When Larry Nance Jr. passes up a good shot he should have taken, he reflexively expects his coach to let him have it.
“LARRY!” he said, making his voice hoarse as he imitated the sound he’d heard in the past after messing up. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
That’s not something he hears much anymore. It’s just not the style Lakers Coach Luke Walton employs.
“I like leading by love,” Walton said. “But I had hippie parents so that’s to be expected. It’s the way I was raised.”
Walton’s father, Bill, is one of the most famous ex-hippies in basketball. His mother, Susie, teaches parenting courses near San Diego.
To Walton, that style of leadership is about balance. He doesn’t like to yell and scream too much, but that doesn’t mean he won’t criticize when warranted. He’ll just try to do that privately, instead of embarrassing someone publicly.
“Don’t take the mild-mannered-ness, or the hippieish-ness if you want to say, for complacency like he just doesn’t care about what we do,” Lakers center Tarik Black said. “No, he coaches us. He cares a lot about what we do. It’s not a complacent thing, it’s just making sure we’re always instilled with confidence.”
As he tries to teach his young players and aid their development, he stays positive where he can. He’s maintained that during games in the preseason.
The Lakers went 2-6 in exhibition games. They saw several significant halftime deficits, including against the Golden State Warriors when they trailed by 27 points in Las Vegas. Black, however, does not recall Walton ever losing his temper at halftime.
He takes the same tack postgame.
On Friday night, after the Lakers lost to the Phoenix Suns, 98-94, Walton brought a positive spin into the postgame locker room. The Lakers committed 23 turnovers and the Suns shot 36 free throws.
“It was a game where he could’ve came into the locker room [yelling] ‘We’ve had eight preseason games, I’ve been explaining this!’” Black said. “He came in [and said,] ‘Guys, we must be pretty freaking good if we only lost by four and we had this many turnovers and this many times they went to the line.’”
It creates a shared stake for the coach and his players.
“Luke’s the kind of coach that like you just don’t want to disappoint,” Nance said. “It sounds weird saying, but it’s almost like a parent. They don’t have to yell or scream or anything like that but just the fear of disappointing them is enough to give it your all.”
Ranting and raving would not fit Walton’s laid-back style as a person in general. But it also wouldn’t fit the example he’s seen from those who have coached him. He mentioned his college coach at Arizona, Lute Olson; Phil Jackson, who coached him with the Lakers; and Byron Scott, who coached him in Cleveland.
“I was very lucky,” Walton said. “Lute Olson was not a yeller. He would let you know in private. Phil Jackson, no. Byron Scott wasn’t a yeller. My high school coach wasn’t a yeller. That’s probably why I like basketball so much.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli