Clippers are counting on Tyronn Lue’s ‘Midas touch’ with people
It was a late-December day in 1997, inside a Honolulu hotel hosting the competitors of the Rainbow Classic holiday basketball tournament, when Nebraska forward Andy Markowski stopped to watch what was happening by the pool.
There, in the middle of a group of Kansas Jayhawks, was Nebraska’s star junior point guard, Tyronn Lue. Walk-on Jayhawk guard, Terry Nooner, and Lue were high school teammates, but this was not simply a poolside reunion. Lue was holding court with numerous members of a conference rival Markowski considered “the enemy.”
Had it been anyone else, the fraternization might have been blasphemous. Instead, because it was Lue, this was business as usual.
“He’s got the Midas touch when it comes to people,” said his college coach, Danny Nee. “His likability is insane.”
Twenty-two years after Lue entered the NBA as a first-round draft pick, that touch from the Clippers’ new coach remains as powerful as ever. Lue averaged 8.5 points over 11 NBA seasons, was never an All-Star and stood 6 feet in sneakers, yet his statistics belied the influence generated through his ability to win friends and influence some of the league’s most powerful, and hardest-to-reach, people.
He won titles with the Lakers alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and befriended Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards. He earned respect from, and won a title in Cleveland with, LeBron James. As a Clippers assistant last season on the staff of his close friend and mentor, Doc Rivers, Lue made inroads with Kawhi Leonard.
“How many guys are friends with both Kobe and Shaq? They always said you had to pick a side — not T Lue.”
Brendan Haywood, former NBA teammate on Tyronn Lue’s likability
“I’ve never found anyone that doesn’t just rave about Ty Lue the person,” one league executive said.
As Brendan Haywood, a former Wizards teammate, once observed, “How many guys are friends with both Kobe and Shaq? They always said you had to pick a side — not T Lue.”
Asked for the source of his magnetism, friends often list the same traits, saying Lue’s appeal is grounded in his loyalty, honesty and even-keel approach to a high-stress job. And yet some, even after years of friendship, describe an ineffable quality.
When Lue was on Rivers’ staff in Boston, “we had a crazy fight in the locker room,” Rivers recalled in 2016. “Everyone was screaming, running around, and Ty was in there just calm as ever and kind of settled it. That’s just an art. And that’s Ty.”
“He’s got the resume,” Frank said. “He’s also got the feel.”
His new job will put both to the test. The 43-year-old Lue inherits a Clippers team whose collapse in September’s second round of the postseason, despite holding a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets, led to Rivers’ ouster, sparked questions about the team’s coaching and toughness, and set up what could be the most critical season in the franchise’s 50-year history, because Leonard and Paul George can leave as free agents in 2021.
Into this situation steps a coach who supporters say is uniquely prepared for the challenge.
“Some guys just can be a player-coach and can relate to the kids and don’t have a clue about what they’re drawing up and how to get things accomplished on the court,” said Mo Williams, the Alabama State coach who was a backup guard on Cleveland’s 2016 championship team under Lue. “Then there are some guys that are great in X and O’s but they struggle with getting involved with their players or developing relationships with their players in a way where they’d run through a wall for them.
“And that’s one thing I would say about T Lue: He possesses both of those qualities and it’s what makes him so admirable.”
Nooner, now a coach on the Kansas women’s basketball staff, traces the roots of his friend’s likability to his hometown of Mexico, Mo.
“A little town, but everyone there thinks they are the best in the world at whatever they do,” Nooner said. “That kind of confidence is why he is how he is.”
It followed him to Raytown, a 20-minute drive southeast of downtown Kansas City, where Lue moved in with an uncle as a sophomore in high school. As a senior, Lue led a lineup of all 6-foot guards to a 27-0 start.
“He just took over,” said Mark Scanlon, who coached Lue at Raytown. “Kids immediately liked him and immediately respected him.”
Teammates loved him because the nice guy disappeared at tipoff, but he wasn’t afraid to reach across enemy lines. He was popular with Big 12 opponents, Markowski said, including Colorado star Chauncey Billups, whom he’d befriended as a teenager at an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in California. They remain exceptionally close nearly three decades later, which fits a pattern.
During the 2001 NBA Finals, Scanlon said Lue arranged for plane tickets, a hotel room and game tickets so that he and his wife could see the Raytown alum play on the big stage. Lue added Nooner, a longtime college coach, to his Cavaliers staff in 2018. When Lue missed a 2017 Cavaliers game because of an illness, he called Markowski, who’d attended with his son as the coach’s guest, to apologize for the absence. Lue remains close with James two years after each left Cleveland.
“He had an unbelievable ability to connect to people,” Markowski said.
New Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has never shied away from acknowledging Doc Rivers’ mentorship but acknowleges his style is influenced by other coaches as well.
But Lue has not pulled punches to maintain popularity.
When a senior-led boycott attempted to oust Nee in 1996, Lue — only a freshman — and one other teammate went to practice instead. He would later say he felt he was doing the right thing. It was his show of loyalty for the Nebraska coaches who, unlike other recruiters, had stuck by Lue when he didn’t pass his ACT exam on the first try.
Nee stayed in charge but his authority had taken a hit. Lue’s reputation suffered no such damage. On a campus ruled by football, the undersized guard of a program that only flirted with national relevancy was as popular as anyone.
“We coached some very good players but the stature that we’re talking here, on and off the floor, he’s the best,” Nee said. “I mean, they might as well call it Tyronn Lue University is how I felt. I was driving the bus but we were working it out where we were going. I didn’t make a left- or right-hand turn without Tyronn. I valued whatever he said.”
Recognizing that NBA players valued what the well-liked Lue said, Rivers often made his young Celtics assistant his messenger of bad news. Lue has credited the experience with helping him learn how to push players’ buttons.
“I would call guys out and we’d get into it,” Lue said in 2016.
Most famously, Lue lit into James to play better defense at halftime of Game 7 during the 2016 Finals against Golden State.
“I was able to respond in the second half because I just respect what he says,” James told ESPN months after the championship game.
One year later, facing Indiana in the postseason, Lue benched Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love during the fourth quarter of what became a 26-point rally. The coach could pull off such high-risk moves without losing the locker room, Williams said, because Cavaliers players felt he’d always been honest with them.
“One thing that T Lue does a great job of is holding everybody accountable, no matter who you are,” Williams said. “That goes a long way with your players. If you didn’t get back on defense, instead of not saying something that’s obvious, he’ll point that out. That’s with everybody. He don’t say anything to Mo Williams that he won’t say to a LeBron James.”
That track record wasn’t lost on the Clippers. After losing their 3-1 playoff series lead, the team vowed to instill stronger accountability.
“He’s a thinker, he’s a connector, he’s a dynamic leader who lifts you, even as he challenges you,” Frank said.
It was one of three times either Frank or Clippers owner Steve Ballmer referenced Lue’s ability to connect during his introduction, and it was telling: Of the six decision-makers involved in the Clippers’ coaching search, Lue has known four of them for at least six years, including Jerry West, the consultant he has known since their Lakers days began in 1998.
“Everyone has to be on the same page, everyone has to be together and it has to be a family,” Lue said. “When you start there, I think it’s easy to build a championship team because everyone is invested, everyone is a part of it, everyone is happy to be here, and that’s what I like.”
When Markowski, a former college coach, watches Lue on the sideline, he sees the magnetism he glanced poolside 23 years ago. What Nee called the Midas touch is what the Clippers hope will help them capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the golden championship hardware they so badly seek.
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