PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — LA Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was eating breakfast on a recent morning in his office while his players could be seen from an upstairs window warming up for practice and waiting for his arrival. Well, most of them. Clippers star forward Kawhi Leonard has missed all of the season, star wing Paul George has missed most of it and key newcomer Norman Powell is still sidelined due to injuries. There is hope from Lue that all three could return for the Western Conference postseason. The Clippers are currently in position to qualify as one of four teams for the play-in tournament.
“Special. If all three guys are back then, we can definitely be special,” Lue told Andscape on March 21. “And that’s for sure. With the guys getting experience they’re getting now with those guys being out. And if you give me two stars and then Norman Powell, who’s a really good player, I can make something happen. …
“Anything’s possible. Yeah, it’s possible. But we don’t know. I really don’t know. So, we are working towards it.”
From coaching the Clippers to his days growing up in Mexico, Missouri, to getting lightly recruited before starring at the University of Nebraska to becoming a two-time NBA champion during a journeyman playing career, nothing has come easy to Lue. While landing the prime opportunity of coaching LeBron James resulted in a championship in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the stress of the challenge also caused Lue to take a leave of absence in 2018. Today’s challenge is putting the Clippers in a position to win with or without their stars in his fifth season as a head coach.
The following Q&A with Lue reflects on his toughest challenges in life coming from a small town in Missouri, finding success without Leonard, George and Powell, mentoring Black NBA head coaches, relaxing his mind in Las Vegas and why he doesn’t drink or smoke.
What could you say about Kawhi, P.G. and Powell physically?
They’re getting better, they’re doing their rehab, they’re progressing, but we don’t know if they’re going to come back or not. (Editor’s note: George is listed as questionable for the Clippers’ game Tuesday against the Utah Jazz and has practiced with the team this week.) So that’s the uncertainty of this team. We want them back. We need them back. Guys are getting tired. They’re having to overachieve every single night, playing out of position, doing more than they’re capable of doing, but they’re getting it done, but we need something, because it’s wearing on us.
What has been the key to coaching the Clippers without their superstars?
Well, it’s been frustrating because I like to be prepared. I like to be able to pick teams apart, run a lot of different offensive sets, and I just figured [it] out this year with COVID, with a lot of injuries, bringing in guys on 10 days [contracts], guys from the G League, we just had to simplify everything, and we play the most simplified basketball you can play. And it’s made it easier for our guys, too, because they understand we’re not going to run a lot of stuff.
Not a lot of thinking. It’s just more of reading the actions and playing, so they’ve done a good job with that. It’s catering to the team that you have. Our system was built around two players, around P.G. and Kawhi, and when they both go down, now you got to be able to shift and now build around the team that you have.
How are the Clippers able to compete with all the injuries?
It starts with our coaching staff. Just keeping guys prepared the way we keep it light around here, and we know our guys are fighting every single night, especially being shorthanded and our veterans like Marcus [Morris], Reggie [Jackson], Nico [Batum], every day, just setting the tone and just being available. Not just because we got three of our top players out, not just giving the season away, and it starts with our veteran guys. And every single day they come to work. They show these young guys the ropes and our young guys have stepped up and gotten better as well. Luke [Kennard], Terance [Mann], Amir Coffey, so it was by committee. It’s really by committee, everybody, coaches, players, veterans, everybody’s just doing their part.
How have you grown as a coach through this?
I’ve grown because I like being prepared. And so, if I’m not prepared, I can’t sleep at night. So, I got to do all my work the night before or I won’t be able to sleep because my mind just keeps racing. I’m always able to have in-game adjustments, adjust after a game or whatever. But now my adjustment is the first half of the season, not knowing who’s going to play because you get ready for a game 30 minutes before the game. ‘Oh, we had to pull him out. He has COVID.’ So that just allowed me to get better at just doing stuff on the fly. I don’t like doing things that way, but it’s helped me to develop to be able to do that.
