From playing to coaching, Vanterpool shoots ahead
It's been an even busier than usual summer for David Vanterpool, but he's not complaining — not much, at least.
A week in a tropical paradise — he ran a coaching clinic in The Bahamas last summer — is not going to happen this year.
The Trail Blazers assistant coach is less than a month away from the start of training camp, which will mean his seventh season on the bench alongside head coach Terry Stotts.
Vanterpool uses a three-word phrase often during a recent interview over lunch in describing his playing career, and his life in general.
"I've been blessed," says Vanterpool, digging into a plate of sushi as he ponders what basketball has meant to him, both as a player and a coach.
As a player, five championships.
Count them — in the Chinese Pro League in 1997, in the Continental Basketball Association in 2000, in the American Basketball Association in 2002, in Italy in 2004 and in Russia in 2006.
A ring for every finger -- and a thumb -- on one hand.
"That's just being put in good situations," says Vanterpool, 45. "I had to be able to perform, but a lot of times you can play your tail off, and if you're not in the right situation, it doesn't matter.
"The Supreme Being continues to smile upon me. I just have to keep trying to do the right thing as best I can."
There are windows of opportunity for down time for coaches in the NBA's offseason, in the slivers between pre-draft workouts and the draft and rookie training camp and summer league and personal workouts with players and training camp itself.
Vanterpool erased one of those chances when he jumped at what would be the highlight of his summer — serving as an assistant coach with USA Basketball for a national team mini-camp July 25-27 at Las Vegas, Nevada.
Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs tapped Vanterpool to serve on a staff that included college head coaches Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Jay Wright (Villanova) and NBA assistants Mike Brown (Golden State), Ime Udoka (San Antonio), Dan Craig (Miami), Jamahl Mosely (Dallas), Alex Jensen (Utah) and Jay Larranaga (Boston). The coaches were together for four days and put about 30 potential national-team players through workouts as they begin to prepare for the 2019 World Cup in China and the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.
"It was incredible to be around the people I was around," Vanterpool says. "Having the opportunity to share ideas with them and be privy to things that some people never know about them was a valuable experience for me.
"The stuff we talked about, the things that were shared, the knowledge gained was a lot more about personal connection than X's and O's. We had our basketball talks, and I learned a lot every period. But l learned more about the personal side."
Vanterpool was acquainted with Popovich but didn't know him well. He suspects Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina — a mentor of Vanterpool's — put in a good word. Vanterpool played against Messina's team in Italy and played for and coached with him in Russia.
"Ettore has been influential in my life," Vanterpool says. "Because of him, Coach Pop and I got to spend some time together. It was great."
Popovich asked the NBA assistants — minus Brown, who has been head coach of the Cavaliers and Lakers — for suggestions on drills to use.
"The very first drill happened to be mine," Vanterpool says. "I threw out some ideas, and Coach Pop happened to like one of them. He gives you autonomy and a certain level of confidence by giving you responsibility. There is a big trust factor. That was a cool experience."
Portland's Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are members of the national team's 35-man roster. McCollum was on a trip to China, so he missed the mini-camp. Lillard had intended to be in Vegas, but just as an observer.
"But he suited up and, once he started doing some of the drills, that changed," Vanterpool says. "He got loose and said, 'I want to play.' I told Coach Pop, and he said to put 'Dame' on a team."
What kind of odds do Lillard and McCollum face to make the final national team roster?
"I like their chances," Vanterpool says. "There are so many very good players, just an awful lot of guys who could be a part of the team. But Coach Pop made it clear that the idea was to put together a team, not a collection of players.
"Being able to fit as far as puzzle pieces will be the most important thing with Dame and CJ. They have the qualities to be able to do that, whether it's both of them or just one. Just them having an opportunity is golden."
Will Vanterpool be a member of the coaching staff through the 2020 Olympic Games?
"I'm not sure," he says. "I didn't ask any questions. When I got the call that asked if I'd be interested in working the camp, I said yes without hesitation. Hopefully, I'll continue to get opportunities. I would love to be involved. If I get that call, I'll be there."
Vanterpool grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and went to high school in Silver Spring, just across the Maryland border from the nation's capital. He started at point guard as a 5-9 sophomore, but by the time he was a senior, he was 6-5.
