Tyronn Lue remembers the naysayers; now he can have last word

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks to Daniel Oturu and Jordan Ford during a preseason game agains the Lakers on Dec. 11, 2020.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, talking to Daniel Oturu and Jordan Ford during a preseason game, uses his sharp memory for motivation and recalling strategies.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Tyronn Lue didn’t consider anything about his memory unusual until he was 32 and learning to become an NBA coach.

Part of his job with Boston in 2009 included analyzing the Celtics’ defensive video alongside veteran assistant Tom Thibodeau, a often hours-long process. Where was that pick-and-roll? Rewind. That weakside help? Fast forward. It was different with Lue, who could recall specific plays down to the game clock. By Thibodeau’s puzzled, almost irritated reaction, Lue realized this was not something everyone could do.

The following season, Lue studied defense under a new Celtics assistant, Lawrence Frank. The reaction stayed the same.


“It all kind of sunk in,” Lue said. “I can go play-by-play, step-to-step of a lot of games of what’s happened, when it happened. It’s just crazy.

“Sometimes it’s a gift and a curse. Because I don’t miss a lot of stuff.”

Even when the moments are decades old. A few years ago, Lue and Terry Nooner, a friend and former teammate at Raytown (Mo.) High, rewatched for the first time Lue’s final high school game, a 1995 playoff quarterfinal matchup still considered one of Kansas City’s greatest. Watching the footage, Lue picked apart the double-overtime loss inside a sold-out Municipal Auditorium, which ended top-ranked Raytown’s 27-0 season.

“What happened in the play, time and score, the moves,” Nooner said. “The dude is a genius as far as he got like a photographic memory.

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“Most coaches have to go back and watch the film and they can see it 20 times on film and they can adjust. He can see the stuff as if he’s looking from a camera while he’s standing on the court.”

A long memory is valuable for any coach. Still up for debate is whether it’s a gift or a curse this season for the Clippers, who are coming off a season that is memorable in ways the franchise did not expect after blowing a 3-1 series lead in the postseason’s second round, even while leading by double digits in each of the final three defeats.

The Clippers’ championship ambitions were undercut by too many injuries, too little chemistry and inconsistent accountability. The combination cost former coach Doc Rivers his job, led to the hiring of Lue, an assistant last season, and sparked an offseason in which the Clippers wrestled with the question of whether their energy was best spent re-examining last year’s missteps or moving forward.


“You will stress yourself out” reliving the past, guard Patrick Beverley said. “It’s a new team, new coach, new year.” But moments later, when asked how long the sting from Game 7’s loss had stuck with him, Beverley acknowledged, “I don’t think it went away.”

Lue advocates for the fresh slate.

“Short memory,” he said. “Next-play mentality.”

Yet that runs counter to the instincts the 6-foot guard relied on to fuel his own underdog success and carry him from Raytown to Nebraska, to two titles with the Lakers and friendships with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

For years, Lue traced his motivation to doubts he heard from friends’ parents while growing up in Mexico, Mo.

“I’ll never forget: ‘Oh he’s too small,’” Lue said. “And then I moved to Kansas City my sophomore year and, ‘Oh, he’ll never make it in the big city. He’ll be back in six months. He’ll never make it.’ Then I made it through Kansas City. ‘Oh he’ll never make it D-I, he’s too small.’ I made it D-I. ‘He’ll never make it to the NBA.’ I made it to the NBA. ‘Oh, he’ll be out after his rookie contract.’ I played 11 years.

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“When I think back to that, I think about these three guys. I won’t name them in the story, but I think back to these guys and they were my motivation. … That always stuck with me, man. That’s always been my driving force.”

Lue burned to be great, which is why he can still hear the gravelly timbre of coach Phil Jackson call “Lubey!” down the Lakers bench during Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, Lue’s signal to check in against Philadelphia — “six minutes to go, third quarter,” he said, a recollection off by barely half a minute.


