Brian Shaw: I used to be known as the guy who couldn’t shoot

Brian Shaw won three NBA crowns as a Lakers player before pocketing two more as assistant coach of the same team. Known for his three-point shooting prowess, Shaw tells about everything, from growing up in Oakland to teaming up with Shaquille O’Neal.

Brian Shaw giving tips to Indian youngsters at a NBA India event.   -  Special Arrangement

Brian Keith Shaw grew up in Oakland, California, with other future basketball stars such as Antonio Davis, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. However, it’s his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal that made him a household name in the United States. Known for his alley-oop passes to the burly centre, who would collect the ball and dunk it, fetched them the sobriquet ‘The Shaw-Shaq Redemption’. Shaw enjoyed a 15-year career in the NBA. He won three NBA crowns as a Lakers player before pocketing two more as assistant coach of the same team. Known for his three-point shooting prowess, Shaw tells Sportstar about everything, from growing up in Oakland to teaming up with Shaq. The 49-year-old, who was in Mumbai for an NBA event, also rates Michael Jordan slightly ahead of Kobe Bryant, about whom he shares a great anecdote. Shaw didn’t have a great time as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, but he is looking for another chance to make amends. Excerpts from an exclusive interview…

Question: What brings you to India?

Answer: I am here on behalf of the National Basketball Association (NBA). I am here to help promote the game at the grassroots. I want to create opportunities for all those kids who love basketball. It’s about giving them the right exposure because I am sure there is a rich talent pool in this country. If these kids are exposed to the game and taught to play the game in the right manner, it will be great. I have seen a lot of other nations around the world. And, I know how the game of basketball has really grown in those countries. Now, Indians can relate to the NBA because they see a guy playing there (Satnam Singh). They can relate to them because they come from the same place as him. This is my first time in India and I am glad that the sport of basketball has enabled me to travel. I am aware that India has a great history and a lot of culture. I am glad about the fact that a round orange ball is the reason behind my presence here. I am thankful for this experience.

What made you take up basketball?

I grew up in Oakland, California. My father watched a lot of sports. He put out a basketball ring in our backyard when I was about five. Soon, all kids in the neighbourhood would come over and play in our house. We would play against each other. I was always one of the youngest kids. I played against guys older than me. I had to learn how to negotiate my way out of certain situations. I had to tackle older, bigger, stronger and faster guys. But I found a way out by being quicker on my feet. That always motivated me. Then, I started playing outside my area. Back then, it was all about neighbourhoods. After becoming the best player in my area, I would hear of guys doing well in other neighbourhoods. So, I would go there with my friends and play with them. I wanted to see if I was better than the best guy in that area. I also watched a lot of basketball on the television.

All those days in the backyard obviously contributed to your muscle memory. Would you attribute your amazing three-point shooting skills to the same?

I think so. I went through different stages in my career. By the time I got to the NBA, I wasn’t considered a good shooter. I used to be a point guard. I also focused on defence. My role was to set everybody up. As a kid, I always scored a lot of baskets. But I had different roles in different teams. That was one of the things that enabled me to play for over a decade. I used to adapt well. When you do something over and over again, and when you do it at game speed, it becomes automatic.

How tough was the switch from shooter to supplier?

Every level that you graduate to, you realise there are people better than you. There is a pecking order in a team, just like there is one in nature. You know if you want the right to mate with all the lionesses in a pride, you have to beat the alpha male. And, sometimes, you can’t beat the alpha male. You just have to get in where you fit in. That was something I was able to do. I held the record for most three-pointers in a game. That was against the Milwaukee Bucks. (In fact, until then, Shaw was known as the “shooting guard who couldn’t shoot straight”. All that changed on April 8, 1993). The following year (1996, actually), I assisted Dennis Scott (his Orlando Magic team-mate) tie my record. In the same game, I also provided him with the assist to break my record. When I saw Dennis shoot that well, I thought to myself, ‘My team-mates passed the ball to me because they saw I was going great that night. Now, another team-mate of mine is doing well. So, I am just going to pass the ball to him’. I think you just take what the game gives you. You can premeditate, but it doesn’t always work.

 

You grew up with legends like Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. But it’s your relationship with Shaquille O’Neal that everybody talks about. Can you talk about the ‘Shaw-Shaq Redemption’? How did you manage to give him pinpoint accurate passes again and again?

They weren’t all pinpoint accurate, really (laughs). When I was in college, there were two guys called Brian Barnes and Eric McArthur. We had a play called ‘Step One’. They would look at me and take a step. Subsequently, the defence would become alert. Soon, I would spin and pass the ball. So that’s how I became such a good alley-oop passer. The first time that I met up with Shaq in Orlando was in 1994. During our first practice, I dribbled the ball up court. And, I made eye contact with him. He did his eyes like this (rolls his eyes up). I knew exactly what he meant. He spun, I threw the ball and he dunked it. That was the start of it. It was non-verbal communication. The funny part is that we didn’t know each other. He didn’t know I did this thing back in college. He was younger than me. He grew up on the East Coast and I grew up on the West Coast. But, somehow, we had that feel for each other. So, from that point on in 1994, I was smart enough to follow him from Orlando to the Los Angeles Lakers (laughs).

The great thing about Shaq is that he had great hands. I would lob the ball and if it was anywhere in his range, he would collect it and dunk it. After a while, the defence got tight. I had two guys guarding me. But it didn’t matter. Even if I passed the ball like this (emulates a hook — resembling a bowler’s sidearm action in cricket), he would still collect it and find the basket. He was such a great player. He would use one hand, two hands, go backwards — he was just too good. For a big guy like him to be so incredibly mobile was brilliant. A lot of guys threw him lobs. But I think I played with him longest — three years in Orlando and four at LA. Our partnership got highlighted because we reached the NBA Finals and won championships doing that.