"All of a sudden, a lot of colleges were interested," Vanterpool says. He signed with mid-major St. Bonaventure in Allegany, New York, where he was a four-year starter at the Atlantic 10 Conference school. When Jim Baron came in as head coach after his freshman year, "I considered transferring, but my mom talked me out of it," Vanterpool says. "I stayed, and he happened to be the perfect guy for me."
Undrafted by NBA teams, Vanterpool started a nomadic pro career that began with two seasons in the late 1990s in China, where he won a title and the league's MVP Award.
The league was middling in talent, with Americans on every team and future NBA players such as Yao Ming (at 17 and 18), Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer.
"Players were housed in hotels, which was cool," Vanterpool says. "There was no attention on that league. There were no scouts. The only agent I ever saw was Bill Duffy, and he wound up representing Yao Ming.
"I learned how to write my name in Mandarin. I could say a bunch of Chinese words. Some of the Chinese players spoke some English, but basketball is a universal language. We communicated well enough to function.
"I learned quite a bit about their culture. The food was so different. Some things that would be a delicacy there, an American would say, 'Oh, my God.' But I enjoyed getting a chance to understand another culture. It gave me a different perspective. It truly is a different world over there."
Vanterpool returned to the U.S. and played for the CBA's Yakima Sun Kings for two years, and was the league's MVP before being called up to play 22 games with the Washington Wizards in the 2000-01 season, averaging 5.5 points and 3.0 assists in 18.7 minutes.
"I lived out my dream, playing NBA ball in my hometown," he says.
It was the only sniff of the NBA he would get as a player. He played one season in the ABA with Kansas City under coach Kevin Pritchard, who would be general manager of the Trail Blazers a few years later. Vanterpool spent the next three seasons in Italy, first with Scandone Avellino and then Montepaschi Siena. The latter team reached the EuroLeague Final Four and won its first Italian League championship. He was the Italian League SuperCup MVP in 2004.
"It was wonderful," Vanterpool says. "If I were to live in a country outside of the U.S., it would probably be Italy."
Vanterpool adopted the language.
"I learned to speak it pretty well, and understand it very well, which gave me an affinity for the people and the culture," he says.
The food, he says, "was incredible," though he found it hard to get used to the fiesta ritual in early afternoon.
He greatly enjoyed his time in Siena, where he lived in the city's main square (Piazza del Campo) and enjoyed the twice-annual "Palio" horse races, in which each neighborhood (Contrade) had its own emblems and colors, and citizens bet on and rooted for their horse.
"It was crazy," he says, "but it was a really big deal."
One night during his first weekend in Siena, he ate a late dinner outside in the square and, as dusk fell, noticed people gathering about a stage.
"Next thing I know, a guy walks out on stage and starts to sing," Vanterpool says. "It was an opera, and I had no idea it was coming. I stayed 'til the end and watched it. It was one of the most beautiful things I experienced. I didn't understand what was being sung, but I'm thinking, 'I'm in Italy, I can see the moonlight and I'm watching an opera in the middle of a square in Siena.' That's not a bad thing at all."
Vanterpool spent the next three years in Russia playing for CSKA Moscow, helping the team claim its first EuroLeague crown in 35 years. The owner of the team was Mikhail Prokhorov, now owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Vanterpool played the first two seasons and served as an assistant coach for Messina the third year.
"Italy was a much more relaxed, family-type atmosphere," Vanterpool says. "Moscow is not relaxed. Russians call Moscow 'Moscow' and Russia 'Russia,' as if they're two different places.
"Moscow is like New York City in a lot of respects. Anything you want, you can have. There are two downtown areas. Businesses are open all day and night. It's a fast-paced city with a lot of very wealthy people. There are a lot of people with money, but also a lot of people without. There's a limited number of people in the middle class, at least to the naked eye."
As he flew on road trips throughout different parts of Russia — "we'd fly for 10 hours to the West and still be in Russia," he says — he noticed plenty of poverty. He says he was treated well, but understands that being with CSKA Moscow had much to do with it.
"My reality was very different from other players' reality on different teams, or from Russian citizens," he says. "I was with the best organization, which garnered a certain level of respect automatically without having to do anything except be on the team.
