Igor Kokoskov knew this would be an interesting season.
Kokoskov, who was born in Serbia, served 18 years as an assistant coach in the National Basketball Association before gaining his first head coaching job in the association. He is the only head coach in the NBA of European origin.
Nearing the All-Star break, his Phoenix Suns have an 11-48 record. Their victory against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 8 was the team’s first in the Pacific Division. Since then, they have lost 15 in a row and are buried in the Western Conference basement.
“I’m blessed and I’m fortunate to have this job,” Kokoskov told GlobalSports Matters during a recent off day. “It took 18 years. For some guys, it could take even longer. It could take forever. Maybe it will never happen. I was never under pressure to achieve what I have achieved. It’s life. I could have waited 30 years, so from that respect, it only took 18 years.”
It has been a learning experience for the young players he is coaching and for Kokoskov. His team entered the season 17th among the league’s 30 clubs with an average experience of 4.06 seasons and the fifth-lowest average age (25.12 years).
The hiring of Kokoskov is unlikely to usher in a sea change when it comes to the hiring of internationally-born head coaches in the NBA.
“Most European head coaches have a head coaching job in Europe,” said Mike D’Antoni, the coach of the Houston Rockets who holds dual U.S. and Italian citizenship. “They’re getting paid a lot more as a head coach over there than as an assistant over here, so they don’t go that route. It’s hard to get a job.”
The NBA has been reticent about hiring coaches born outside the United States. Steve Kerr has led the Golden State Warriors to three NBA titles in the past four years. Though born in Lebanon, he is a U.S. citizen and the son of an American academic. The first was Eddie Gottlieb who led the old Philadelphia Warriors from 1945-1955. Gottlieb was born in Kiev, Ukraine before emigrating with his family around the turn of the 20th century. He was followed by Kiki VanDeWeghe, an American citizen who was born in West Germany to American and Canadian parents, who coached the Nets on an interim basis in 2009-10.
[beauty_quote quote='"Most European head coaches have a head coaching job in Europe. They’re getting paid a lot more as a head coach over there than as an assistant over here, so they don’t go that route. It’s hard to get a job.” - Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni']
“(Igor) worked his way up in the U.S. with the college jobs and as an assistant coach under some great NBA coaches. I’m really very happy that he got this job,” said Vlade Divac, a close friend who, in 1989, became one of the NBA’s first Serbian players. Divac is the vice president of basketball operations for the Sacramento Kings.
“People (in the Phoenix front office) have to be patient with him. They have a very talented team that needs some balance. They’re lucky to have him to develop these young players for the future.”
The fact Kokoskov received this opportunity is part of a trend in the NBA, which has become a far more international league. According to figures provided by the league, 108 of the 494 active players as this season began were born outside the U.S., including a record 65 from Europe.
Comparatively, as the 1991-92 season opened and Kokoskov began his coaching career at the youth level in Belgrade as a 24-year-old who had just survived a harrowing car accident, there were 23 international players in the NBA from 18 countries.
“Many years ago, only the best of the best European players, international player could even think of coming over here to play,” said Kokoskov, who is 47. “(Arvydas) Sabonis, (Drazen) Petrovic, Tony Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Dirk Nowitzki, all these guys. They had already achieved everything. They had already achieved everything except playing in the NBA. Things have changed, because right now you’re bringing guys over with some potential. You draft potential, not necessarily productivity.”
This season has consisted of a lot of losing for Kokosov. The Suns are battling the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the NBA. Two teams have fired their coaches, including the Chicago Bulls, who dismissed Fred Hoiberg after a 5-19 start.
Kokoskov’s lack of success in Phoenix might not augur well for future foreign-born NBA head coaches.
“It might happen again, but I don’t think it’s a process,” D’Antoni said. “Like, now that we hired Igor, OK, let’s go get another European. He just happened to fill a need at the right time and got a chance. Obviously, he’ll have to do well, and that will help other international coaches.”
Not the same in the coaching ranks
As the international and European influx of players has accelerated in the NBA, coaches born in the same parts of the world have lagged. Including Kokoskov, 12 assistant coaches in NBA history have been internationally-born: five from Serbia and one each from Germany, Croatia, Canada, Congo, Lithuania, Turkey and Ukraine. Divac and Peja Stojakovic are running the basketball operations for the Kings.
“The NBA is a free market,” Kokoskov said.
The growth has been slow more by happenstance, rather than by any plan.
“I have never considered the question,” said David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, who presided over the league’s greatest period of growth during a 30-year tenure that ended in 2014. “Playing and coaching are not relatable parallels. Over time, there will likely be more international coaches in a shorter period of time than there were successful international players.”
“Everything takes time and everything is relative,” said Jerry Colangelo, the former Suns owner who has had a successful run with USA Basketball in multiple roles, including as chairman. “There are only a handful of jobs. There’s a select number of jobs available. So it has just taken this long for someone to rise to the occasion.”
[beauty_quote quote='"Playing and coaching are not relatable parallels. Over time, there will likely be more international coaches in a shorter period of time than there were successful international players." - Former NBA commissioner David Stern']
Kokoskov came to the U.S. in 1999 as the first European-born assistant coach in NCAA men’s college Division I history with the University of Missouri. From there, he moved into the same role with the Los Angeles Clippers, Detroit Pistons, the Suns, the Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz. In 2004, he became the first European assistant to work on an NBA title winner, that season’s Pistons.
