Bob MacKinnon Jr., who spent last season in the Chinese Basketball Association with Tianjin Rongcheng, takes a moment to instruct a player during a late season game against Jiangsu in March.(Photo: Sina Sports)
The wild world of the Chinese Basketball Association has had a long, noticeable history of foreign players, numbers of which have only increased not just in size, but also in star-power as the league has developed over the years. In the last two seasons, Bonzi Wells, Stephon Marbury, Ricky Davis, Steve Francis, Rafer Alston and more have all flew over the Pacific Ocean to the Middle Kingdom in hopes of extending their careers, tapping into a huge market, and ultimately making some nice cash. Countless others of NBA D-Leaguers and fringe NBA players have also made the jump as well.
But, while some people know who is playing on the court, many don’t know that the league and Chinese basketball as a whole has made a push to bring in more foreigners on the sidelines, too. Last year,
five six foreign head coaches, Bob Weiss (Shandong), Jay Humphries (Guangdong), Bob MacKinnon Jr. (Tianjin), Bob Donewald Jr. (Shanghai), Casey Owens (Fujian) and Brian Goorjian (DongGuan), roamed the sidelines in their respective Chinese cities, brought in to not only get wins, but to establish Western training methods into a country that is still very much behind the curve in that area.
Last season, the Tianjin Ronggang Golden Lions were one of those teams. With a young roster full of potential, Tianjin went with MacKinnon, someone who has had his fair share of experience developing players. The son of former NBA/ABA general manager, Bob MacKinnon Sr., the younger MacKinnon has spent time in the NBA D-League, guiding the Colorado 14ers to a title in 2008-09 before moving on to coach the Idaho Stampede in 2009-10. Before Colorado, MacKinnon worked as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers. He also worked as an assistant under Matt Doherty in Notre Dame and North Carolina, and coached as well as at Marshall.
Arriving with optimism, MacKinnon was quickly introduced to basketball with Chinese characteristics. One of the smallest budget teams in the league, Tianjin couldn’t afford to hire assistant coaches, athletic trainers, video coordinators or any other person who could take some of the load off of MacKinnon. After hearing about his situation early in the year, we at NiuBBall unofficially announced ourselves as volunteer team video coordinator, a job which required helping the non-Chinese reading Coach Mac get online video of his next opponents.
Our first professional gig didn’t go so well: Tianjin finished the year in last place at 5-27 and after a lengthy, drawn out off-season decision making process, management elected not to bring back MacKinnon for another season. They are instead going with the Chinese coach who preceded him the year before.
Good for MacKinnon though, people in the States recognize that the man is a heck of a coach. Two weeks ago, MacKinnon was announced as the new head coach of the D-League’s Springfield Armor. The Armor are run by the New Jersey (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets, making the new job an impressive opportunity. Based on his track record, MacKinnon should be an excellent fit with the franchise.
But most impressive is how Coach MacKinnon can now enjoy the highly honorable distinction of being the first ever CBA coach — foreign or Chinese — to be interviewed by NiuBBall.com. We chatted with him last weekend to reflect on last year with Tianjin, the state of Chinese basketball, the quality of the CBA and more.
NiuBBall: Let’s talk about Tianjin. How did you first find out about the job?
Bob MacKinnon Jr.: A friend of mine who is a scout with the Minnesota Timberwolves, J.T. Prada, who had coached over in China, called me about it last year in late September and just picked up on it from there. I went back and forth a little bit and decided to do it and came out in late October.
NiuBBall: What ultimately led you to deciding to take the job?
BM: I wanted to see what the CBA was all about. I had never been to China and I thought it would be a great opportunity to coach internationally and experience international basketball and a new a culture.
NiuBBall: What kind of impressions did you have of China and of Chinese basketball before you came out? Did you have any initial expectations?
BM: I knew that the country was huge and I knew that basketball was huge in China and I was excited about the excitement level of basketball in China. And obviously what someone like Yao Ming has meant to Chinese basketball and I kind of felt like basketball in China was on the up rise and gaining popularity and gaining exposure. And I think its going to keep getting better and better.
