Credit: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Credit Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

In the second part of his interview with BasketNews, Del Harris discussed his time with Team USA in the 1998 FIBA World Cup, coaching the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers with Magic, Kobe, and Shaq between 1994 and 1999, and offered his opinion on the Milwaukee Bucks winning the 2021 NBA title with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the forefront.

Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille  O'Neal
Position: C
Age: 49
Height: 216 cm
Weight: 147 kg
Birth place: United States of America

The coaching veteran also touched on the ongoing debate in modern basketball, revolving around the relevance of post play and the use of a 3-point shot.

An author of numerous basketball books that have been translated into five different languages, Harris has coached five different national teams at various FIBA competitions. In 1974, he led Puerto Rico to a silver medal in the Copa Americas and the country’s first-ever gold medal at the CentroBasket Championship. In 1994, he assisted Ken Shields with the Canadian national team at the World Championships.

In 2011 and 2012, he was sitting next to John Calipari with the Dominican Republic national team, winning a bronze medal at the Copa Americas in 2011 and a gold medal at the 2012 CentroBasket Championships. Harris was also the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks during the inaugural McDonald’s Championship in 1987, beating a talent-laden Soviet national team in the championship game.

From his home in Frisco, Texas, one of the most prolific coaches of all time was more than eager to share some interesting stories with BasketNews, including being part of a short-lived European Professional Basketball League, which was owned and operated by American investors but came to an end in a rather inglorious fashion in April 1975.

The first part, where Del Harris talks about the Olympics, Team USA's chances of winning gold, Luka Doncic, and the Mavericks, can be found here.

You have coached Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Jack Sikma, Moses Malone, among other notable big guys. Who impressed you the most and what do you think about those who say that post-up play has become extinct in the NBA and, to some extent, worldwide? - BasketNews asked Del Harris in a video call.

Low post was never a big factor in an international ball, it never has been. It's always been team play, passing, shooting. In the NBA, the emphasis has traditionally been on the big men. But with the 3-point game becoming such a big factor, you need to know how to use a big man.

For example, you don't need to have all five men spread out in a shell or try to penetrate and get to the basket. You can have a four-spread with a man in the low post, who -whenever there's a penetration in his direction - knows how to relocate, by going opposite or pulling wide. He doesn't need to be a 3-point shooter, but he needs to be able to make a 12-15-foot shot pretty consistently. The game is best played inside-out. There are three ways you can get inside: one is the fast break, second is the penetration off the dribble and third is to pass inside, draw the double and then pass out. It doesn't pay to have an inside man that can't draw a double. If you want to play one-on-one against an inside man, he's not going to be effective in today's game.

All the great players that you mentioned drew doubles. We learned how to get them the ball off screens and they were to make their move quickly to score or draw the double. So, you have to teach players how to get the ball inside, all the footwork, and the different moves.

If you had to choose only one of the big men, who would it be?

Just on ability and numbers, it had to be Kareem, but in terms of compatibility, I love Moses. He's still among the best in history in rebounds and scoring. Wilt Chamberlain's numbers were incredible. I would be happy to have any of those guys.

If Shaq had had the same focus on being the best ever, he could have been that. If he had had the same tunnel vision, total commitment to the game like Kobe did, he could have been the best. But he wanted to be a singer, an actor, he wanted to have fun and he still averaged 28 points, 14 rebounds, and got championships.

Of all those big men, he was faster, bigger, stronger than any of them athletically. I love being around him. The reason he has a great basketball host career is that he had all these other interests. He's a funny man. He makes more money-making commercials and doing television shows than he made playing basketball.

Credit Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images


Of all the coaches you had to coach against, who gave you the most trouble?

I coached during the golden age of coaches. I never thought I would win easily against any coach. We didn't have any first-year guys: Chuck Daily, Larry Brown, Bill Fitch, Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson, Dick Motta, Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson. The list goes on and on. You had to be prepared every night. It was a great time. To have coached and have been over 50% percentage winner against such coaches is a great accomplishment.

You've also got plenty of international experience, having coached Puerto Rico, Canada, and China, as well as the Dominican Republic as an assistant. Do you wish you had taken over a team from Europe as well?

