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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Years in minor ranks help Blazers assistant coach connect with players professionally and personally

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - In his seventh season as a Trail Blazers assistant coach, Dale Osbourne is enjoying the perks of being in the NBA. But it wasn't always so easy for the 54-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y.Dale Osbourne is in the big leagues now, in his seventh season as assistant coach with the Trail Blazers, traveling on the team charter, staying in five-star hotels, making a nice salary and living the high life of the NBA.

It wasn't always that way for Osbourne, 54, who has paid his coaching dues.

Before he was hired by Terry Stotts when the latter was named head coach in Portland in 2012, Osbourne spent 13 years coaching in the minor leagues, from the CBA to the USBL to the D-League to the WNBA.

"I coached in just about every alphabet league," Osbourne says with a laugh. "But that was a great experience for me. Even then, I just loved to coach."

Osbourne and David Vanterpool are the only remaining members of Stotts' first coaching staff with the Blazers.

Stotts met Osbourne during the 2007-08 season, when Osbourne was an assistant coach for the Utah Flash in the NBA D-League. Stotts, who had been fired the previous season as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, was serving as a coaching consultant for the D-League that season, meeting with coaches of every team.

"(Osbourne) made an impression on me," says Stotts, who played and coached in the CBA. "I have an appreciation for the minor leagues. Everyone on my (current) staff has had some time in the minor leagues, either as a player or coach.

"Dale has coached in just about every league there is. He's a great mentor, especially for our younger players. In his coaching career, he has come across a lot of different players, a lot of guys striving to get better. His experience resonates with our young guys."

When he met with Stotts that day in Salt Lake City, Osbourne didn't envision one day serving on a staff under Stotts in the NBA.

"But we had a great talk," Osbourne says. "He gave me some great advice on coaching. When I got the call from him when he got hired here, he said he'd been watching my career from afar, and he'd like to offer me a job.

"That was a blessing, but I had no idea he was looking at me in that aspect."

Like some of the players he coaches now in Portland, Osbourne came from humble beginnings. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, living in the projects as the youngest of six children of Byron and Maxine Osbourne. Byron worked as a maintenance man and washed cars for a living.

"My mom stayed at home and raised six kids while he worked two jobs," Dale says.

When Dale was 13, his father developed cancer.

"Dad didn't want to die living in the projects," Dale says. "My mother was originally from Ocala, Florida, and owned some land there. Dad bought Mom a double-wide trailer, and along with me and my next-older brother, we moved to Florida. I ended up going to high school in Ocala. Dad died the next year."

Ocala was rural. It was a culture shock for the Osbourne boys.

"I went from the projects in the inner city to living in the country," he says. "But it was the best thing for me growing up, to get out of New York."

As a senior at Vanguard High, Osbourne averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds on a team that won the state championship. He wound up at South Alabama. Playing on a team led by Terry Catledge, who would go on to play eight NBA seasons, the 6-6 Osbourne became a defensive specialist.

Playing on a South Alabama team led by Terry Catledge, who would go on to play eight NBA seasons, the 6-6 Osbourne became a defensive specialist.

"I wasn't good enough to score points, so to get minutes, I had to be able to guard people," he says. "I figured out a way to get on the floor. I ended up being a pretty good defender."

Osbourne blew out both knees his senior year, so he finished school and began a coaching career, starting as head freshman coach at his alma mater, Vanguard, in 1988-89. He coached there three years before Bill Musselman — who would later serve three seasons as an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers — hired him as an assistant coach at South Alabama.

"'Muss' was unbelievable to work for," Osbourne says. "He taught me a lot about the game of basketball, especially on the defensive side. He set the tone for my career — I like to work the defensive side of the game.

"I remember meeting Bobby Knight once when I was out recruiting. He told me, 'Listen, you're working for one of the greatest minds in basketball. Whatever you can learn from him, do it.'"

Osbourne spent seven years coaching at South Alabama before getting fired for recruiting violations. By that time, Musselman was with the Blazers. Osbourne flew to Portland to meet with him after being fired.

"We had a long talk about my career," Osbourne says. "He thought the best thing for me to do was go to the pros."

Osbourne moved to Atlanta, where Musselman's son, Eric, was an assistant with the Hawks. In 2000, Bill became ill.

Says Osbourne: "He called me and said, 'I'm in the hospital doing some tests. If something should happen to me, I told my son to look out for you.'"

Four days later, Musselman died at age 59 of heart and kidney failure. Three months after that, Osbourne was hired as an assistant coach with Grand Rapids in the CBA on a recommendation from Eric.

For the next 13 years, Osbourne toiled in pro basketball's minor leagues as a head or assistant coach.

"That's a long time," he says, "but I loved it. I love being in the gym. I was single. It wasn't about the money."

Osbourne spent parts of two seasons as an assistant coach with San Antonio in the WNBA.