NiuBBall: Before you flew out to China and then once you got to Tianjin, what were your thoughts about the team? What kind of expectations did ownership have for the team?
BM: Well its interesting. Everything is done through an agent and I never really talked to the people in Tianjin. Its all done through intermediaries and basically I found out when I first got there that I was hired as a consultant first. They wanted me to watch and observe, then they asked me to take over practices in the pre-season. So I did that for a couple of weeks and I guess after doing that for a few weeks and doing a few exhibition games, I passed the test. And then they decided to take me on for the rest of the year [laughing].
NiuBBall: So when you arrived in Tianjin were you expecting to be head coach?
BM: I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I was coming out to coach, but then I learned that I guess I was on a tryout, which I wasn’t aware of when I first got there. But, I learned that’s kind of the way its done. I was confident in my abilities and I’m confident in what I know from a basketball standpoint, that I can teach it. We had a very, very young and inexperienced team and I think they wanted someone who could teach and put in a system that they could grow on for the next five or ten years.
NiuBBall: After the adjustment period and once things got settled in, what did you begin to realize about the team and Chinese basketball as a whole?
BM: After going through the exhibition games and stuff, we actually were above .500 in our exhibition games. We had played well. But, I realized that we were very thin and inexperienced in the backcourt. I saw around the league that the best teams have good backcourts, as with most teams. You have to get good guard play. And we just weren’t on that level.
We had some good wing players, I thought Herve [Lamizana] was a good four-man for us who could play as a perimeter four. And I thought we could get by with the big kids we had, the Chinese players, but we need to be stronger in the backcourt. And I think that’s where we had problems. But, you know we played the exhibition games very well and started off the season with a great win against Shanghai. And then our best point-guard, our best Chinese point-guard, got hurt and we was out for about the next month and a half with a back injury. And we just didn’t have enough depth to sustain that.
NiuBBall: Were you then looking to bring in a foreign guard? Was that something you talked to management about?
BM: Well I had talked to management from the first time I saw them play. I told them that the guy they should be looking to sign was a good backcourt player to go along with Herve. They thought that we needed to bring in more of a center. And that’s when they decided to sign Lee Benson. Lee just wasn’t a good fit and it took me about 19 games for me to convince them of that [laughing].
Luckily, we were able to get Vernon Hamilton over. Had we had Vernon from the beginning of the year, I think that the season would have turned out much differently and the Chinese players around him would have gotten much better as the year went on because Vernon helps his teammates get better and he’s a great teammate. And not only could he hold his own against the better guards in the league, but he would have made everyone else around him better. And I think to be honest, you would have seen a drastic difference in how we played.
NiuBBall: Why do you think management was so unwilling to make that switch, even as the games went on and you continued to drop in the standings?
BM: I don’t know. I think they had it in their mind what they wanted to do, and it just took some realistic facts to get them to come around. They told me they wanted two bigs from the beginning and I again, I didn’t think that was the way to go. But, that was their choice.
NiuBBall: Unlike some of the other teams with foreign head coaches, you did not have a foreign assistant coach on your staff. What was it like to work with your Chinese staff?
BM: Well, there was the GM and the assistant GM and those two were really good people. They tried to do their best with the financial constraints that the team was under. You know, I did not really have an assistant coach per se. During practices, I was the only coach. We did not have a strength coach, so I was the one who took the team in and did the stuff in the weight room with them. We didn’t have a video coordinator as you well know. So I had to rely on you to get videos [laughing]. So the financial constraints kind of limited what the GM was able to do and what he was able to provide me.
That’s fine. I enjoy coaching players. And I enjoy being with the players everyday. I did every single individual workout with the players, I did every practice with the players, every film breakdown, every weight room workout. I really enjoyed working with the players.