Fans can remember the game for Allen Iverson’s step-over of Lue all they want, Lue said. The game remains one of his most treasured basketball memories for reasons that are more personal. Jackson, Bryant and O’Neal had trusted him to play on a stage he remembered some doubted he would ever approach.

“It still don’t bother me to this day,” Lue said. “They don’t understand what it meant to me to be in that game.”

Letting go of slights became easier as Lue’s career went on, but those close to him still hear everything. Without prompting, friends, colleagues and former teammates and players echoed a shared belief: that Lue has not received the respect he deserves for coaching Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship, coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

“It’s a little bit of a shame that he’s not as well respected as a head coach as he should be, especially after winning a championship,” said Avery Johnson, who coached Lue for only 17 games with Dallas in 2008 yet was struck by the guard’s unusual ability to suggest late-game strategic tweaks. “I hope he continues to cement how good of a coach he is with this coaching stint with the Clippers, because he really is an outstanding basketball coach.”

Mo Williams, a guard on Cleveland’s championship team, believes crediting superstar LeBron James for his undeniable influence should not take away from Lue’s own contributions, from trusting himself to make unconventional lineup changes in critical moments, to the way he challenged James. Lue might have an innate ability to see the game, but several around Lue in Cleveland said he set a tone by spending long hours preparing.

“People on the outside looking in, they don’t know what it takes on a daily basis,” said Williams, now a coach at Alabama State. “It’s a lot of preparation, it’s a lot of sleepless nights getting prepared for those type of games and winning a championship is not easy.


“I don’t care what type of player you are. Michael Jordan could not win championships without a great coach. LeBron James do not win championships without a great coach. It just don’t work that way. You have to give T-Lue, like LeBron said in the [2020] Finals, his damn respect.”

With a .672 postseason winning percentage, Lue is one of three coaches in NBA history with three Finals berths in each of his first three seasons. He finished third in a recent survey of NBA general managers who were asked which new or relocated coaches would make the biggest impact this season. Also asked to name the league’s best coach, the GMs picked six; Lue wasn’t among them.

His omission from such discussions “kind of fuels him, even though that’s stuff that he won’t say publicly,” Nooner said. “I know he does because he’s a competitor when he’s not mentioned among some of the best.”

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Lue contends that all that matters is knowing his inner circle and coaching peers such as Steve Kerr, Brad Stevens and Jeff Van Gundy respect his resume. As part of “growing up” into an established NBA figure, Lue would mute televisions in Cleveland if the topic turned to the Cavaliers. It takes a text message from a close friend for him to read a story about his team. Still, he is aware some still discount his credentials and it has stuck.

“If you talk to LeBron he’ll tell you like, man, he was one of the best coaches I had,” Lue said. “We worked hard. I pride myself on working hard and executing, the preparation, the accountability, the communication, everything that goes into coaching, it’s not just one thing.

“It’s tough, especially when you’ve done some good things in this league and you don’t get the credit you deserve as far as from that standpoint. But it comes with the territory. As I get older and I’m able to establish myself as a coach, when I get older I think I may get more credit once people get a chance to see.”


Leading the Clippers, one of three franchises never to reach the conference finals, to the heights he did the Cavaliers might do the trick. He feels prepared for the task, he said, after two years away from head coaching. A health scare in Cleveland forced him to sleep more, eat better and find ways to take his mind off of basketball.

But he is 43 now, 11 years into his coaching career, and some things will never change.

About six weeks before training camp began, a conversation between Lue and a cousin who was visiting Los Angeles turned to a basketball game 30 years ago, when the duo were star eighth-graders playing on opposite teams.

His cousin scored 38 points. Lue scored 39 — but in defeat. No, he had not forgotten the details.

“He told me, ‘Man, how do you remember all that stuff? The only thing I remember is you didn’t speak to me for two weeks,’” Lue recalled. “I was like, yeah, that’s true. But I’ll never forget that game.”