In Need of Confidence Boost, Cavs Can Take a Few Lessons from Tyronn LueJune 8, 2016
CLEVELAND — In sleepy Mexico, Missouri, population 11,543, every man, woman and child is destined for greatness.
It is a town of modest means and soaring self-belief, a place where everyone knows each other and familiarity breeds bravado. One-upmanship is a way of life, and friendly debates are punctuated by creative one-liners.
"I can talk a cat off a fish wagon."
"If I tell you there's cheese on the moon, bring the crackers."
"If I tell you a duck could pull a truck, you just hook it up."
To be from Mexico is to be certain of your promising future, and to declare it in big, bold strokes.
Tyronn Lue is from Mexico.
"Everyone there has extreme confidence—probably way more, and probably way past what they actually are," says J. Carter, a cousin and confidant to Lue, the Cleveland Cavaliers' head coach. "But you can't tell them that. Everyone's the greatest. That's what everyone thinks."
Outlandish self-assurance has probably never been more vital for Lue, whose team is facing a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals and a relentless opponent in the Golden State Warriors.
The Cavaliers lost the first two games by a combined 48 points, and along the way lost star forward Kevin Love to a concussion. His status for Wednesday's Game 3 is in doubt.
Just five months after being installed as head coach—after the midseason dismissal of David Blatt – the 39-year-old Lue now faces his most daunting test, with a city's title hopes and LeBron James' legacy hanging in the balance.
A coach's influence has limits. NBA championships are decided by talent, and the Warriors simply have more of it. But comebacks begin with a shared belief, a common vision and a unifying voice behind it all. That's essentially how Tyronn Lue got here.
For 11 seasons, Lue was the consummate role player, a feisty 6-foot guard with modest talents and an abundance of charm. Coaches valued his hustle and thoughtful play. Teammates loved his quick wit and his blunt candor—and his willingness to call out anyone, from the rookies to the superstars.
He would challenge Michael Jordan. He once rumbled with Shaquille O'Neal. Yet he had a smile that could disarm even his edgiest peers. He befriended seemingly everyone, teammates and rivals alike.
"He was a talker," said Jerry Stackhouse, who played with Lue and Jordan in Washington. "Even though he's been probably, at best, eighth man on teams, from a leadership standpoint, he wasn't looked at as the eighth guy."
Stars embraced Lue, and he played with some of the greatest of his era: O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Jordan, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Dwight Howard.
As an assistant coach, he worked with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
His mentors include Doc Rivers, Jerry West and Phil Jackson.
The connections run wide and deep, making Lue the modern NBA's Kevin Bacon.
Over his career, Lue has been an NBA champion, an Internet meme (see The Stepover) and now a Finals coach, entrusted with the greatest player in the world.
"I believe in his knowledge," LeBron James told Bleacher Report.
Before he was any of that, Lue was a basketball-obsessed kid, dribbling his ball through the streets of Mexico, his fingers stained black with asphalt dust. Sandwiched between four siblings, two older and two younger, he learned quickly to stand his ground and speak his mind. He developed the diplomacy skills of the classic middle child.
And he learned, as everyone in Mexico does, to think fast and talk faster.
"They're the king of the one-liners and slick talking," Lue said in a recent interview with B/R, chuckling. "That's what we're known for. Everybody. Women, men, children, everybody. That's what they're known for. Still to this day, same way. You go home, it never changes."
When the Cavaliers fired Blatt on Jan. 22, the decision to promote Lue seemed obvious, despite his lack of experience. He was already the league's highest-paid assistant and widely viewed as a rising star, with the enthusiastic backing of Rivers and Tom Thibodeau.
This was not, however, the standard "studious player evolves into coach" story. Ten years ago, no one saw Lue as a future coach—including Lue.
"Absolutely not," Brian Shaw, Lue's friend and former Lakers teammate said, chuckling. "Never thought that Ty would be a coach."
Really, no one knew what to expect when the Lakers acquired Lue in 1998 in a draft-night trade that sent star guard Nick Van Exel to the Denver Nuggets, who had selected Lue with the 23rd pick. A three-year star at Nebraska, Lue arrived with some clear gifts—speed, a solid jumper and a 42-inch vertical leap. He also had knee troubles, which surely contributed to his low draft position.
