Blazers' Tibbetts moves up the ranks
When Nate Tibbetts was promoted recently to "associate head coach" of the Trail Blazers, he had no new nameplates made for the desk at his office at the club's practice facility.
The Jefferson, South Dakota, native probably didn't even puff out his chest.
"It's just a title and a little more money," Tibbetts, about to begin his seventh season as an assistant on Terry Stotts' coaching staff, said with a smile. "This summer, people back home asked, 'How will your role change?' It really hasn't.
"My job here is, No. 1, to work for the Trail Blazers, and No. 2, I'm here to support Terry. I do a good job. He trusts me. I trust him. It's good. We love being in Portland. It's the second-longest place we've lived. It's a good place to call home."
"We" is Nate and his wife, Lyndsey, along with their 18-month-old twin girls, Jordyn and Londyn. Basketball is Nate's job, and it pays the bills, but family is his life.
"Parenthood is special," said Nate, 42. "It's a lot of work, but it's well worth it. Lyndsey and I had been married for several years and didn't know if we were going to have kids or not. Then we were blessed with these two little angels.
"Every day brings a smile to your face. After a game, coming home and seeing them makes you feel really good. It's the biggest responsibility you can have in your life. I'm enjoying it, and we're learning as we go."
Tibbetts was conducting this interview (and podcast session) on a late August morning after working out with players for a couple of hours. The Tibbetts got some time to return to South Dakota and see family earlier in the summer, and Nate is well-paid for his work with the Blazers. But the hours are long and late and the schedule irregular, which makes it hard on a mother trying to care for twin babies.
"Just had this discussion the other day with my brother (Luke), who is a banker," Nate said. "He works 8 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.) and plays a huge role in his kids' life, and he is somebody I look up to and respect. He has been a father and a husband. My job and my hours are much different.
"I just try to be present when I'm home. My kids aren't at the age yet where I'm missing a lot of their activities, but we'll get there, and that's hard. (Coaching) is a fun business to be part of, but you miss a lot of special things with your family. It's just part of it. Luckily, Lyndsey is a great coach's wife. If she struggled with it, it would make it a lot tougher for me."
A good day away from the job for Tibbetts?
"Right now, it's about those two little girls," he said. "I'm not much of a golfer. I don't think I'd be able to spend a lot of time doing that right now, anyway. Once a workday is done, I'll go home and help around the house and play tag and wrestle with the girls and just be present."
Tibbetts didn't start out in a place that spawns NBA coaches. Jefferson is a town of 500 people, located an hour south of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and 16 miles across the state line from Sioux City, Iowa.
"It had a small-town feel," Tibbetts said. "A lot of my friends were farm kids. I knew everyone. I knew all my classmates. It was a good place to grow up."
Tibbetts wasn't a farm kid. His father, the late Fred Tibbetts, won 11 state championships during a long, successful run as a high school girls basketball coach. Nate and Luke, 4 1/2 years his junior, were gym rats.
"My brother and I joke that we didn't have a choice," Nate said. "We grew up in a gym. I was the older child. My dad was my hero. I was probably the pleaser. (Luke) and him probably went head to head a little bit more. He was more challenging."
As they were growing up, the Tibbetts household was next to the high school.
"The first door you could get into was the side door to the gym," he said. "We had access to that a lot. I remember running out of the gym because my dad was yelling at his players, and I was so young I didn't understand what was going on."
Tibbetts picked up on his father's strong suits.
"I always knew I wanted to be a coach," he said. "Dad had a huge influence on that. He always got his teams to play hard and play with passion. His teams worked. They spent a lot of time at the gym."
So did Tibbetts as a player, and it paid off. His dream was to play at South Dakota, located in Vermillion, a town of 11,000 just a half-hour away from Jefferson. He was a four-year starter at point guard and all-conference as a senior, the one season in which he got to play with his brother.
"It was the first time we'd been on the same team," Nate said. "It was really special. It was one of the best years of my life, being able to spend that time with him day to day. And we were pretty darn good as a team."
The Coyotes won three conference titles during Tibbetts' time there.
"When I got there, I didn't know for sure if I was going to be good enough," he said, "but I got to play a lot. I was a facilitator. I knew what it would take for me to get on the floor, and that was to get other guys the ball. I came into that role early in my career.