“When I took over [in Cleveland], there wasn’t a lot of Black head coaches getting the opportunity that I got. … We have the knowledge to do it. It’s just good to see these young Black coaches getting the chance to do it.”
— Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue
What’s it like to know that you’re one of the vet coaches in the league now?
That’s crazy. I always try to compare my age with everybody else. Like, ‘No, he’s older than me.’ Like, ‘Nah, J.B.’s [Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff] not older than me,’ so stuff like that. But it’s cool. Just from having experience of winning the championship and going to the Finals four straight times [with Cleveland], and I’d just like to look out for like I said, the younger coaches, like talking to J.B. and talking to [Orlando Magic coach Jamahl] Mosley, talking to [Portland Trail Blazers coach] Chauncey [Billups] and Wes [Unseld Jr.] in Washington, [New Orleans Pelicans coach] Willie Green. So, just talking to the young Black coaches and just keeping those guys focused, let them know what I see. Just trying to be positive and motivated any way I can.
Because I know all the young Black coaches, they’re not put in position like I was, to get your first-time job having a championship-caliber team. So, with the Mosleys, with Wes and Willie Green, those are tough situations. So, you got to make sure you stay with those guys and talk to those guys and just be the big brother, so I try to do that as much as I can.
Why is that important to mentor other head coaches?
Because of the opportunities. When I took over [in Cleveland], there wasn’t a lot of Black head coaches getting the opportunity that I got … taking up a team with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love. So, now, with Chauncey in Portland before Dame [Lillard] went down, he had a pretty good team. Ime [Udoka] in Boston got a really good team. So, now, the young Black coaches are getting the chance to have these good teams, and see J-Kidd [Jason Kidd] … the job he’s doing in Dallas, what Ime is doing in Boston. We have the knowledge to do it. It’s just good to see these young Black coaches getting the chance to do it.
There were seven new Black coaches hired by the NBA last offseason. But a year ago at this time, there was major concern from Black coaches about the lack of representation in a predominantly Black league. Were you concerned about where the direction was going and if there was going to be representation?
It was tough because the younger Black coaches really didn’t get a chance. We had Doc [Rivers] and Alvin Gentry, Dwane Casey. … So not having younger Black coaches in the league, yeah it was tough. Earl Watson, he had a chance, it was short-lived. [David] Fizdale, short-lived. The opportunities that we get normally, they’re not good situations. So, to see the situation that we were put in this past summer, that was really good to see and see the success that they have along the way.
Are there any African Americans we should keep an eye on as potential future NBA head coaches?
[Utah Jazz player development coach] Keyon Dooling. [Toronto Raptors assistant coach] Earl Watson will get another opportunity, in a better situation. [Clippers assistant coach] Dahntay Jones, he’s going to be really good, has a good feel, good pulse of the team, good demeanor. [Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach] John Lucas, he’d get a shot and get an opportunity. … There are some young guys coming up that’s played in the league that really has a good opportunity of being a coach. [Cavaliers guard Rajon] Rondo, when he’s done playing, he’d have a good shot. So, we’ll see.
Tell me about your relationship with Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and your vision for the future with him.
With Mr. Ballmer, he’s not really like any other owner. He’s more like family, and that’s how he treats everybody in the organization. And it’s not like I’m the boss and you guys fall in line; whatever we need, he comes through. And he just treats everybody like he really, genuinely cares, and so that’s just good to see. From how your family is doing, from where you’re from to how can we make things better. Every single day it’s about how we are as people, not worrying about the basketball side but how we are as a family, how we are as people, which has been really good.
And then in the future, just getting our own arena [for] the 2024-25 season, that just shows you the confidence he has in his team, the fan base and what he wants to do. We want to have our own arena. So, when we come into the arena, we understand it is ours. And so that’s something he wanted to do from day one. And he finally got it done, but that just showed you how much he believes in this team.
“I haven’t felt pressure like that probably my whole life.”
— Clippers coach Tyronn Lue on taking over the Cavaliers in 2015
What did that NBA championship mean to you while you were coaching the Cavs and how much have you changed as a coach since then?