I would have, yes. But no one has ever asked me. I definitely would have been the national coach for Spain, Italy, France, Croatia, Serbia. In my time, those were the countries way ahead of the others. When I first started coaching in international basketball it was 1969. There were very few countries that were that competitive. I coached in a number of international tournaments and the only ones we had to worry about were Italy, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia.

The Soviet Union were also good, but they were isolated and we couldn't go there. I was fortunate enough to play against the Soviets at the McDonald's Open. I actually spent part of a season in Spain. It was in 1975, when American businessmen formed the European Professional Basketball League (EPBL). It was supposed to be 8 teams, but it ended up with 5 and it lasted only for two months because they ran out of money. The 5 teams were Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Munich, and Geneva. I coached the Barcelona team and enjoyed my few months in Spain. I really liked living in Barcelona and I would have coached a team there, for sure.

You have witnessed international basketball's progress throughout the years up to the present when many non-US players are NBA stars. How would you explain that and what's the future like moving forward?

The emergence of basketball in Europe is pretty incredible. The reason for it is called hard work and desire. The coaches, going back into the 60s and 70s, started focusing on the game. It started in Italy, which sent a number of coaches to the United States to attend the practices of NBA and Division 1 college teams. Then, they invited us to do a number of clinics and camps. While we influenced their game, through hard work and using their brain they influenced the game back here.

Greece really became one of the prime places for American players to come. They were willing to pay more than the other countries. My friend Jonas Kazlauskas became the national coach in Greece, as well as in Lithuania and China.

The 1998 U.S. squad consisted entirely of non-NBA players because of the lockout. Only Brad Miller went on to become a two-time All-Star and participate in another tournament with Team USA. Do you think fielding a team with the best college players or overseas Americans could work long-term for Team USA in case NBAers are not available?

They could compete, but I don't think they're good enough to beat the best players in Europe. You can't put a college team together that can beat France, Slovenia, Spain, Italy. I was fortunate in 1998 when I was coaching the Lakers and Rudy Tomjanovich chose me to be his assistant at Team USA. There was a lockout and we had no players. We had to do open tryouts and brought in about 25 players in Chicago. We had guys like Jerry Colangelo and Rod Thorn helping us pick the players. We got a bunch of compatible players that were willing to do what they could. We had only 1-2 college players. The rest were guys that had played a little bit in the NBA but didn't make it and some were playing in Europe.

Brad Miller was a college senior but wasn't drafted. He ended up being the only one that actually had an NBA career. I think we would have gotten 1st or 2nd. The history of my experience in international basketball was that at times Russia would get the breaks. We lost to them and had to play Greece for the bronze.

Greece was good and the home fans were involved. We played a really good game. Greece has been a really good basketball country and they can be proud of Giannis and his brothers. We had Kostas Antetokounmpo with our G League team, the Texas Legends. We liked him and I think he will end up in the NBA.

Would you trade your presence with that team for an assistant coach position next to Rudy Tomjanovich in the Sidney Olympics?

Probably not. I think that our 3rd-place finish there was a bigger deal than winning the gold medal with 12 NBA players. In 2002 and in the next Olympics, Team USA didn't win. At that time, Rudy wouldn't have coached the next one at the Olympics. But because he got third place with no NBA players, they felt like they needed to let him have that opportunity. They had planned for Larry Brown to be the coach. So, they put Brown as his assistant and Brown became the coach in the Olympics. Anyway, I didn't get a gold medal and I would have loved it. I told Rudy: "that 3rd place was still one the best wins we ever had."

You were the last person to ever coach Magic Johnson and also the first to welcome Kobe Bryant to the NBA. How was your overall experience with the Lakers?

Really good, I loved it until the very end. My teams had always done well against the Lakers. In my five years with the Milwaukee Bucks, we played them 10 times and we won 7. No team did that in those years. The main reason I got the job was that Jerry West and I were very close friends. We made a good team. They were in the lottery the year before I came and I was all set to become GM of the Sacramento Kings. Jerry called and said that he persuaded the owner to hire me. So, the next year we won 48 games and I was Coach of the Year. The next year, we won 53 and I ended up being able to coach Magic for about 30-some games towards the end of the season.