What about Kobe Bryant? He has announced his retirement. Would you call him the greatest of all time?

(Smiles) According to my estimation, Michael Jordan is the best player ever. (Soon, Shaw contorts in his chair and draws an imaginary line with his hand). Jordan is here and Kobe is just a little bit below. I give Jordan the edge because he has six NBA titles to Kobe’s five. Jordan never lost the NBA Finals. Kobe won five out of seven. But there is something only these two players have got. Not LeBron (James), not anybody else. And that’s killer instinct. I have never seen that in any other player. Only Jordan and Kobe have it.

Tell us something about Kobe. Something no one knows…

Do you remember the game in which he scored 81 points against Toronto Raptors in 2006? I was the assistant coach of the Lakers then. Three weeks before that game, we were playing the Dallas Mavericks. Kobe scored 62 points in that game. And, mind you, he got those points in three quarters of play. At the end of the quarter, the scoreboard read Dallas 61, Kobe 62! The Lakers were about 30 points ahead. Head coach Phil Jackson asked me to find out from Kobe if he wanted to play the fourth quarter, get to 70 and then sit out. So, I went up to Kobe and I am like, ‘Do you want to play the fourth quarter? You can get to 70 and then call it a day’. Kobe just looked up the scoreboard. And, he goes, ‘Nah, we are 30 ahead already’. So, I said, ‘But you can get to 70. Nobody gets to 70 every day’. And, he was like, ‘Nah, I’ll get it some other day’. I was choked. I thought he was crazy. So, when we met the Raptors three weeks later, Kobe was hot. It was a close game and we were actually losing.

Then, the Kobe show began. He gets to 40, he gets to 50, then 60. I am thinking to myself that he is going to cross 62. He does! And he also goes past 70, and finally scores 81. It was surreal. The whole world talks about that game, but I always think of the 62-point game. There was a whole quarter left to play. Who knows, he could have scored a 100 points!

After your 15-year career in the NBA came to an end in 2003, you took a break before joining the Lakers as assistant coach. After six years, you joined the Indiana Pacers before finally becoming the head coach of Denver Nuggets in 2013. How seamless was the switch from player to assistant coach/head coach?

When I got to my last year in the league, a member of the Lakers coaching staff told me that I’d make a good coach. He said all players respected you. He said I had a great relationship with every player — from the superstars like Kobe and Shaq to the 12th man in the squad. He said there was something about me. I would tell anyone on their face whether they were right or wrong. So, that member of the coaching staff invited me to start watching match videos of other teams. He showed me how they broke down the film, how they made scoring reports, and how they scouted and stuff.

So, after my last year as a player for the Lakers, I met with Phil Jackson. He said, ‘I want you to coach. But you need to take one year off. You need to be away from the guys because I want them to respect you when you come back as a member of the coaching staff.’ These were Phil’s words. So, I decided to scout for the Lakers. I went from one city to another and watched college tournaments. I sent back my report to the general manager. A year later, Phil made me assistant coach.

How were those days?

Where I live in Oakland, the area is known for its colleges. There are about 10 colleges/universities all within an hour of one another. So, I would drive to these games, sit in the area meant for scouts, open my notebook, make notes and send my reports back to the general manager in LA. I was just one of seven or eight scouts hired by the Lakers. Every guy had a region. But, often, teams from my region would go and play in another region and vice versa. So, basically, we would compare notes. After all, we had notes on the same players. I might think that one guy is a first-round pick in the NBA Draft. Another scout would think that the said player was worth only a second-round pick. The third scout would think that the same player was not worth picking at all. We would look at certain players according to the needs of the team. If the Lakers were looking for, say, a shooting guard or a point guard, then we’d look at players playing in those positions. As a player-turned-scout, I would look at those players I would have loved to have on my team. I would look at players who know how to direct traffic, control the game. You know you have to look for guys who have a feel for the game.

Your time as head coach of Denver Nuggets didn’t go well. (After spending two years on the Indiana Pacers bench, Shaw was announced as the head coach of the Denver Nuggets in June 2013. But he was fired by the Nuggets after compiling a record of 56-85 in just under two seasons). What are you plans?

I’d like to get another opportunity as head coach. The situation I was in wasn’t very good. At least it taught me a lesson. Now, I know what not to do. It was an immature and unprofessional team. I would want to have more say in picking the players. I have won the NBA championship thrice as a player. I even won it as assistant coach of the Lakers. Now, I want to win it as head coach. I then want to become the general manager and, later, part-owner of a team.

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ALL ABOUT SHAW

Full Name: Brain Keith Shaw

Born: March 22, 1966, in Oakland (California)

Height: 6’6”

Weight: 86 kg

PLAYING CAREER

Boston Celtics (1988-1989), Il Messaggero Roma (1989-1990), Boston Celtics (1990-1992), Miami Heat (1992-1994), Orlando Magic (1994-1997), Golden State Warriors (1997-1998), Philadelphia 76ers (1998), Portland Trail Blazers (1999), Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2003)

ACHIEVEMENTS

Three-time NBA champion with the LA Lakers (2000, 2001, 2002)

NBA All-Rookie Second Team (1989)

Big West Player of the Year (1988)

COACHING CAREER

Los Angeles Lakers (assistant coach) from 2005-2011

Indiana Pacers (assistant coach) from 2011-2013

Denver Nuggets head coach from 2013-2015

ACHIEVEMENTS

Two-time NBA champion with the La Lakers (2009, 2010)

DID YOU KNOW?

In 1993, Brian Shaw hit a then-NBA record 10 three-pointers out of 15 attempts against the Milwaukee Bucks to finish with 32 points. He was one-half of the popular ‘Shaw-Shaq Redemption’, an alley-oop combination he formed with Shaquille O’Neal.