It meant a lot to me. It started with [then-Cavaliers general manager] David Griffin just having the belief that I could get it done. And I didn’t know that myself, so that was tough. Being able to take over a situation halfway through the season, we had the No. 1 record in the East, 30-11 at the time. And then I wanted to be a head coach. I thought I could do it. But until you actually sit there, you don’t know you can do it. And so, I was scared of the opportunity. I really was. I talked to Doc [Rivers] about it. Talked to Jerry West. They both said I had to take the job, but I was really scared initially. I didn’t know if I could do it.
We just went to the Finals the year before. We’re No. 1 in the East now. And now I got to take on a team with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and win a championship. And so, I haven’t felt pressure like that probably my whole life. And it was a lot of pressure because you want to succeed because the job that coach [David] Blatt had done was outstanding, to go six games with Golden State, Kevin Love goes down, Kyrie goes down and we still go to Game 6 and now I got to come in.
Anything less than Game 6 in the Finals is a failure, so there’s a lot of pressure put on me in that situation. It was tough, but it made me stronger, made me tougher. It put me in the position I’m in today to be able to take our team that we had last year when Kawhi went down and still made the conference finals and do some good things, but those Cleveland days were great. Like I said, started with David Griffin having the trust and belief in me. And then [Cavaliers owner] Dan Gilbert just pulled the trigger like, ‘You know what, this is going to be our guy,’ and so they had more confidence in me than I had in myself at that point in time, so it was good to see.
How do you reflect on that time you took off in 2018 during the season after having recurring chest pain?
It was for me just putting so much into the game and into coaching. But when I first interviewed here with Mr. Ballmer and [Clippers president of basketball operations] Lawrence [Frank], they were just talking about like, ‘What is your release?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t have a release. Once the season starts, I’m in the season, I don’t have no release.’ It’s like, ‘Well, you can’t do that. You got to have a release throughout the season. You got to be able to step back and just enjoy yourself, not just basketball, basketball, basketball.’ But that’s all I knew.
Especially being with LeBron James in Cleveland, he doesn’t miss a beat. So, he knows everything. So, you got to be sharp. You got to know what you’re talking about. And so, in Cleveland, it was just all basketball and [I] couldn’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about practice or the next, whatever. And it was just so much. And so having those two weeks off and just having to just think about me, focus on me, working out, eating better. And, of course, then I was diagnosed when I had the depression and then the anxiety situation.
So being able to sit back and reflect off that like, ‘Yeah, I want to win,’ and so that’s why I talk about [it] today. There ain’t no pressure because that was pressure. I’m spitting up blood. I couldn’t sleep. I gained weight. Sometimes I had to crawl to the bathroom. It was tough, so I just thank the organization for giving me that time, just to step away and take care of myself, look at myself and see what I need to do better to get better. And they helped me out. And so, after that point, I understood what it was and I’ve been great ever since, so it’s been good.
What do you do to relax your mind now?
I go to Vegas. I go home. That’s my release. Just to go to my house in Vegas and see the Strip at night, the mountains, the views, and just reflect back on everything. And once I get home in Vegas, I don’t really think about basketball. It’s really just a chance to really just get away, and so that’s been my release these past two years, which has been really good for me.
How tough was it coming up in small-town Mexico, Missouri? And how often do you reflect on, ‘Man, I can’t believe I made it to this point’?
It was tough, growing up in Mexico, Missouri, a town of 11,000 people. It was a lot of drug activity, a lot of gambling, a lot of stuff you don’t want to be involved in. And I had a lot of friends doing a lot of that stuff. And so, when you grow up with somebody from Year Three to Year 23, you don’t look at them like that. It’s my friends. It’s my homeboy. When I go back home, they don’t look at me like T-Lue, the NBA player and basketball coach. We grew up from zero to 23 and that’s how you see each other.
