LOS ANGELES — You probably heard that the Brooklyn Nets made the safe choice when they promoted assistant Jacque Vaughn to head coach six games ago.
Let’s reframe that: They made the right choice.
Anyone who was in L.A. and paying attention in the early 1990s could’ve told you that. People who knew Vaughn then, who played with him, coached him or watched his games from the edge of their bleacher seats – they knew.
Initially, though, word was that the Nets – who were losing games and, in the aftermath of Kyrie Irving’s decision to promote an antisemetic video, respectability – planned to add another twist to their soap opera of a season by bringing aboard Ime Udoka.
Also a former Brooklyn assistant, Udoka led Boston to the NBA Finals last season, his first as head coach, but the Celtics suspended him before this season because of an improper relationship with a subordinate.
Whether it was because of outside pressure or a moment of sensibility, the 2-5 Nets instead chose Vaughn, once a standout scholar-athlete at Pasadena Muir High School, to take over for Steve Nash and pull them out of their nosedive.
With Vaughn serving as their lead coach in the six games since – first as on an interim basis and, as of Wednesday, a permanent one – they’re 4-2 (and 6-7 overall). (They’ve played the past five without Irving, who has been suspended for a period that will continue Sunday against the Lakers.)
And with Saturday’s 110-95 victory over the Clippers at Crytpo.com Arena, they’ve held five consecutive opponents to fewer than 100 points.
Pasadena Muir’s Jacques Vaughn has the Nets playing some spirited basketball: They improve to 6-7 overall — 4-2 on his watch — as head coach after beating the Clippers 110-95 on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/Tx6k2DbzJd
— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) November 12, 2022
Sure, if you predicated the the kid from L.A. with the flashy fundamentals and 4.0 grade-point average was destined to grow up to become a titan of industry.
That was Rocky Moore’s expectation. He has the distinction of having coached both Vaughn (from 1989-1993) at Muir and the Golden State Warriors’ five-time-title-winning coach Steve Kerr at Pacific Palisades High School (1981-82).
“I thought they’d become CEOs of a Fortune 500 company,” said Moore, whose kids can say the current Brooklyn Nets coach was their babysitter. “They were both really serious in whatever they did, and personable and intelligent and they worked real hard.”
That they became basketball players and then coaches is a testament to how devoted they are to the game, Moore said.
“He’s just good at stuff, good in games, cards, a great pitcher,” said Mike O’Quinn, who started playing with Vaughn in fifth grade on the successful Slam-n-Jam AAU team before joining him at Muir in 1993, when they won the Mustangs CIF Southern Section Division II-A championship.
“And he was fast. In our senior year, in the hallways of our high school, he beat Saladin McCullough!” said O’Quinn, recalling a spontaneous race between the 6-foot-1 point guard and the hotly recruited running back who’d go on to play pro football.
That year, Vaughn also became the first basketball player to earn the Dial Award as the nation’s top male high school scholar-athlete.
He took his talents to Kansas, where he graduated before being drafted 27th by Utah in 1997. He played the final few seasons of his 12-year NBA career in San Antonio, where he won a championship in 2007 and also started to realize something about himself: He’d make a good coach.
“I was able to talk to the No. 1 guy on the team, but also had a relationship to the No. 15 guy,” Vaughn said before tipoff Saturday. “And so I said, ‘If I can do that … have empathy for the position that people are in, I think that matters in sports.’ And that led to me tagging along to Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich).”
After a couple seasons on Popovich’s bench, Vaughn spent two-plus seasons as the head coach in Orlando, where he was 58-158 on a Magic team with much less talent than Brooklyn’s current roster. In his only other head coaching stint, Vaughn led Brooklyn to a 7-3 record in the 2020 Orlando bubble, between Kenny Atkinson and Nash’s tenures.
Now he’s back in charge, and very much in his element as a fist-clenching, gum-chomping traffic cop wearing out the hardwood in front of Brooklyn’s bench. The greybeard stalking the sideline offering nonstop hey-batter-batter chatter has the Nets players following his lead. Going all out and having fun doing it.
Of course they are.
“He never missed a homework assignment and he never missed a party,” said O’Quinn, who went on to play at Loyola Marymount and Cal State Northridge. “One time in high school, we all went out to a party and had a good time – a great time – and that night, I just happened to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, and he’s doing homework.”
Vaughn had that same energy on the court, said O’Quinn, who remembers averaging 27 points per game for Muir without ever having to dribble, because Vaughn was the kind of point guard who always put his passes on the money, averaging 16 assists per game as a senior, including 32 in one game.
Ryan Bailey – who played for UCLA from 1998-2001 – got goosebumps thinking about how much he loved watching Vaughn play when he was a youngster.
“Already at 10 or 11 years old, there was a myth building around him,” said Bailey, whose older brother Toby went on to star at UCLA, where he was a member of the Bruins’ 1994 NCAA championship team. “I was like, ‘Toby, I love your game, but this is my guy right here.’
“Because I was in awe as a 7- or 8-year-old who was in love with basketball… I would sit in the stands and watch every single game (Vaughn) played, and then I’d try to mimic everything he did – his puffed cheeks on passes, the T-shirt under his jersey, the bounce passes.
“He really meant a lot to me growing up. I don’t know if he knows that, but he was Magic Johnson to us.”
You sure did https://t.co/7zoiQksiG0
— David Jesse Zaldivar (@Davidfunny971) November 13, 2022
Moore still clearly recalls one of Vaughn’s vintage bounce passes that originated from beyond half court before bouncing off the backboard to O’Quinn for the flush.
And O’Quinn recalls the impression Vaughn made as a fifth-grader at their first AAU practice, when he spun Charles O’Bannon, a future NBA player and star at UCLA, all the way around with a behind-the-back pass.
More telling, O’Quinn said, is how immediately everyone looked to the new kid as the leader: “Even when we didn’t know him, the way he carried himself, we followed him right away.”
That Nets might have been a little slower to realize it, but they’ve landed on the right man now.