"He was a terrific player," said former Lakers general manager Jerry West, who made the deal for Lue. "Defensively, he was a little bulldog. I was impressed with the way he played and his leadership. He had a toughness about him and was really competitive."
West, now an executive with the Warriors, also saw in Lue "a gentle nature, his ability to smile, and it's a warm smile."
At his introductory press conference, Lue was literally the wide-eyed rookie—staring blankly into the television spotlights and saying little. He had been to L.A. just once before.
"I just know when I first had a chance to meet Kobe and Shaq, just being in awe," Lue said in an hour-long interview last week at the Cavaliers' suburban training complex. "Basketball is all I know. It wasn't real. Coming from a small town of Mexico, Missouri, we got 11,000 people. Never seen a celebrity."
Lue generally eschewed the Hollywood scene and often spent his down time shopping at the Fox Hills Mall.
"Shaq made the rookies go out with him," Lue said. "So I went out, but I just never got involved or engaged in none of the drinking or smoking. That wasn't my thing.
"You know, for me, it was always a thing of being a lower-level NBA player. Like, it just didn't look right for me hanging with Shaq. Or to hang with Kobe, or Eddie Murphy, whoever. I'm not on that scale. It just didn't seem right."
That was Lue as a player: confident but humble.
Yet with his cherubic face and charm, he was also a social magnet, earning the nickname "Lue Hefner"—a phrase that now makes him cringe sheepishly.
"He was young, and all the pretty girls loved him," Shaw said.
On the court, teammates saw Lue take his craft seriously. Off the court, he was like any other young player. He enjoyed the lifestyle and defied convention, like the team's unofficial dress code. While older teammates wore slacks and sports coats to travel, Lue stuck with his baggy jeans and Timberlands.
"He would just laugh at us and say we were old and out of touch," Shaw said. "And we were saying, 'No, you have to dress like a professional.'"
Before games, Lue kept teammates loose with his chatter and random athletic feats: In the locker room at the Great Western Forum, Lue could touch the ceiling tiles with his head from a standing leap.
"It was amazing how the guys just gravitated to him," said Larry Drew, a former Lakers assistant whose career intersected with Lue's again in Washington and Atlanta. He's now part of Lue's staff. "He was kind of a happy-go-lucky guy. He was funny—very, very, very funny."
If you had asked Drew back then to predict Lue's next career, he would have said "professional comedian" before "NBA head coach."
Not everyone welcomed the jokes. Shaw recalled Lue zinging one-liners at the notoriously volatile Isaiah Rider, who grew more tense as the rest of the Lakers buckled over in laughter.
"If I was your size, I'd whup your ass," Rider fired back, though the situation never escalated.
When Lue did get physical once—with none other than O'Neal—it was in defense of another teammate. As Shaw tells it, the Lakers had just lost to the San Antonio Spurs, and Devean George had made a key mistake down the stretch, sending O'Neal into a rage.
"Shaq was standing over Devean's locker and he was physically beating Devean up," Shaw recalled.
"I said, 'Man, what are you doing? He's a young player. He made mistakes. But that's not why we lost the game.' I said, 'If you would have used some of that energy that you're using pushing him around and boxed out Malik Rose, he wouldn't have gotten 10 offensive rebounds against us, and maybe we would have won the game because of that.'"
At that point, O'Neal let go of George and charged at Shaw, who dropped and grabbed O'Neal by the legs.
"He was dragging me around the locker room," Shaw said. "The only one who came to my rescue was Ty Lue. He got in between us and was like, 'Get off of him.' And he defended what was right."
The most popular image of Tyronn Lue circulating on the Internet is also the least accurate portrayal of his playing career.
Lue, a slightly dazed look on his face, is sitting on the Staples Center court, just in front of the Lakers bench. Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, a slight sneer on his face, stands over him, his right leg raised.
This is The Stepover—a memorable snapshot from Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, a 107-101 overtime victory by the 76ers. In recent years, it's evolved into a full-blown internet meme, with faces photoshopped to match the occasion: Lue stepping over Blatt, Warriors coach Steve Kerr stepping over Lue and other variations.
