PHOENIX — Firing two of Jeff Hornacek’s assistants avoided the issue briefly but after watching Phoenix falter over the past month, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough decided he had no other choice.
Hornacek had lost the team and there was no other option but to fire the head coach.
McDonough introduced interim head coach Earl Watson on Tuesday and admitted the Suns have no set plan in evaluating their head coaching vacancy.
In the meantime, Watson, the youngest head coach in the league at 36 years old, faces the task of rekindling a fire on a team of college-aged players thrust into the spotlight who are mismatched with underachieving veterans.
“First order of business for us is to build trust, to build a program, not an organization,” Watson said after he and McDonough challenged players in a team meeting. “The structure is going to be there. And also to build a family. We have to love, we have to nurture, we have to teach.”
With only one year of bench experience in the D-League before this season, Watson was hired by Hornacek this offseason to groom point guard Eric Bledsoe. Watson’s role became key in a failed attempt to make free agent LaMarcus Aldridge a Sun, and it grew when he took over defensive coordinator duties for fired assistant Mike Longabardi.
Suddenly, Watson finds himself taking over for a man he said he loved.
“The truth is, when (Hornacek) brought me here, I told him I probably wouldn’t be here long. I’m sure I’d transition somewhere else,” Watson said. “Before you know it, I’m sitting here right now. It’s tough.”
Watson awoke Monday morning to the news of Hornacek’s firing. Before committing to an interview with McDonough and Suns owner Robert Sarver, he called his former boss, who gave the 13-year NBA point guard his blessing to take the opportunity.
“You never want to get it this way,” he said.
In his introductory press conference, Watson recited quotes from legendary UCLA Bruins head coach John Wooden, who once invited an 18-year-old UCLA point guard into his den to talk about life, love and, eventually, basketball. Watson remembers asking Wooden about a similar theme from his championships.
“No one cared who got the credit,” Wooden told him. “Teaching that, bringing that. Building young men of characters. Everything outside of basketball is the initial business (for the Suns).”
McDonough said Watson had a leg-up on fellow assistants Corey Gaines and Nate Bjorkgren, who also interviewed for the interim job. Watson commands respect in the locker room — much like friend and newly-hired coach Tyronn Lue in Cleveland’s — and said he wouldn’t be afraid to tweet at a player to get his message across.
“Earl’s got a powerful voice,” McDonough said. “He’s positive, he’s enthusiastic, he’s encouraging, but he’s also not afraid to be direct and hold players accountable and tell them what they need to hear and not what they want to hear.”
Perhaps Watson learned that from one-time Memphis coach Hubie Brown, who once cursed out the young point guard so badly he asked Grizzlies general manager Jerry West for a trade. West talked Watson down, and the next week the guard surprised Brown in practice.
“A week later, I’m asking Coach Brown details of the game because I wanted to learn, I wanted to learn what he thought,” Watson remembered. “And he stopped me. He said — I can’t say all the words — ‘Are you messing with me?'”
Watson spent his introductory press conference remembering the time he called a lob play to the dismay of Utah coach Jerry Sloan and how at UCLA, he and Baron Davis survived starting as freshmen for a highly-scrutinized 1997 Bruins squad. He also credited Hornacek, Indiana president Larry Bird and San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford for teaching him.
The Suns expect Watson’s communication skills and motivational tactics to help their broken culture that’s lacked discipline and accountability — things McDonough said players recently asked for more of.
“The more we realize our limitations, the further we can go,” Watson said, before turning to a high school biology analogy. “It’s like Krebs Cycle, we depend on each other, constant accountability. It cycles around and it just flows. It can never break.”
Though Watson’s job as teacher — he doesn’t like the word ‘coach’ — may not be permanent, he said through many Wooden quotes that he’s all about the journey, the opportunity.
McDonough admitted it may not be about the wins. The record may be a reflection but not the reason Hornacek was relieved of his duties.
“The losses may come obviously — I hope they don’t but they may — but we need to play harder. We need to play the right way,” McDonough said. “The players have not responded as well as they should over the past month. They’ve been put on notice.”
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