It was a lot of fun until it wasn't. We were doing so well, but with 7 games to go in the season, Nick Van Exel, our great point guard, pushed a referee into the scorers' table and got suspended. Then, Magic bumped the referee with 3 games to go and was suspended. Ironically, we won all those games, but we entered the playoffs disjointed and we drew the defending champs Houston in the first round.

It didn't end as well as it should have because we really played well since we got Magic. He was terrific. I played him inside a lot. At that time, he wasn't a point guard. He was 6'9'' and weighing 265 pounds because he was taking medicines and was working out so that he beat the HIV. He played at the low post and he could pass the ball behind his back or his head.

Credit Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It was fun, but the next year we were young. They already had plans to get Shaquille and we had set up on trading Vlade (Divac), another HOF big man, to get a pick for Kobe. I hated trading him. We were already young. When I left, we didn't have anybody over 30 years old because Shaq was 24 when we signed him and Kobe was 17.

You have been an assistant and a head coach (1987-91) at the Milwaukee Bucks. Were you surprised by them winning the championship?

No, I wasn't. It was just a question of whether they'd beat the Nets. Once they did, they became the favorites in my mind. Again, God bless Giannis, but the weakness they had was that their best player wasn't a good free-throw shooter. That's a problem. You have Bill Simmons, who's a key player at Philadelphia and can't make a free throw. Even Shaq couldn't make them. But Shaq was a little better late in the game than he was in the rest of the time and did some other great things.

They added two veteran guys that really made the difference. Apart from Holiday, they brought in Bobby Portis to go with the nucleus. That's how you win. Now, the Lakers are doing the same thing. We'll see how it works out. They've got a mish-mash of players. They're all pretty good and good shooters. Carmelo, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn and Wayne Ellington. All four of those guys are 40% shooters.

Do you think that Giannis Antetokounmpo set an example of how NBA titles can be won by teams not stacked with superstars, like the current Lakers or the Brooklyn Nets?

What I like about the Milwaukee win, apart from having coached there, was that this is a team with no superstars put together. LeBron brought players to Miami and LA and Cleveland. Then, the Nets brought players from the Warriors and the Celtics. Giannis didn't put together that team and I like that. Milwaukee only have one superstar and some good, high-level players in Holiday and Middleton.

But Giannis couldn't win without them. He's a team guy, he's willing to do whatever it takes; he'll guard, he'll rebound, he'll score. I liked how both those teams played in the Finals; more than the 1980s teams, moving all the players and the ball instead of just isolating and playing pick n' roll. They played more like the Euros: they use pick n' roll, but they distribute the ball and all 5 men are involved in the game. I know that's old school, but that's how I like the game - and I enjoyed the Finals very much.

I don't always enjoy regular-season games, because there's not enough team play. When I coached the Bucks, I had three 7-footers who shot 3-pointers, all on the same team. Jack Sikma was the first 7-footer to shoot over 200 three-point shots in a season. On that team, Paul Mokeski and Brad Lohaus all shot the three.

I am not a fan of the focus on the three. I think the three should come organically most of the time. I'm OK with it in transition for a player who's at least a 35% or better shooter. I prefer 38%, but if he's in transition and has a wide-open look, he can shoot because we have as equal a chance of getting the rebound as anybody. If they get the long rebound, we got defenders back. What I don't like is come down, set, make one pass and the guy shoots it. You see that with Harden, Luka, Steph Curry, even with Booker. I'm not a fan of that, let's move the ball until somebody can get a better shot.

After Kobe died, you said: “Someone else is going to have to pick that up now.” Who could that be in your opinion?

I don't remember saying that. My point on Kobe was that he started out as this brash, young, focused on himself being the best ever player. Then, gradually, he went from being focused on himself to becoming an all-around player, team guy, and leader.

Credit NBA.com

By the end of his career, he had become a fully developed human being and leader, who was looking to not only help his teammates but other people, starting youth programs in his community. He set up the "Mamba program" and laid the groundwork, which will keep going. People have to continue that. He started a legacy that would have been more significant in society than what he did as a player.

By the time he died, he was 41 and I was 82. If he had another 41 years, he would have done more good for people than he did in his first 41 years. His wife is going to continue that. In that regard, someone needs to be a real leader in that program. That person's out there, but I don't know who it can be.

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