't even come in the locker room until about five minutes left and just said, "What the [expletive] is this out there."
Craig thinks the Lakers have gotten past the lull that hit them in recent weeks, but admits even he was alarmed.
"I saw it in Miami, in the third quarter, and I thought, 'Right now we are questioning whether we're as good as we think we are,'" Hodges says. "Nobody would take a chance. They were waiting for plays to happen. It was crazy."
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More so than confidence, Hodges thought that the Lakers were just a little bored with the season.
"There's enough games left now to really feel the need to be ready for the playoffs and our energy is getting to that playoff mentality."
On the TV, the Lakers are making a run in the third quarter, punctuated by a strong drive to the basket by Odom to take a 77-68 lead at the end of the third quarter and head into the break with a mental edge.
Hodges stresses the importance of buckets like Odom's and says the team's goal should always be to find little cracks like that in which they can attack and break the game wide open.
"I tell people, our '91 [Bulls] team, I'd challenge against any team that won championships," Hodges said. "We were so conscious of what we were doing. We're up eight and we're on a 4-2 run. ... Let's make it 6-2. ... Let's make it 8-2. ... Let's make it 10-2. ... OK, they call a timeout? When they come out of the timeout, let's blitzkrieg their a-- and end this game."
"He's the best center in the league," Hodges says about Bynum when the 7-footer contests a shot in the fourth quarter.
Hodges doesn't say the 22-year-old Bynum is going to be the best center in the league, he says he already is.
I rattle off Bynum's competition: Dwight Howard, Amar'e Stoudemire, Yao Ming, Chris Kaman. Hodges hears every name and continues to stare at me with the same blank expression, waiting for me to mention somebody he'd agree was better than No. 17 for the purple and gold.
Hodges started working with the Lakers in Bynum's rookie season when the young center's body was pudgy and his game was undeveloped. Even then, Hodges said, Bynum's mind impressed him.
"We were in Hawaii for training camp and these attractive ladies came up to him wanting to take a picture," Hodges says as he stands up from his chair to act out the scene. "As soon at the picture is ready to be snapped, Andrew takes his arms and goes like this [Hodges folds his arms behind his back like a soldier standing at ease]. He wasn't going to be touching no girls or having no girls touching him. He was there for business.
"I like him because he's a critical thinker. I'm like, man, this young cat, he's thinking about something."
Hodges says Bynum's length and touch put him above Howard, who generally gets the nod at the best center in the game today.
He also says that Bynum and Odom are the two players that have to continue to improve for L.A. to win a string of championships and says that Odom's U.S.A. Basketball invite should propel that.
"I told him [Odom] he was the same place that Scottie [Pippen] was," Hodges says. "Then he was named to [the] Dream Team and he got better. He came at Horace [Grant] at practice the day after he was announced to the team harder than I've ever seen him. You're on U.S.A. Basketball now. You're on another level that was only reserved for MJ. That's Lamar and Kobe, too."
Hodges has had some excellent coaches in his life. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who led Michigan to the NCAA title in 1989, was his high school coach. He had Jackson in the pros, of course, along with Paul Silas in San Diego, Don Nelson in Milwaukee and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, but none of them were as influential as Winter.
It's the Tex Winter in him that laments after a jumper by Gasol in the first half: "That was successful, right. Because we got a basket. But that's horse s---. There's four guys on the other side of the court standing around."
Hodges lets his pure passion for the game break out every once in a while. A Tyreke Evans spin move on Artest causes Hodges to exclaim, "Whooo weee! That's some ghetto stuff. That's straight out the playground!"
But when you're reared in the college ranks by the same guy -- Winter -- that told his team on the first day of practice, "I'm going to give you a term to learn for everything about this game," and later, "I'll forget more basketball today than you guys will ever learn," it's tough to watch a game without being needled by things that are going wrong.
"They don't know the second and third option [for the offense]," he says at one point in the first half with several bench players in. "That's the cold pizza."
That's his way of saying, That's the honest truth.
When the Lakers let their 13-point lead to disappear, he says, "We don't know what it takes to buck up."
Hodges doesn't outright say that he has started waving Winter's flag since the architect of the triangle has been without the team, being cared for by his wife and family in Oregon, but he sure is honoring his legacy.
"Tex is a cold, critical analytical guy about the game, man," Hodges says. "He'll challenge the team. If the team isn't playing the right way, it's Phil's style to let them figure it out over a week. If it persists for two or three days, Tex will step in and say something, and PJ will just bite his tongue because his respect level is so high for Tex."
