DAVID ADELMAN: FAMILY BUSINESS
DENVER — Rick Adelman had his misgivings when he gave his son, David, his first opportunity to work in the NBA in Minnesota in 2011.
The senior Adelman, who spent 6 1/2 of his 23 seasons as an NBA coach with the Trail Blazers, knew of the rigors of the job, the long hours and the time spent away from family.
"I knew how tough the job was," says Rick, now 71, retired and living in Portland. "I was in Portland for 12 years as an assistant and head coach. Later I was in Sacramento for eight years. We were so fortunate. We stayed in a couple of spots a long time, and had really good teams. It wasn't as stressful. I didn't have to jump around like a lot of people did. But I knew how it could be.
"I felt bad bringing David into that business. But he wanted to do it, and he has done a great job."
David is now 37 — the age at which his father started his NBA coaching career as an assistant under Jack Ramsay in Portland in 1983. David is in his eighth season on an NBA staff, his seventh as an assistant coach and his second as the No. 2 assistant to Mike Malone with the Denver Nuggets.
"I feel very lucky, very blessed," says David, who worked five seasons with the Timberwolves and one in Orlando before coming to Denver last season. "A lot of people in the NBA have given me great opportunities. To be in this situation in Denver with this team — it's part luck with how it has come together for me."
It wasn't that long ago that David — one of six children of Rick and his wife, Mary Kay — was a little rug rat, running around the practice floor while watching his father coach the Blazers into the NBA Finals in 1990 and '92.
"It was extremely exciting," David says. "When you're a kid, you don't realize the magnitude of it. Now as I'm older and have become a part of the NBA ... I use the word again, but I'm just blessed.
"My dad and mom made it really special for us. They never made it seem bigger than it was. It was more of a, 'Let's enjoy these moments together.' My brothers and sisters and I had just a genuinely fun experience."
Four of the Adelman offspring got into coaching.
Kathy is one of the most respected girls high school coaches in the state, working now at Beaverton.
Pat took the Lincoln boys to the Class 6A semifinals in 2018.
R.J. — who worked with Seattle, Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota in roles that ranged from assistant coach to video coordinator to scout to director of player personnel — died last year in an automobile accident.
Sisters Laura and Caitlyn also live in the Portland area.
David, a 5-10 point guard, played on a big-school (then 4A) championship team at Jesuit in 1999. The next year, he began his coaching career at his alma mater as a volunteer assistant to head coach Gene Potter.
"I give 100 percent of the credit to Coach Potter," says David, who wound up coaching at Jesuit for five seasons while he was attending first the University of Portland, then Portland State. "He had asked me to work camps for him, and saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. Working for him straight out of high school was extremely fortunate. He was the guy who gave me the opportunity, the guy who believed in me, and one of the best basketball coaches at any level that I've been around.
"Everything that I base teaching the game on fundamentally now was founded at Jesuit. Coach Potter allowed me to help coach those teams and coach practices and, as the years went on, take more control, more leadership. The system there and how it's taught and run is special. I use a lot of the terminology and the things I learned there now in the NBA."
Potter, who has won seven state titles at Jesuit — including one this March — had considered Adelman a coach-in-waiting as a player for the Crusaders.
"David had a great feel for the game," Potter says. "He was one of those guys who knew everything about what we were going to do, and everything about what the (opponent) was going to do. By the time he was leaving, he was the guy sitting next to me, getting things bounced off of him and also offering ideas.
"He mostly worked the offensive side for us, and did a great job. We're still running a lot of the stuff he incorporated with our personnel. We didn't call it that then, but now we call it 'Adelman.'"
Potter said he has enjoyed following Adelman's coaching ascent.
"I have so much fun watching him," Potter says. "When I've gone to watch the Nuggets, I spend more time watching him on the bench than anything. It's cool to see what he's doing and where he's been. I hope that his career path continues to go in that direction.
"David is an awesome person. Coaching is as much about relationships with players and getting the most from them as the X's and O's. Kids gravitated toward David from the get-go, and I'm sure the men he's working with now feel the same way."
Adelman landed the Lincoln High head coaching job in 2006-07 at age 24. In his five years there, the Cardinals won three PIL championships and reached the 6A title game in 2009, losing to — of all teams — Jesuit in the finals.
"It was an amazing experience," he says of his time at Lincoln. "Lincoln is unique. You get kids from the West Hills but also from other parts of the city. It allowed me coach a lot of different types of young men, deal with different kinds of parents.
"I'm really proud of what we did there. I always looked at Lincoln as a school where you could have sustained winning. For some reason, they hadn't gotten it there, but with some of the parents' support, we had a good run."
David couldn't pass up the opportunity to join his father's staff in Minnesota in 2011. He started as a player development coach, working with the team's younger players on an individual basis, before becoming a full-fledged assistant the second year.
"(Player development coach) is a tough job," his father says. "You have to get along with the players. You have to get them to work and like you. He had a knack for it. He did a really good job in Minnesota."
There was another part of it, too.
"There are a lot of things going on when your dad's the head coach," Rick says. "You don't know how the players are going to react. He was able to get through that. That's not an easy thing to do. That was a big telling point to me."
David says he never felt pressure being the coach's son, working with the team's players.
"I know how special my dad was to the game, how many people benefited from his style and creativity," he says. "I looked at him as a model of how to be a good coach, but I've tried to find my own voice and style."
