By Jamie Thomas
There is a special relationship between Great Britain and the United States.
It extends beyond transatlantic politics and bonds the Great Britain National Basketball Team with the biggest and best league in the world.
For the past 30 years, players like Steve Bucknall, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Luol Deng among others, have provided a playing connection between the Great Britain Men’s Team and the National Basketball Association.
More recently this connection has extended to the sidelines, with a significant coaching crossover between GB Basketball and the NBA developing.
Nick Nurse’s well-documented journey from the UK to an NBA Championship with the Toronto Raptors in 2019 shone the brightest of lights on the link.
And the recent appointment of his old pal and partner Chris Finch as Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach strengthens it.
But there is a select club of others who share a connection between GB Basketball and the NBA, two of whom are still pushing forward the cause of the national team.
- Chris Finch – Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach; former GB Head Coach (2006-2012)
- Kenny Graves – Boston Celtics Director of Player Development; former GB Assistant Coach (2013-2017)
- Tim Lewis – Former Raptors 905 (NBA G-League) Assistant Coach and GB Assistant Coach (2006-2012)
- Paul Mokeski – Former Charlotte Bobcats Assistant Coach and GB Assistant Coach (2010-2012)
- Nick Nurse – Toronto Raptors Head Coach; former GB Assistant Coach (2007-2012)
- Joe Prunty – USA National Team Acting Head Coach; former Milwaukee Bucks and GB Head Coach (2013-2017)
- Nate Reinking – Canton Charge (NBA G-League) Head Coach and GB Head Coach (2019 – present)
- Monte Shubik – Former Philadelphia 76ers Assistant Coach and GB Performance Analyst (2010-12)
- Jamie Smith – Former Boston Celtics Video Coordinator and current GB Assistant Coach (2011 – present)
‘Nick and I would reminisce about our time with GB Basketball almost daily’ – Chris Finch
A decade ago, Chris Finch and Nick Nurse were five years into their partnership as Head Coach and Assistant Coach with Great Britain.
At the same they were testing their mettle in the NBA G-League with Iowa Storm and Rio Grande Valley Vipers respectively – opportunities they had earned while already with GB.
But Finch, who like Nurse began his coaching path in the British Basketball League, admits that both of them being NBA Head Coaches a decade later was not something he envisaged.
“I honestly don’t think I would have believed it,” said Finch. “I can’t speak for Nick, he’s extremely driven and probably had more of a roadmap to the NBA than I did, but my roadmap was just to try to be really good wherever life took me and see what came up next.
“Nick and I would reminisce about our time together with GB Basketball almost daily. We’ve spent the last few months together before I came to Minnesota and we’d always be talking about the things that happened in our five years with GB.
“Whether it be basketball-related or culturally, we’d always reflect on the experiences we had, the places we went and the great teams and players we coached and faced with Great Britain. We have such a shared and common bond from working together in the NBA, working together with the national team and cutting our teeth against each other in the BBL.”
Having experienced so much in his storied career, it speaks volumes of his affections for his time with GB that Finch holds his experience with the Men’s National Team in such high esteem, as he detailed a particular highlight of his time that stands out in his career.
“The Olympic experience with GB is certainly a highlight of my career. I was talking to a staff member on the Timberwolves very recently, actually, who has a chance to go to the Olympics this summer with another team and I told them they absolutely have to do it because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“The environment, the entire build-up to 2012 for us was an entirely unique experience from meeting the Queen to meeting the Prime Minister to meeting all of the other incredible teams and athletes, so just on a human level it was extremely rewarding and something I’ll never forget.
“To see and be with our guys on our home turf, playing in front of sold-out crowds and playing some really good basketball was a lot of fun.”
‘The experience was everything I thought it would be and more’ – Joe Prunty
Already a highly experienced NBA Assistant Coach when he succeeded Finch as Great Britain Head Coach in 2013, Joe Prunty has since gone on to become a Head Coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and was most recently named Head Coach for the USA National Team in the AmeriCup Qualifiers.
That team, which included NBA superstar Isaiah Thomas, went 2-0 in the February FIBA window, and Prunty pointed out how his GB experience helped him prepare for his role with Team USA, whilst also sharing some of his biggest learnings from the experience.
Certainly, getting the experience of international basketball as GB Head Coach helped,” Prunty said. “I loved being the Head Coach for the British national team and the experience was everything I thought it would be and more.
“The on-court experiences were just basketball – just a matter of getting organised and structured – but off the court there were certainly more things I had to grow with and learn than on the court. Those in-game adjustments people talk about happen outside of the game too, and I learned a lot about how to handle that during my time with GB.
“For example, I once asked about travelling from Greece to Poland, how long the flight was and was told it was three hours – but of course, the right question to ask was how long it would take to get from point A to point B, which was over 10 hours, so I learned to ask the right questions.”
Expanding on the challenges that are more unique to managing a national team, Finch also cited specific lessons and how the GB programme enabled him to improve his ‘adaptability’ as a coach.
He added: “I developed quite significantly during my tenure. The challenge with national teams is that you have a slightly different roster every year but never as much time to prepare as you’d like with the guys for a game or a tournament, so you have to find new ways to maximise your time and talent.