He has watched the slow growth from within, certainly as a part of it.
“As an international coach, the one thing I notice is every team has at least a player development coach from other parts of the world, a lot of them from Europe,” he said. “A lot of teams are pushing that. That’s a trend that exists. From San Antonio to you name it, the Utah Jazz. They need an international flavor, a different angle. Something different that somebody is thinking, something unique. New ideas. You can go through the whole league and that’s something that’s happening. Not just because of the basketball players, but more and coaches are coming from overseas.”
In Phoenix, this is Kokoskov’s dilemma
It hasn’t been easy. Perhaps the warning shot for Kokoskov was the Suns fired general manager Ryan McDonough nine days before the start of the season, replacing him on an interim basis with James Jones and Trevor Bukstein.
Kokoskov said that hardly matters. He’s on firm footing with his bosses.
“I try to treat people the right way, with respect. That’s how I was raised,” he said. “That’s the reason. I worked for this team seven years ago. They brought me back. I never burned the bridges. I’m in a good place with all the relationships I have in the organization. I’m trying to do my job, which is win some games.”
The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since 2011 when Kokoskov was an assistant under Alvin Gentry. He’s the fifth coach since Gentry was let go.
“I’m so happy for him. Over the years, I’ve seen him grow as a coach and a person,” said Stojakovic, another Serbian former player from the late 1990s who’s now director of player personnel and development on the Kings under Divac. “Opportunity came, and he’s trying to take advantage of it the best he can.”
But the Phoenix roster has been in flux all season, resembling a G-League team at times. Their best player, guard Devin Booker, has missed a number of games with injuries.
[beauty_quote quote='"The basketball market is changing with more and more international players and just the globalization of the game in general. The NBA is wide open for many reasons to market itself all over the world. When it comes to coaches, whoever helps you build a product, build your business, there’s no barrier." - Phoenix Suns coach Igor Kokoskov']
It has been a learning time for everyone: A young team earning experience and a novice coach trying to juggle the lineup without luck or effectiveness.
“It’s a process,” Kokoskov said. “We’re trying to figure out a lot of things, trying to figure out yourself and what really fits for the team. What the guys accept, and what they reject. In the meantime, we have to work on getting better. We have young guys, few vets. I can’t say I’m pleased where we are right now, but it’s a long season and a long process.”
Against the Trail Blazers at Portland in December, Kokoskov was caught on camera having a heated exchange with rookie forward Mikal Bridges during what should have been an instructive moment, the Suns trailing 71-50 and 5:48 left in the third quarter.
“It’s a bad look,” said Charles Barkley, a former Suns star and Hall of Famer, on TNT’s NBA postgame show after viewing the clip. “I live in Phoenix and the fans deserve better than this.”
Bridges said later that Kokoskov wasn’t happy with a foul he had just committed and was trying to explain how to avoid such a situation. Bridges turned away and wasn’t having any of it. In the end, the young guard realized he was wrong.
“He was telling me that I should keep my hands off the man I was guarding when I fouled him,” Bridges said. “I didn’t think I fouled him, but when I watched the video I realized I did.”
The situation repeated itself with three minutes left in the third quarter in January as the Suns were making a spirited come back from down 21 points in the game they won against the Kings. Josh Jackson was in the lineup replacing the injured Booker. Again, Kokoskov had an animated discussion with his player in front of the bench. Jackson was more responsive than Bridges.
“The way we play is that we’re supposed go around a screen to cover a player,” Jackson said. “I was supposed to be covering (Bogdan) Bogdanovic. (Willie) Cauley-Stein set a screen, and when I tried to go through him, Bogdanovic got a wide open easy shot. That’s all it was really about.”
It’s not an easy play to make. It was a teaching moment and that’s what Kokoskov does. He’s forceful, constantly running up and down the sidelines, waving his arms, thrusting out his chest, shouting encouragement, criticism and plays.
“We’re all learning, and he’s learning, too,” Jackson said. “He’s throwing lineups together out there, just seeing what works, what doesn’t, implementing some new plays. We’re definitely finding out what works and what doesn’t.”
Kokoskov has been through much worse as a kid. A nearly fatal car accident and a severe left ankle injury which required 11 surgeries to save it ended his playing career before it started.
He never played competitively again. At 24, Kokoskov, a University of Belgrade graduate, became a coach of Serbian teams at the local level and in international tournament play.
He has been through a lot, and he wants to convey that knowledge to his young charges.
“It was nothing but a teaching moment,” Kokoskov said about his interaction with Jackson. “All we talked about was basketball. It was strictly about details that he has to do to be better. There was no drama. There was no confrontation. We are in a good place. He’s very open. He wants to get better.”
To Kokoskov, hope remains eternal. It must. This could be his only shot at a head coaching job in the NBA. He has to make the most of it as the international wave continues.
“The NBA market is a live thing,” Kokoskov said. “The basketball market is changing with more and more international players and just the globalization of the game in general. The NBA is wide open for many reasons to market itself all over the world. When it comes to coaches, whoever helps you build a product, build your business, there’s no barrier. If the owners and general managers think that an international coach can help them develop their team, their business, I don’t see any reason to keep that from happening.”
Barry M. Bloom has been a baseball writer since 1976, and a National Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1992. His sometimes award-winning national reports and columns appeared on MLB.com for the past 16 years, until recently. He’s now a contributing columnist for Forbes.com.