The senior Adelman coached the Clyde Drexler-led Blazers to the NBA Finals in 1990 and '92. He ranks eighth on the NBA coaches career list with 1,042 victories and should some day gain selection into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
What did David learn from his dad?
"A lot," he says. "He has been an enormous influence, on and off the court. I learned about managing a team and a group of people who are around each other a lot on a day-to-day basis.
"He was also one of the better X's and O'x coaches — I don't say that just because he's my dad. People still run stuff that he brought to the league. We do, too, with (Nikola) Jokic, (Mason) Plumlee and (Paul) Millsap."
After the senior Adelman retired in 2014, in part due to his wife's health issues, David remained on the coaching staff at Minnesota, first under the late Flip Saunders, then Sam Mitchell.
"I give so much credit to Coach Saunders," Adelman says. "So much in life is what people see in you. He saw value in me. He could have demoted me. He kept me in a position of power. He let me talk to the team. When he passed away, Sam Mitchell gave me even more opportunity. He let me run the offense with the young guys — (Andrew) Wiggins, (Zach) LaVine, (Karl-Anthony) Towns."
Adelman also served as head coach for the Timberwolves' entry in the Las Vegas Summer League for three years.
"There are bigger moments (in the NBA), but you coach the same way as you do in high school," he says. "It's a different game, but you prepare and treat the players just like you would any high school team you had. It was fun and an important experience for me."
Adelman coached in Orlando under Frank Vogel for one season (2016-17) before signing on with Denver and Malone in 2017. First assistant Wes Unseld Jr. handles the defensive side while Adelman works primarily with the offense.
"The head coach has the final say on everything, but Wes and I take a lot of the responsibility of teaching through video sessions or walk-throughs," Adelman says. "My first few years in the league, I was generally a guy who did a scout (report) every week, like most assistant coaches. This is much more detailed — introducing offense, giving an offensive game plan. It's a lot of responsibility and very cool of Coach Malone to trust me with that."
Adelman loves the challenge of coaching in the NBA.
"You're coaching great athletes, and against arguably the best athletes in the world," he says. "Having the opportunity to game-plan against LeBron James and Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard is special. Sometimes you lose sight of that. At times it hits me."
Like when Malone brought all of his assistants with him to coach at this year's All-Star Game in Charlotte. At a practice, as the league's premier players cavorted on the court, Adelman looked at the other coaches and said, "Look at this."
"You forget how lucky you are," he says. "There's nothing that compares to doing this, going against these other coaches who are big-time minds and have big-time talent to work with. The respect you have for each, and the grind that this is — it's special."
Adelman has found coaching in the Western Conference semifinals against the team for which he grew up rooting "really bizarre."
"At the start of the third overtime (Friday) night, I had a lot of thoughts," he says. "I thought about growing up in Portland. I thought about my brother (R.J.), and wishing he could see this.
"I want to win, but it's not like I wanted badly to beat the Blazers. It's more cool being able to do this, being back home. You don't forget how great the city is, and how much they love basketball. It's an honor to be back in Portland doing this."
David and his wife Jenny — a former soccer player at Barlow High — married almost eight years ago. They have a son, L.J., 5, and a daughter, Lennan, 3. The NBA's extensive travel makes family life difficult at times.
"Finding a balance is hard," he says. "For the most part, the head coaches I've worked for have been very understanding of the importance of time with family. When I'm in (Denver), I do my best to work hours that allow me to be around my kids and have a relationship with my wife.
"It's a very time-consuming and demanding job. Your family has to sacrifice for you, and you have to sacrifice for them."
L.J. is to the age where he understands what his father does for a living and is beginning to identify with the players.
"He's watching the playoffs for the first time and remembering things — the noise, the crowd, the intensity of it," David says. "My daughter loves all the side stuff — the dancers and all of that. But you get to experience it with them. That's the cool thing about it — coming home and talking with them about what just happened."
David would like to be a head coach again some day. And if it's not in the NBA, he'll be OK with it.
"The most important thing you can do is not try to make that happen, and just do the job you have the best you can do it," he says. "If you do your job well, and the people around you respect you, that takes you a long way.
"If the NBA doesn't work out, if I'm the head coach at a high school in Oregon or a small-college coach in California, that's fine with me. I just want to do this job. I love to coach. The longer I'm in the NBA, I've found it to be a great experience, but we all know how fragile it can be."
Could David be a head coach in the NBA?
"He could," his father says. "He has the ability to do it. He's going to be OK. I've noticed he gets plenty of respect during the games with Denver. He just needs a shot."
That's what happened when Blazers owner Paul Allen hired Adelman — then an assistant coach under Mike Schuler — as interim head coach when he fired Schuler in 1988.
"I never thought I'd be a head coach in the NBA, and Paul gave me a shot," Rick says. "I fell into a pretty good situation. We had a really good team and made a couple of good trades and suddenly we're in the Finals the first year. That doesn't happen to everybody."
Five years into retirement, Adelman doesn't miss the coaching business in the NBA.
"I watch the carousel now and see what happens, and I'm glad I'm not doing it any more," he says. "It's a different animal now, with social media and so many things out there.
"But David has grown up with it and understands that. He's in a good situation with Denver, with a good team, and they like where they're living. It's a good deal for him. He has worked his tail off, and people have recognized it."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.