"It worked out. We won a lot of games, and all of us are in the Coyote Hall of Fame."
Tibbetts' first coaching job was as an assistant just down the road at the University of Sioux Falls, a Christian liberal-arts school that played Division II ball at the time. He cut his coaching teeth there for four years.
"The best thing was, I met my future wife," he said. "There were a lot of positives."
His paycheck with the Cougars wasn't one of them — $444 a month. With the Blazers next season, he'll make that in about four hours. He and Lyndsey were engaged during his final year at USD. He was conducting private basketball workouts on the side to augment his salary.
"I was to the point where I was going to try to build a gym," Tibbetts said. "But I didn't want to be a business owner; I wanted to coach basketball."
Tibbetts then got the break that most impacted his coaching ascension. The Sioux Falls Skyforce were a fixture in the old Continental Basketball Association. In 2005-06, the coach was Dave Joerger, later to be head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings. Tibbetts had played against Joerger's brother, Blaine Joerger, when he was at Minnesota State-Mankato.
"And I knew the owners of the Skyforce a little bit," Tibbetts said. "They hired me."
After one year, the Skyforce moved to the D-League (now the G-League), and Joerger switched to the D-League Dakota Wizards. Tibbetts stayed with the Skyforce and worked under Mo McHone, a longtime NBA coaching veteran who had served part of one season as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
"Dave was young (31); Mo was older (63)," Tibbetts said. "Mo was like a mentor to me. It was good for me to get some input from both sides."
The next season, Tibbetts became head coach of the Skyforce at 29.
"I don't know if I was ready," he said.
Sioux Falls finished 28-22 and made the playoffs the first year. The D-League put Tibbetts in the sphere of plenty of NBA folks, including Stotts, who was serving as a coaching consultant for the D-League after being fired as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. In that position, Stotts moved around the league, attending practices and shootarounds, taking coaches out for dinner or drinks.
"Nate and I went to Buffalo Wild Wings and watched some NBA games and talked hoops," Stotts recalled. "He was young and energetic and anxious. He had a lot of questions and was super excited about being a coach. He left a really good impression."
After two years as head coach, Tibbetts became head coach of the D-League Tulsa 66ers, an affiliate of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder. Bill Branch — now an assistant general manager with the Blazers — was director of pro personnel for the Thunder at the time.
"Bill is a big reason why I left Sioux Falls," said Tibbetts, who hired current Blazers assistant coach Dale Osbourne as one of his assistants with Tulsa.
After two years, Byron Scott signed Tibbetts as a member of his Cleveland Cavaliers coaching staff.
"I never dreamed of coaching in the NBA," Tibbetts said. "It would not have happened for me without the minor leagues."
Tibbetts spent two years with the Cavaliers before coming to Portland in 2013 to replace Kaleb Canales on Stotts' staff. Tibbetts found that he has many similarities with Stotts.
"He spent some of his formative years in the Midwest," Tibbetts said. "His dad was a high school coach. He spent time in the minor leagues. Our personalities are pretty similar.
"Terry is a great man. He cares about his people. I value that. It has been a blessing to be here with him, because of the kind of person and coach he is."
Stotts said Tibbetts has been an "invaluable" member of his staff.
"Both he and David (Vanterpool, who left in the offseason for Minnesota) were really co-associate head coaches, and I relied on both," Stotts said. "Nate gets really good ideas, good thoughts on both the offensive and defensive sides. He's passionate about his job. He's organized.
"He has great relationships wtih players. He is not afraid to speak his mind if he feels strongly about something. He is a good sounding board for me, and he is a fierce competitor. He has spoken up in the locker room multiple times and challenged players."
In the past two years, Tibbetts has interviewed for vacant head coaching positions with several teams, among them Memphis, Phoenix, Atlanta and Charlotte. It has been a case study in how to present himself.
"I coach every day, but interviews are different," Tibbetts said. "I'm learning as we go. My goal is to become a head coach, but I have to have somebody give me that opportunity.
"I'm enjoying the process and trying to improve as a coach. Hopefully, I'll be ready when I get the opportunity. I feel like I'm ready."
His boss does, too.
"There's no question Nate is (going to be) a head coach in the NBA," Stotts said. "He was a successful coach in the minor leagues. He's more than ready to be a head coach. He has all the tools, the personality, the knowledge, the respect of the players. It's all about getting that one break."
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