Q. After playing 8 years in the NBA, what made you go back to Princeton to finish your degree?
A. That was never a question. I promised Coach Carril and my mom that I would come back and graduate, so it wasn’t even an issue. But I didn’t realize it how hard it would be. In that first year at Princeton, I would read something, write it down, take some notes so that I didn’t just regurgitate it, but understood it. Then you spend years in the NBA, you pick up a book on the road, read some, put it down, its not the same.
Did you know that you were going to go into coaching after graduating?
Not at all. Growing up I had two loves, art and basketball. I majored in Psychology, but I really wanted to major in Architecture, but just didn’t have the time. After I came back [from playing in the NBA] and graduated, I took a curator job at my old prep school Lawrenceville, down the road from Princeton. It was great, I was curating art, going to major art events. And then the coach there, Jim “Coachie” Waugh, asked me to come and help him coach the high school team. And I was coaching there, doing the two things that I really loved. I would wake up every morning and I was happy, I was in the art world, and also coaching basketball. What more could I ask for? And then I started to find that I loved teaching the game. And this was at the level where I had to teach kids how to dribble, how to cut, all that, and I enjoyed it.
Five years later, Coach Carril called me up and said that they had a spot on his staff, and he wanted me to come coach under him. But I liked doing the art curating, so I hesitated but ended up taking the job. It was the chance to learn from the master. After four years there, he said, you’re ready for your own job. I said, ‘You’re kicking me out?’ He said, “No, but you’re ready.” So I got the head job at Columbia.
What changed when you went from coaching college to coaching in the NBA?
What I didn’t like about college was that you spent more time off the court, worrying about rules and regulations, compliance, etc. when, as I’ve said from the beginning, what I really enjoy is teaching the game. The NCAA figures out ways to prevent you from having too much time with your players because big time programs are figuring out ways how to cheat, and how to get more time, and how to be with the guys more often, etc. And so, you have to deal with that a lot, recruiting, parents, alumni, have to raise money, all that stuff.
I didn’t mind having to raise money, but it was tough having to play guarantee games. And so you’d have to go and play a team that, you know, you’re getting a certain amount of money to play against that team. Coach Carril would say, “A guarantee game is a game that you’re guaranteed to lose.” Except teams didn’t want to play him, they’d try to avoid playing against him, because it wasn’t a guarantee. But we would have to play those games to raise money for the program just so other teams could have uniforms, and stuff like that.
That was tough for me because I’d have to look at my guys’ faces at half time, look in their eyes, and you know, they’re playing as tough as they possibly can, but we’re getting cheated by the referee because he’s part of the guarantee game—he was hired by the team that we’re playing, so if the game gets close, we were going to get screwed. But you had to overcome that, and you overcome that with better players. So that was the tough part.
In the pros, it’s just pure basketball. You have your coaches meetings, and then you step on the floor. You’re doing what you love to do, as far as teaching, getting better, execution, all that kind of stuff. And so, to weigh it—I’ve got more basketball time on the floor in the pros, I get less basketball time on the floor in college. And so, what would I prefer? I’d prefer to have more basketball time on the court. I don’t have to worry about alumni, or parents—maybe now from time to time an agent, but I tell them, “Hey go talk to Doc [Rivers].” So it’s a lot more enjoyable now.
What’s it like coaching the best players in the world?
People think, “Oh the pros, they don’t want to listen, etc.” That’s the furthest thing from the truth. See, the number one thing about the pros is that—and believe it or not, they all want to get better. The key thing is, when you tell them something, you better be right. Because if you’re wrong, then you’ve lost them. So coaches have to be careful about what they say. If I’m telling KG [Kevin Garnett] something — he’s a 17 year veteran, an All-Star, — what am I going to tell him? I’m going to tell him what I see.
So [for example], a lot of times I’d see him catch the ball in the post and he’d do that little shake, and I’d say, [I call him “Ticket”], “Ticket, you know if I [were an opponent and] saw film of 20 games and you’re doing the same move, I’m going to try to figure out which way you’re going to turn. You know, so they’re going over looking for your right shoulder. But if when you catch the ball, you turn and face them, it’s a different look, and if you swing through and throw this jump hook, I haven’t seen anyone who’s able to block that yet.” And he’d respond, “Ha ha, OK”.
Now these guys are good so they can make that change in the game, and so he catches the ball, and makes that turn and the jump hook, and he turns and points at me [while running down the court] and gives me a look like, “Ok”. Now I had to know what I was telling him was right. He’s one of the greatest players and competitors, and he was still open to learning, to listening, to getting better.
Take a guy a like Rondo. Here was a point guard who, when he first came into the league, was going 100 miles per hour. I would say, “Sometimes go 40. Sometimes go 60. Boom—then go 100! Then bring it back to 75.” And I’d say, “You know, you’ve got [Kendrick] Perkins, and you’ve got Garnett. Those are your two big guys you’ve got running down the floor with you when you get a rebound. You’ve got to learn how to run with your bigs because when you’re going 100 mph, sometimes you’ve got to wait for your bigs and learn to cut off their back.” I’ve always thought of my bigs as dancing elephants. You’ve always got to take care of your bigs, because when you do that, they want to run with you. And when they do it in a game a couple times and [your advice] works, they give you the nod and you know, “Ok, they’re open to listening.” But if you just say, “Oh, you’ve got to do this and that,” and you’re just talking and you’re wrong, you’ve messed up and then they mess up, you’ve lost them.
What’s your favorite NBA city to play and to coach?
That’s a good one. I love Seattle. I think when they had a team there, Seattle was a really nice city. Of course, being from New York, I love playing at the [Madison Square] Garden. There’s no place like it. Growing up as a kid, you’d go see the old guys like Willis Reid, Frazier, Dick Barnett, Bradley and all of those guys. In childhood, you can’t get more excited than that. And so I love playing in New York. LA, it’s my first experience here [for an extended period of time], and it’s hard to beat this weather. And we’ve got a good bunch of guys here: Blake [Griffin], DeAndre [Jordan], C.P. [Chris Paul], etc.
You’ve coached some of the best players in this generation, who have you had the best experience coaching?
I’m going to tell you something really personal. When my day is over as a coach, I’m going to have my all-time, 5 best players, and right now I only have two [so far]: Garnett, and Chris Paul. Chris Paul is an unbelievable player and he’s a very good guy. He plays both ends of the floor, offense, defense, you don’t have to ask him if he’s bought in, you just know it. He loves the game, he’s a student of the game, he’ll do what he has to do. He’s a tough competitor. He makes tough shots, see the floor. Garnett also plays both ends. I want to be able to say, if I have those guys, I can go into anybody’s gym, park, playground, I don’t care where it is, and we’ll play you.
Armond Hill is a long time assistant coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA), currently for the Los Angeles Clippers. He played college basketball at Princeton University for three years, becoming a thousand point scorer and one of the all-time leaders in assists before leaving for the NBA draft. He was drafted 9th overall by the Atlanta Hawks in the 1976 draft. He played eight NBA seasons with Atlanta, Seattle, San Diego and Milwaukee before returning to Princeton to complete his degree in psychology in 1985. Hill began his coaching career at Lawrenceville School before returning to Princeton as an assistant coach to Pete Carril in 1991. His first head coaching position at the collegiate level was at Columbia in 1995, remaining there until 2003 when he joined the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant for one season under Terry Stotts. He then joined the staff of the Boston Celtics under Doc Rivers, a former teammate of his, and was retained when Doc Rivers when he accepted the head coaching job for Los Angeles Clippers in 2013.