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Kokoskov makes history, lands ‘dream job’ by returning home to coach Suns

PHOENIX – The pressures of an NBA head coach are enormous. Now add the weight of the world, or at least the world outside the U.S., and that’s what Igor Kokoskov faces as the new head coach of the Phoenix Suns.

Kokoskov became the first head coach born and raised outside North America in NBA history.

He acknowledged the responsibility he bears on his shoulders on Monday, when he was formally introduced as the 19th head coach in franchise history.

Kokoskov went out of his way to thank managing general partner Robert Sarver and general manager Ryan McDonough for taking a chance on not only a young coach and a first-year head coach but a foreign head coach as well.

“It takes courage,” Kokoskov, 46, said. “It puts, not more pressure, but expectations to be prove that they were right.”

The Suns’ coaching search was both extensive and robust, according to McDonough, who along with James Jones, vice president of basketball operations, flanked Kokoskov at the podium inside the pavilion at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Several candidates were interviewed, either in person or over the phone, but it was Kokoskov who stood above the rest to fill the vacancy following a season in which Earl Watson was fired after three games and assistant Jay Triano served as interim head coach for the balance of 2017-18.

Kokoskov called his hiring “a huge achievement” given the historical significance, and at the same time, “a dream job” considering Phoenix is home. His family — wife Patricia, son Luka and daughter Elina-Grace — has lived in the Valley since his first tenure with the Suns.

“This was always home base,” said Kokoskov, who was a Suns assistant from 2008-13. “I was telling Ryan that sometimes you feel you have to leave to come back. So that’s how we felt as a family. The family always stayed here. We never moved — even the time spent with the Cleveland organization and Orlando and the last four years in Utah. This is our home.

“And obviously, from the business perspective, from the coach’s point of view, this is a lifetime opportunity just to coach one of the best teams in the history of the league.”

Of course, that hasn’t been the case in recent history.

The Suns once again did not make the playoffs this season, the eighth straight year with no postseason basketball, which extended a franchise-long drought. And this season, the Suns finished with the league’s worst record at 21-61.

“It’s quite a challenge that I feel I’m ready for and that’s why you coach,” Kokoskov said.

Kokoskov was an assistant under then-head coach Alvin Gentry the last time the Suns reached the playoffs, which culminated in an appearance in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. It was a team led by Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Grant Hill.

“We tasted and felt that, what is being part of a winning team and playing in June and being on TV in June. That’s a special moment and I think we all deserve that,” Kokoskov said. “I think the city of Phoenix deserves that. I think the fans who love basketball deserve that. And we’ll give our best to bring this organization and this team to that path … that’s going to be my goal.”

Kokoskov’s NBA experience stretches back 18 seasons, when he became the first non-American assistant coach in league history in 2000. Kokoskov has been on the coaching staff of seven teams to reach the conference finals and two teams to reach the NBA Finals. He won an NBA title as assistant coach with the Pistons in 2004.

“I learned a lot making my own mistakes and growing as a coach being with all these different programs,” he said.

As well-traveled as Kokoskov has been in the NBA, it’s perhaps his international resume that has set him apart and this offseason earned him his first-ever NBA head coaching interview.

A native of Belgrade, Serbia, Kokoskov has served as head coach of the Slovenian national team — working with Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic — for the past two seasons, including a gold-medial finish and perfect 9-0 record at FIBA EuroBasket 2017. It was that country’s first ever European Championship and first ever medal at any international competition.

In addition to his time with Slovenia, Kokoskov was head coach of the Georgian national team from 2008-15, qualifying for EuroBasket three times, something the nation had never done previously.

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re international coach or American coach, all that matters is can you get it done and can you coach,” said Kokoskov, who became a U.S. citizen in a special ceremony on the Suns’ court on June 18, 2010.

“It’s probably even more responsibilities for me because being a pioneer (coach) … I kind of carry some responsibilities because if this fails, then American media and the public is going to say, ‘See, they can’t coach. We got to stick with our guys.’

“Like I said, it’s not about being foreign, being a European coach. This is my home, Phoenix is my home and this is where I work. I feel very comfortable. I don’t consider myself as a European coach, I’m an NBA coach.”