The original is presented as a moment of humiliation for Lue and triumph for Iverson. Lue views it quite differently.
"Iverson making it to the Finals really saved my career," Lue said. "Without Iverson, there probably wouldn't be me."
In June 2001, Lue was a seldom-used backup guard who had been squeezed out of the rotation by Rider and three-point specialist Mike Penberthy. He was 24 years old and about to enter free agency. He was worried about his future.
In those days, teams had to set their playoff rosters before the postseason began. Lue expected to be left off, which would have likely spelled the end of his Lakers tenure.
The room erupted in delight when Phil Jackson announced Lue's name on the day rosters were finalized—"an unbelievable feeling," Lue said.
The expectation of a showdown with Iverson figured heavily into the decision. The Lakers were stocked with veteran guards like Bryant, Shaw, Ron Harper and Derek Fisher, but they needed a quick, feisty defender to check Iverson if Philadelphia won the East.
When the 76ers knocked off the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Lue's role in the Finals was assured.
"If Milwaukee would have beat Philly, I wouldn't have played," Lue said. "So that could have possibly been my last year in the NBA. People don't understand that."
That Finals showdown with Iverson might well have secured Lue's place in the league, The Stepover notwithstanding.
About that play: Yes, Iverson won the moment, hitting a tough jumper over Lue, part of a seven-point burst that pushed Philadelphia to a 103-99 lead with 48.2 seconds left in overtime.
But the moment was not as embarrassing as it appears.
Lue had forced Iverson into that tough shot by staying step-for-step with him. And though Lue fell, it was not because he was faked out by a slick move; he simply stepped on Iverson's foot after the shot.
"The funny part about it, people think like he crossed me over, I fell down and then he stepped," Lue said. "I contested his shot. And I'm walking backwards, and I step on his foot and I fall. And he stepped over me. And they make a big deal out of it."
Rarely mentioned: That was effectively Iverson's last meaningful highlight of the series. He made just 48 of 121 attempts over the next four games, with Lue shadowing him throughout. The Lakers won all four and the championship.
A month later, the Wizards signed Lue to a two-year, $3.6 million deal, giving him an opportunity to play with another legend, Jordan, and to continue a career that would last for another eight years.
The added kicker: Lue and Iverson became friends and remain in contact to this day. Iverson even tweeted his congratulations when Lue was named the Cavaliers' coach.
"The Stepover definitely made me famous," Lue said. "The thing with Allen Iverson is, he made me."
Doc Rivers coached Lue for just 11 games in 2003 before the Orlando Magic fired him. It was long enough for Rivers to see a future NBA coach.
In Lue, Rivers noticed a player with an analytical mind, a terrific memory and innate leadership skills.
"Ty has the ability to tell you something that's not easy to tell you, and he's direct about it," Rivers said. "And you like it. You agree with it. He's a truth-teller, but when he tells the truth, it doesn't hurt your feelings. It's a unique gift."
Before he was fired, Rivers told Lue: "I'm going to coach again. Your career is winding down. When you're ready, call me. I want you on my staff."
"Me? I'm not coaching," Lue said.
"I guarantee you, you'll coach," Rivers replied.
That moment came in 2009, after Lue's 11th and final season. Rivers hired him in Boston, as a development coach, and assigned him to point guard Rajon Rondo. During games, Lue sat behind the bench, frequently leaning forward to ask Rivers questions.
"Like most players, he didn't get what work was yet," Rivers said. "Ty was blown away by the time that I put into coaching. I think he was shocked by that, watching me, watching Thibs, watching Lawrence Frank. 'Do you guys ever turn this s--t off?'"
They didn't. So neither did Lue.
Before every game, Lue would ask for a collection of plays for Rondo, then sat with the point guard to go through them all. At practices, Lue would quiz Rivers about their most recent game—the plays that worked, the ones that didn't and why Rivers called them when he did.
When Rivers left Boston for the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, Lue followed him. After one season, Rivers placed Lue in charge of the defense and gave him a demanding assignment: Spend the summer watching and scouting every game from the prior season.
"Just as a next step," Rivers said. "It's time to stop being on the fence. It's time to be 100 percent."