As much pride as Hodges has for his Bulls teams, he has even more adulation for Winter's Kansas State team that beat Kansas in 1958.
"Check out Tex's Kansas State team with Bob Boozer. They beat Wilt Chamberlain's team. Four little bitty white guys, no more than 5-10, and Bob Boozer, who was 6-9. It was so crisp. They were running it like robots and hitting J's. It was stupid good. Incredible, man. Incredible."
The Tex comes out of Hodges a lot when he talks about Kobe Bryant. Hodges has an immense respect for Bryant, but his respect for the game is even bigger. He can't help but needle him sometimes.
In the fourth quarter, Hodges curses at the screen when Vujacic has the chance to push the ball after grabbing a defensive rebound, but slows down when he starts to race down the court and catches Bryant trailing behind him out of his peripheral vision. Vujacic almost immediately picked up his dribble and passed the ball backward to Bryant, breaking the cardinal rule of always advancing the ball, never retreating.
"Run by his a--, make his a--- run," Hodges says. "Kobe wouldn't have deferred to him [in the same situation]."
He says he can see Bryant playing 10 more seasons if he wanted to, but adds, "You only got so many games in your body, regardless of who you are."
"In this system [Bryant] can play a long time, because he can always defer and nobody knows when he's going to go off. He can easily [average] 10 [points], 10 [assists] and six [rebounds], then go for 25 [points a game] in the playoffs. He can easily play a season like that, and let Pau be an MVP candidate."
Still, whatever guff Hodges gives Bryant, he is equally entranced by his ability.
"Kobe realizes he can expand the game, put his stamp on it, do things that nobody has ever done before," Hodges says.
When I ask what he means, we talk about some of the moves that Bryant puts together. A lot of guys have a crossover to set up a drive, or a jab-step series to set up a shot, or a spin move to elude a defender. How many guys can put together a crossover, spin move, jab-step series all in one seamless move and throw in a head fake or a pass to himself off the backboard to complete the stew cooked from a command of the game's fundamentals?
"You will see him methodically think about all that," Hodges says as he gets up from his chair once again to reenact Bryant's footwork during a shooting drill, performing a series of jabs or pivots before faking a fadeaway, then launching a leaning jumpshot.
They say that coaches watch games differently. They say they don't watch the ball. That isn't true with Hodges. He watches the ball, he just watches everything else, too.
There's something he could point out on every possession, from the minor: "Jordan [Farmar] needs to work on his dribble entries to the post."
To the major: "To stop the opposing point guard when he runs the pick and roll, we got to get into his body early and be committed to getting him to the sideline and out of the paint."
To the tricks of the trade: "Refs aren't going to mess with no little guy. I'm setting a hard pick on the perimeter and I'm holding that [guy]."
To the tricks of the triangle: "The most effective way to score in this system is out of the triple-threat position. Even in the post -- turn and face."
To observations about body language that you thought never mattered as much to a coach as they really do: "You're always being watched on the bench," he says when Farmar and Morrison are shown on the screen sitting down while the rest of the team is huddling during a timeout. "Are you in it for everybody or are you in it for yourself? Know who used to do that? Dennis Hopson. We'd say, 'Ain't none of us are the ones who aren't playing you, look at [Coach]. Now, get your head in the game and cheer for us.'"
It's late in the game and the Lakers take a 100-89 lead on a jumper by Gasol.
"That's it. First one to 100 wins. Old NBA adage. When you see three numbers to your two? [You think], 'We're screwed.'"
There was still 1:39 remaining in the game, so I ask him when a game is really considered over. We had been talking about "Winning Time," the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary that chronicled Reggie Miller's eight points in nine seconds to beat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
"We used to say you have to be up 12 in with a minute left to beat us, on the Bulls. Otherwise, Pip's going to get some quick steals and MJ, he's going to do something. I don't know what it is, but he's going to do something. We used to call him the Black Cat because he has nine lives. With him we were never dead."
The Lakers don't need any late-game heroics from Black Mamba on this night, winning 106-99.
"It will be a day off tomorrow, back-to-back dubs," Hodges says as the buzzer goes off, signifying their fourth win in a row following that disastrous three-game road trip. "We're moving where we're supposed to. This is our 50th win, right? There you go. It's a good 50th."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com