"That was a good experience," he says. "The game is slower, but I felt women were more accepting of being coached, and they played hard. They were respectful."

Osbourne learned a lot coaching in the minor leagues, as much about communicating with people as he did the X's and O's of the game.

"The biggest thing in coaching in the minor league system is you have to learn how to coach your players," he says. "You face so many issues — money issues, not-playing issues, when-to-get-called-up issues. Every player in the minors thinks he's going to the NBA. That's really the only goal.

"You have to talk to your players. You have to communicate with them. That's what helped me with players (in the NBA). You deal with so many issues, and you have to confront those issues. If you don't, it can get real ugly.

"You talk to parents who want you to help get their son to the NBA. Well, if they make it, I don't want to take the credit for that. I'm in the gym with a lot of guys who don't make it, too, and I don't want to be blamed for that. If you want to work hard and get to the NBA, that's fine. if you don't, that's fine, too. My job was to show support, but for them to want to work hard to become a great player, they have to make that decision."

In 2011, Osbourne served a stint with USA Basketball as an assistant coach for the Pan American Games.

"They used minor league players for the (Pan Am team) that year, so I went to Mexico and coached those guys, and we got the bronze medal, which we hadn't done for a while," he says. "It was something different, and I enjoyed that, too."

One of Osbourne's stops was in Tulsa of the D-League. He worked as an assistant under Nate Tibbetts, who would later join him as an assistant in Portland.

"We brought Dale in for an interview, and he wowed us," says Tibbetts, now in his sixth season on Stotts' staff in Portland. "It was the best thing I could have done. He'd been a head coach before and had been around. I handed him our defense. He has a great way with players. He has a calming presence but a deep voice. He is very passionate and works hard at his job, and guys see that."

When Stotts got the Portland job, he placed a call to Tibbetts.

"I was out golfing back home in South Dakota and I saw Terry's name come up on caller ID," Tibbetts says. "I was thinking, 'He's calling to see if I'd be interested in a job.' I called him back and he was like, 'I want to ask you about Dale Osbourne.'

"And really, I was even more excited. Dale had been grinding it in the minors for so long. This was his first chance at the NBA. I said, 'Coach, you gotta hire him. You'll love him.' He's a first-class guy and a wonderful coach."

By that time, Dale had married Nicole, and they had begun to have children — they now have boys ages 11 and 6 and a girl who is 5. Making a good living suddenly was more important. And then he got the call from Stotts.

"It was a blessing," Osbourne says. "It provided some stability for my family, along with the chance to learn at the top level. I'd had enough of the minor leagues. It was a chance to learn under Coach Stotts, and to learn from the (NBA) players."

Osbourne handles all the other duties that are spread among the assistants, but he has specialized in working with the Blazers' younger players.

"He has been unbelievable to work with — such a positive guy," forward Jake Layman says. "He brings a different perspective when you're working out. And he's a great guy to sit down and have a conversation with. He's been through so many different levels, he understands what every guy is going through."

Asked what resonates about working with Osbourne, center Meyers Leonard says "everything."

"His passion for the game," Leonard says. "His energy. He loves defense. He is very driven to help and do what he can to make the team more successful. He's gone through the grind, so he has a lot of stories, a lot of knowledge.

"I like talking with 'Oz.' Every few days, we're always catching up. He asks me about my family, how I'm doing personally. That's a big thing when it comes to coaching. It's about, 'Can you connect personally with a player and develop that relationship?' Then there's more trust. There's something about that piece that means a lot. When you connect on that level, it takes everything to a higher level."

Osbourne says he has learned that, too.

"It really does come down to communication," he says. "Even the great ones have issues just like anybody else. They have lives outside of basketball. The greatest pleasure I get out of coaching is getting to know the guys and talking to them about issues other than basketball.

"You can be the greatest coach in the world, but if you don't gain the trust and respect of your players, It doesn't mean anything. I read an article about Chuck Daly when he died. He said, "If I had it to do over again, the one thing I'd do is talk to my players more.' That jumped off the page to me. I'm huge on that now."

NBA coaches are in the gym and on the road so much, it's difficult to blend the grind of coaching with family life. Osbourne says he does that with the help of his Christian faith. The Osbournes are members of Grace Chapel, a church in Wilsonville.

"My faith is very important to me," he says. "My family is very important to me. They demand my time, which I respect. I'm blessed to have a wife who is very understanding. She knows what my job entails.

"But when I'm home, I'm home. I don't sit down and watch basketball all day. I'm helping feed the kids, putting them to bed, making their lunch for school the next day and spending time with my wife. Two or three nights a week, we have date time. It's God and family first."

Like most assistants, Osbourne aspires to be an NBA head coach.

"I love my (current) role, but I'd like to think that I'm ready if that were to happen," he says. "If that door opens, I'll walk through it. If not, I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing now. Portland is a great city. The fans are great. The Trail Blazers are a great organization. I enjoy being here."

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