NiuBBall: One of the things I’ve heard foreign coaches and players say about the Chinese is that there’s a big difference in the level of effort given in practice compared to players in the Western world. After coaching a full season here, what are your thoughts on that?
BM: I think the Chinese system… they practice for long periods of time several times a day. And I think that the Chinese players learn how to pace themselves. Basketball is bang-bang-bang, and moving from one play to the next quickly. It’s quick movements and quick actions.
So what I did when I got there, through time, I cut our practices down and I asked them to give me maximum effort for a shorter amount of time. And I think as time went on, our players saw the sense in that and adjusted to that and really did a great job of doing that, of just giving maximum effort over a shorter period of time. And I think they got better.
NiuBBall: Players have gone on the record in previous interviews talking about the various day-to-day adjustments they have to make while playing here. As a coach, what were some of the things you had to adjust to off the court while you were in Tianjin?
BM: I think the biggest thing is the food. And getting used to eating with chopsticks was a challenge, I’m not sure the players ever thought I mastered that skill. Also the time difference is a big adjustment. Calling home on a totally opposite clock is somewhat different and at times confusing. Lastly one of the things that I never quite got used to was that in most of the hotels you sleep on what I consider to be a box spring here in the States, no real mattresses. That took some getting used to.
NiuBBall: The CBA suffers from a number of issues that holds the league back. If you could magically press a button and change one thing about the league, what would you change?
BM: I think there has to be a uniform agreement among all the teams on facilities. You go from one facility to the next and some are heated, some are not. Some were clean and great to play, and some were dirty. So I think there has to be some sort of uniform commitment to facilities and making sure people have adequate practice time and practice availability, and that it’s the same temperature in every arena for every game. It might seem like a little thing, but when you got guys sitting on your bench in parkas, that’s just not the way to play the game.
And then I think the level of officiating needs to get better. I think they need to get someone in there who is going to be strong to head the officials, and train them and teach them. And again, I think its a financial obligation that the league has to make to officials and to train and to teach. And I think if they do that, the officiating will get better and the league will get better.
NiuBBall: There’s a lot of NBA players coming to the league this season, J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler, and now Kenyon Martin among others, what would be your advice to them as they start the year here in China?
BM: I would say enjoy the experience and enjoy the people. Because the people love basketball and overall I found the people to be very generous and outgoing. And you know there’s so many people. And enjoy going out and seeing a different culture. It’s different. Different isn’t bad and it isn’t good, it’s just different. I enjoyed my experience in getting to know people out there. I’d go out for a run in different cities and it’s funny, I think I’m the only person who runs or jogs in China [laughing]. People are looking at me and cars are honking at me and stuff and it’s just good to get out and see the different culture.
NiuBBall: A lot of foreign players, especially ones fresh off playing in the NBA, find the adjustment to China difficult. Do you think these guys can stay the whole year?
BM: That’s all personal circumstance. I don’t see why not. The season is short. Again, it’s great to go around to see the culture. There’s such a variation of culture just within China, from Shanghai to some of these other provincies. Or Beijing, which is almost more of a Western city, to some of these more outlaying places. To me, it was just very fascinating to see and just the size of the country itself to travel and see. In one place, its almost totally different than another place, yet you’re still in China. It was really fascinating to see all of that.
NiuBBall: Let’s talk really quickly about your new job with Springfield. Are you excited to return to the D-League and coach the Armor?
BM: I’m extremely happy. This is a great opportunity. The NBA Development League, in my mind, is the second best league in the world behind the NBA. The players play hard all the time because they know they’re being looked at all the time. And its to great to coach guys on the level that they’re on that are motivated. And for me to be with the Springfield Armor, whose basketball operations are owned and operated by the New Jersey Nets, is a great opportunity because I am an extension of Avery Johnson’s staff now. For me to have the experience to learn from Coach Johnson and Tom Barise and Popeye Jones, Sam Mitchell, is just a great opportunity.
NiuBBall: Coach, we wish you the best of luck in Springfield this season. Thanks a lot for the chat.
BM: Thanks, Jon.