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Rambis in new role: Cool kid among the NBA’s nerds

Kurt Rambis
Kurt Rambis

Waking the echoes of the Los Angeles Lakers’ fabulous “Showtime” offense of the 1980s by hiring Kurt Rambis is like starting an orchestra with the New York Philharmonic’s cymbal player. After a rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” not Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Rambis, formally introduced Tuesday afternoon as the ninth head coach in Timberwolves history, never was the sleekest or swiftest of the Lakers players who won five NBA championships from 1980 through 1988 — the last four of those with Rambis as a style-challenged, elbows-splayed power forward. Those rosters were built around the smile and sizzle of Magic Johnson, teamed with the regal Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the cool Byron Scott, the smooth James Worthy and their slick coach, Pat Riley. Rambis was the misfit, the guy whose horn-rimmed safety glasses only seemed to have tape on the nose bridge, nerd-like. He did the dirty work: Rebounding, defending, setting picks, giving fouls and, famously in that oft-replayed video clip against Boston in the 1984 Finals, taking a savage one from Kevin McHale.

Though he never was known for his offense — he averaged 5.2 points across 14 seasons and, at 53.4 percent from the floor, obviously only shot when the odds of making it were high — Rambis is the coach who will be charged with remaking the Wolves attack. From something boring, predictable and often inefficient into a faster paced, more entertaining future thing of beauty.

In fact, in offering an anecdote about his scoring prowess Tuesday at Target Center, Rambis — almost more bricklayer than neurosurgeon with the ball — settled quickly on one game among the 1,019 he played in the regular season and playoffs. It was a last-second shot that beat the Chicago Bulls in the thick of Michael Jordan era, after Rambis had signed with the 1988-89 expansion Charlotte Hornets.

“I think I was the sixth option,” he joked before a crowd of media, Wolves staff and season-ticket holders. “It came off of a rebound and I actually had to grab it away from one of my teammates and push him out of the way.”

A valuable experience
The Charlotte experience — part of the five seasons Rambis spent away from the Lakers, including stops in Phoenix and Sacramento, before returning to L.A. in 1993-94 — was valuable for Rambis as he moves from arguably the NBA’s most successful franchise to one of its most beleaguered. As he sat next to head coach Phil Jackson as an assistant coach, Rambis helped the Lakers win as many games last season (65, then 16 more in the postseason) as the Wolves have won over the past three (32, 22, then 24 last year).

Forget the frigid temperatures in January — the outcomes could be the biggest shock to Rambis’ system in his new job. “I know losing is part of it,” he said. “If the players handle the situation, I’ll help guide them through it, developing a distaste for losing, yet all the while growing from experiences to avoid losing in the future.”

One way to fast-track that process is, literally, to fast-track it: The Wolves intend to speed up the game offensively, taking advantage of their young legs, covering up a shortage of perimeter shooters and exploiting the work on the boards that Al Jefferson and Kevin Love are capable of as top NBA rebounders. That’s where Rambis is a nice fit — he’s from and of the Showtime era, a style that appeals to guards, but his role was triggerman, which speaks to Jefferson’s and Love’s style.

Not the glamour part
“I’m not going to be the glamour part of this franchise either,” said Love, one of several Wolves who attended the press conference. “I’m just going to try to get the job done. I think he said, ‘No rebounds, no rings,’ so that’s where my part comes in. I’ll score when I need to. I like what he said about letting players play.”

Said Jefferson, who is cutting his playing weight from 288 to 265 this summer to keep up with the intended faster pace: “We’ve got a great young big man [himself] on the block, and we have to take advantage of that. But I’m working on getting in shape so I’ll be able to run with them. When I found out we got Jonny [Flynn, speedy Syracuse point guard] and my man from Spain [import-in-limbo Ricky Rubio], I knew I was going to have to get my running shoes on.”

Lots of NBA teams claim in September and October that they’re going to run, but come January and February, the league isn’t exactly littered with skidmarks from burning sneakers. Too many coaches get fed up with reckless play, bad decisions, costly turnovers and the lack of control that they can exert from the sideline when a team runs, rather than settling into a halfcourt attack. That’s when coaches look like their coaches, standing up, pointing fingers, calling plays, eating up the 24-second clock.

Rambis seems open to enduring the mistakes that come with running. Within reason.

“We don’t want to run with reckless abandon,” he said. “We will slowly show them what we want to do, give them the options they will have as they are working their way up the floor, and then we will increase the pace with which we play. …  That does not mean I want them turning the ball over, that does not mean I want them taking ill-advised shots. We’re still going to work for quality possessions — we’re just going to try to do it at a quicker pace.”

After their 24-58 season, in which the Wolves ranked 21st in scoring (97.8 ppg) and 29th in field-goal shooting (47.4 percent), they can’t afford not to. “I watched game after game last season and I felt that the team really labored to score,” said David Kahn, the Wolves president of basketball operations. “In our league, you really have to get some easy baskets to win.”

The Wolves will do that, Kahn promised, in February as well as in October. And they’ll learn how from Rambis, the most uncool kid in what was the league’s coolest offense.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 08/12/2009 - 12:55 pm.

    You’d think a fan like me would get tired of reading Rambis story after Rambis story after Rambis story, and yeah, that’s somewhat true.

    Yet despite having read at least a dozen Rambis stories over the last week, including Steve’s Sports Illustrated article, I still found this one to be fresh. Quotes I hadn’t seen, insights I’d yet to read.

    In fact I was so surprised by this that I just reread the SI piece on Rambis to make sure I was right, and I was.

    Two completely separate articles, each about Rambis, each different and with different quotes and insights.

    Most professional writers seek to slice and dice and resell the same piece as many times as possible. How impressive is Steve Aschburner’s work ethic that he wrote two different articles on the same topic in the same timeframe.

    That’s doing it the hard way, aka doing it the right way.

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