“The lessons I learned all kind of rolled into one for me. I’ve always had quite a high level of adaptability and focussed on keeping things as simple and as fluid as possible, whether with GB, in the G-League, or joining an NBA team as a Head Coach midway through a season, but GB gave me that platform to develop that approach and get better doing it.”
‘I received so many unbelievable lessons with GB’ – Nate Reinking
Finch, Nurse, and Prunty all created significant memories and highlights for British basketball during their tenures coaching GB. They also played a pivotal role in shaping GB’s future, preparing current Head Coach, Nate Reinking, for his coaching journey.
Reinking played under Finch and Nurse at the Olympics before retiring and beginning his coaching career on Prunty’s inaugural GB staff.
Reinking describes GB as being ‘in his DNA’ and detailed how playing under the triumvirate of Finch, Nurse and Prunty prepared him not only for coaching in general but readied him for the NBA G-League.
“I received so many unbelievable lessons with GB that helped me prepare for the G-League job. As a trio to learn from, Coach Prunty, Coach Finch and Coach Nurse are as good as any! They’re three NBA Head Coaches, they’ve seen it all, and I’ve been extremely blessed to be in these situations that – although unknowingly at the time – were preparing me for a future coaching career.
“To see Coach Prunty’s NBA philosophy as part of his staff was huge for my development. Playing under Chris Finch and Nick Nurse, they were both G-League coaches at the time too, so I experienced that philosophy then but didn’t realise it’s significance, then when I got onto the other side of it as a coach with Coach Prunty, I felt like I was going back to basketball school.
“The G-League is a whole different animal of a league. To me there is nothing like it, and it makes any other job feel a little bit more stable. When the opportunity came up to be the GB Head Coach, I was prepared to jump straight in, take those first four games and run with it.
“The Assistant Coach role with GB helped prepare me for the G-League and my opportunities there have helped prepare my return to GB as Head Coach. Coach Prunty actually introduced me to the people at the Cavaliers responsible for Canton’s programme, so that is how I got my foot in the door.
‘Getting jobs here as a British coach is extremely difficult, but it is doable’ – Tim Lewis
Of the nine who share this GB-NBA coaching connection, only two were born and raised in the UK – Jamie Smith and Tim Lewis. Smith joined the GB set-up in 2011 while at the Cleveland Cavaliers and is still with the programme under Reinking, while Lewis worked under Finch and Nurse during their tenure.
Both of their stories bear scrutiny in their own right, with the pair both leaving home to chase the Stateside dreams that many in the UK don’t realise.
Lewis spoke of the fear of failing and why coaches should instead accept setbacks as opportunities.
“You’ve got to be prepared to fail and that’s scary for people,” he said. “In England, lots of coaches have a primary job and coach basketball on the side, so the thought of giving up the former to commit to the latter and potentially fail prevents people taking those opportunities and progressing. We tell players to be willing to make mistakes, but coaches have to be the same – that’s how you get better.
“My pathway was very different, but it is a path people from this country will have to follow if they want to reach that level. I do get people in the US who are surprised when I say I coach basketball, not ‘soccer’, and getting jobs here [in the United States] as a British coach is extremely difficult, but it is doable.
“I’ve coached so many different teams in many different countries, but British Basketball was a great part of my pathway. If coaches are invested, put in the time and have the ability, then environments like GB are fantastic for offering those opportunities, and it was invaluable for me really.
“With GB I’d worked in player development, as an assistant coach, doing video analysis and more. If you’re narrow-minded in your approach as a coach and only focus on one thing then you miss out on opportunities and Chris giving me opportunities to do a lot of stuff around the men’s programme was very beneficial for my development.”
‘Working for the Boston Celtics was a dream job’ – Jamie Smith
Embarking on a coaching journey that began at the junior college level and included stops in NCAA Division I working under legendary head coaches Roy Williams and Billy Donovan, Jamie Smith blazed his own trail from the UK to the NBA before coming home to work for the Great Britain National Team.
Upon joining the Cleveland Cavaliers as a video intern in 2010 – regarded by many as an entry level position for aspiring NBA coaches – Smith became the first Brit to join an NBA coaching staff. Also on Byron Scott’s staff that season were future GB coaches Joe Prunty and Kenny Graves. The following year Smith joined the Boston Celtics as a video coordinator and also served as an assistant coach for the Celtics at the NBA Summer League.
“Working for the Boston Celtics was a dream job. Every day I got to work with players like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen who had been childhood heroes of mine. I had two great bosses in Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge, a mentor in Mike Longabardi, and was surrounded by talented co-workers who were all first-class people and leaders in their respective fields. It was heart breaking when my visa couldn’t be extended and I had to leave.
“Working for the Great Britain National Team is the nearest thing to working for an NBA team in this country. We may not have the resources and facilities of an NBA franchise, but we have highly talented people on staff and we get to coach the best players that our country has produced. Our players are world class and every bit as professional as their NBA superstar counterparts.”
Players with a British connection will continue to catch the headlines with a trio of London-born players, OG Onunoby (see above), Admiral Schofield, and Simisola Shittu, the latest generation of Brits to shine in the NBA.
But the little-known chapter in the ‘special relationship’ between Great Britain and the USA – GB Basketball’s NBA coaching tree – is still bearing fruit and shaping the future of the game.