"People looked out for us. I didn't have any scary experiences. You can get robbed in the subways easily. Kidnapped on the street easily. I had a driver who was like security, and he looked out for me. I didn't have to worry about those things."
Vanterpool chuckles at the memory of Sergei Ivanov, a Russian senior official and politician who was then the country's secretary of defense.
"He was a fan and was with our team all the time," Vanterpool says. "We got to know each other fairly well. The year I coached, Scottie Pippen was there for some ceremony. I walked before a game and Scottie — I'd never met him before — was sitting behind Ivanov in the stands. I saw Ivanov, walked over to him, and he got up and gave me a big hug. Afterward, when Scottie and I met, he said, 'I wondered who was this black dude, walking up to that Russian big shot?'"
Vanterpool returned to the states and got a job with Oklahoma City, for one season as a pro scout and the second as director of pro personnel. The second season, the Thunder reached the NBA Finals before falling in five games to Miami. After that season, he was hired by Stotts, whom he had met five years earlier at an assistant coach's clinic for former players.
During the 2011-12 season, Vanterpool had spent much time with OKC reserve guard Reggie Jackson, mentoring him and working him out.
"That started the itch to get back into coaching," Vanterpool says. "Terry called at the right time, and I was ready to make the jump."
When Jay Triano left to go to Phoenix in 2016, Vanterpool became Stotts' lead assistant.
"I've enjoyed my time with Terry," he says. "I look at things as happening in stages. Some stages are longer than other. Some are necessary to help you grow and move to the next stage. Seeing how Terry goes about things has been good for me. It's so vastly different from what my approach may have been before that. Just being around him has helped me grow."
Vanterpool has interviewed for several NBA head coaching positions, including Philadelphia (2013), Denver (2015), Orlando (2016 and 2018) and Charlotte (2018).
"I'm flattered so many teams have shown interest," Vanterpool says. "I'm disappointed in a sense, too, that I didn't get the opportunity. But in every one of those situations except for Charlotte this year (the Hornets hired Spurs assistant James Borrego), the guy who was hired had something I couldn't offer — head-coaching experience in the NBA.
"I can't do anything about that. I tell them, 'You're right, I don't have the experience of being an NBA head coach. There's only one way for me to get that — for you to give me the opportunity.'"
Says Vanterpool: "I know I'm ready. I know there will be a lot of missteps, a lot of mistakes, a lot of things you have to navigate through because they don't go according to plan. But that's part of the process. I feel like that's my strong suit. I would love to have the opportunity to show I can figure things out."
As an assistant coach, Vanterpool has grown close to several Portland players, most notably Lillard.
"I understand there used to be this imaginary line where coaches weren't supposed to get too close to the players," he says. "Those kind of relationships have become more important today. For me, it's organic. It's because I am truly taking interest in that person.
"I enjoy being around guys and helping any way I can to change their lives. Hopefully, it helps them as a basketball player in the process, but I want them to grow as individuals, too."
Vanterpool believes his ability to foster relationships would be valuable as a head coach.
"Today's players are so different," he says. "It's so much more important to have that line of communication with the head coach. You can make a guy understand, 'This is the decision I'm making for the best of the team.'
"I have that type of relationship with Damian. I can 'MF' him in front of anybody any time and he's going to take it the way I'm saying it, because he knows I care for him as opposed to not having that relationship."
Vanterpool pines for a head coaching opportunity, but he loves what is on his plate in Portland. He is divorced, but his children, who have been living in Maryland, will soon join him full-time in Tigard. Kendel is 15 and Devin 13.
"Kendel is 6 feet tall," Vanterpool says. "She has been cheering competitively since she was little. She models and is going to start playing volleyball now. Devin is a really good athlete, but he's a little wild card, too. I'm excited to have them with me full-time. They're excited, too. It's beautiful."
Vanterpool is an East Coast guy, but Portland has grown on him.
"I love it here," he says. "I've grown to have an appreciation for this city, for the people, and for the opportunity I have to work for this organization. Terry has given me such a level of responsibility with this team, and the autonomy to do different things and figure out things in a different scale.
"I'm happy where I am, if for nothing other than the people I get to work with. Being able to go in the office every day and be around the other coaches — you can't ask for much better. It doesn't always work out that way. I've been blessed."