So Lue put his Las Vegas home on the market, stayed in Los Angeles for the offseason and "worked his ass off," Rivers said.
The Clippers hired Brendan O'Connor to assist with the defense. But Rivers had Lue conduct the scout walkthrough for all 29 opponents, an unheard-of move in NBA coaching circles. Most teams divide the assignment between three or four assistants.
"He did it," Rivers said. "He didn't complain about it."
Though Lue never envisioned a coaching career, he saved every playbook he ever received and kept constant notes—on Rivers' after-timeout plays, Jackson's triangle offense, Scott Skiles' drive-and-kick sets from his time in Milwaukee and various bits of coaching philosophy and quotes. He eventually filled two binders' worth of material, a personal treasure trove of coaching wisdom.
As he stalks the sidelines now, Lue tries to borrow a little from everyone. From Rivers: his preparation and after-timeout plays. From Skiles: his tough, demanding nature. From Jackson: his poise and exacting detail in practices.
It's been only five months for Lue in the big chair. He did not get the benefit of a training camp, or an offseason to design his own program. His evolution as a head coach is just beginning (he also has not yet signed an extension offered by the Cavaliers, according to sources, though that is expected after the Finals).
But Lue's imprint on the Cavaliers was evident in the latter stages of the season and in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Rivers saw a team that played faster and better integrated Love's skill set. West saw the Cavaliers deploying more small-ball lineups and turning up the defensive intensity.
He's still adjusting to the increased spotlight—the constant press conferences, the questions, repeated loops of himself on ESPN.
"I don't like the fame of it, or being on TV, or all the things that come along with it," Lue said. "I just want to coach basketball."
In style and personality, the contrasts with Blatt are vivid. Where Blatt led with his ego—constantly citing his championships won abroad—Lue projects a modest, self-effacing tone. And while Blatt avoided confrontation, especially with his stars, Lue remains as blunt and direct as ever, reportedly telling James to "shut the f--k up" in a huddle, per Ken Berger of CBS Sports.
Said West, "I just think that [Lue] is probably a better fit for this team than David [Blatt]. To me, this was a great hire for them, if they were going to make a change."
Accountability has been a major theme of Lue's tenure. He's demanded it of Cavs stars James, Love and Kyrie Irving. And he's implored the players to demand it of each other. He wants truth-telling and candor, the same things he's always valued.
"You can tell a guy the truth, and they might hate you for that day," Lue said, "but they'll come back that night and text you, like, 'You know what? You were right.' I just think if you tell guys the truth, they can respect you more."
The mutual respect and affection between Lue and his players was on vivid display last month, when the Cavaliers doused him with water in celebration of a 10-0 start to the playoffs—the best ever by a first-time head coach.
"He doesn't sweat the small stuff," said Cavaliers veteran Richard Jefferson. "He treats people like professionals. He expects you to be a professional. He never gets rattled."
Shortly after the Cavaliers claimed the Eastern Conference crown with a Game 6 rout of Toronto, Lue got a call from Rivers, who couldn't help but remind him of his long-ago reluctance to choose this path.
"We were laughing about it," Lue said. "I was like, 'I owe it all to you, because you saw something in me that I didn't see in myself.'"
Mexico, Missouri, was once known as "The Firebrick Capital of the World." Its economy went into decline when the last of the brick plants closed in 2002. But Lue still calls it home and returns every summer for family reunions and to fund a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Few people have made a name for themselves beyond the town limits, not that it matters to anyone there.
"If you went to Mexico, you would think everybody was an All-Star, superstar or something," Lue said. "They're the best at everything; we can do anything. That's where the confidence comes from."
The challenge now facing Lue and his team is as steep as they come. Only three teams out of 31 have won the NBA Finals after losing the first two games. The Warriors, who won a record 73 games this season, who might be the most talented and versatile team in modern times, do not appear to have any vulnerabilities.
It will take more than a great game plan to turn the series around. It will require an immense degree of belief and a swaggering self-confidence. If he were facing any doubters back home, there's little question what Lue would say:
"If I tell you there's cheese on the moon, bring the crackers."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 11am-1pm ET, on SiriusXM Bleacher Report radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.