And so there have been a lot of times, a lot of nights where like I felt I was just blessed because of God’s favor. Some of my friends went somewhere and I was like, ‘I ain’t going to go tonight.’ And some bad things happen, guys end up in jail or guys end up dead. You never think about it as a kid. One wrong mistake can change your whole life. And it can only be five minutes and it can change your whole life. And I’ve been fortunate to really miss a lot of those situations.
And it has to be God to keep me away from that. Single mom who had three kids. My dad was on drugs. He was a crackhead when I was growing up. He’s been clean for 21 years since he got out of prison. So, he’s been clean for a while. And just not having that father figure in my life. I end up having to move to Kansas City my sophomore year to live with my uncle just so I could have a father figure in my life, which was hard on my mom. But if I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
And so, Kevin Graves, my uncle, really did a good job of just helping with that. Then I got my scholarship to Nebraska and then it was all over. But just growing up in Mexico, it was tough. No schools are coming to recruit down there. They never heard of it. Basketball played outside. We didn’t have no inside gyms, indoor gyms. So, you are playing on concrete your whole life. Even when I went back in the summers in the NBA, we played outside on the concrete. We didn’t know any better, and so tough upbringing, but it made me who I am today. So, I can’t be mad at it.
Is it true that you don’t drink or smoke?
Never tried it not once. Never, not one drink, not one smoke ever in my life. Never even tried it.
The only thing I ever tasted was champagne because Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal] tried to hold me down when we won the championship [with the Lakers] and then tried to hold my mouth open. So, it rolled down my lips and I tasted it. But I think all my friends were into that when I was younger. I wanted to be different. I didn’t want to be like them drinking at 12, 13, 14, smoking and stuff like that. And then once I got to a certain age, I was like, ‘Well, why do it now?’ And so, it’s like a badge of honor not to ever have a drink or a smoke. I’m going to be 45 in a month and a half. So, to do that is pretty serious.
And then my grandpa who I loved and adored and looked up to, he taught me a lot and he used to drink. So, just seeing the two different people he was when he drank and when he didn’t drink, I didn’t want to be that person. So, that also kept me away from it.
“It’s not going to happen all the time, but the more work you put into life, the more you going to get out of it, no matter what you are doing. And so I just work, work, work, and that’s all I knew.”
— Clippers coach Tyronn Lue when asked for advice from people of similar circumstances as him
For a kid that’s from a similar circumstance that you came from, what advice would you give him?
It’s a cliché, but never let no one tell you, ‘You can’t.’ It’s crazy because a lot of people in my town where I was from, the older people, they always said I couldn’t do it, and so that drove me. My cousin, his stepdad and then one of my best friends, his dad, always [said], ‘Oh, he’s too small. He won’t make it. He’s always in trouble. He ain’t going to make it.’ Then I moved to Kansas City. ‘Oh, he’ll be back in two months. He ain’t going to be able to make it in the city.’
Then I make it in Kansas City. And then, ‘Oh, he’ll never get a Division I scholarship. He’s too small.’ I go to Nebraska. ‘Oh, he’ll never make it to the NBA.’ I go to the NBA, play 11 seasons. So that’s been my motivation, and so don’t ever take no for an answer. You can do it if you believe in it. It’s not going to happen all the time, but the more work you put into life, the more you going to get out of it, no matter what you are doing. And so I just work, work, work, and that’s all I knew.
What would that mean to the Clippers and to Los Angeles to win an NBA title with so much energy put on the Lakers?
Well, it probably won’t change for the Lakers because they won 17 championships. But for this organization, it would be [franchise-changing] considering where it’s come from, all the stuff that’s happened over the past years and just being the laughingstock of the NBA for so many years. When Doc [Rivers] got here, and Mr. Ballmer got here, they changed the way this organization is seen now. And that’s big. It’s now a Class A organization. They do everything Class A. To get Doc here was the first start, and then to get Mr. Ballmer here has taken it to a whole ‘nother level. To win a championship here would change things for the fans here in LA that are really Clipper fans. And then just for the culture, of the Clippers and Mr. Ballmer, what it’d mean to him, it’d be huge.