The idea first came up in 2003 when Doc Rivers was the coach of the Orlando Magic and Tyronn Lue was one of his players.
“I told him when he retired to call me because I thought he was going to be a coach,” Rivers, the Clippers’ coach, recalled recently.
Lue, then in his sixth season in the NBA and clearly thinking like a player, brushed aside Rivers’ comments.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, right! I ain’t going to be no coach,’” Lue recalled, laughing about that long-ago conversation.
After several years as an assistant, last month the 38-year-old Lue landed squarely in the spotlight when he was named head coach of the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers, taking over after David Blatt was dumped by the team’s front office.
Lue has heard all the reports that he had the trust and confidence of the Cavaliers’ players, especially LeBron James, and that Blatt didn’t.
“It was tough because me and Coach Blatt had a great relationship,” said Lue, who will coach the East team in Sunday’s All-Star game. “I have so much respect for him… and to have Coach Blatt fired in midseason and now I’ve got to coach the All-Star game. ... Everything happened so fast. I haven’t had a chance to just sit back and take it all in. It was just too much.”
Lue’s ascension from a journeyman guard — he played on seven teams in 11 seasons, including the Lakers — to head coach of a title contender, shows how fast careers can change.
But the credit for Lue’s shift into coaching goes to Rivers.
“I only had him for those 11 games and it’s not something I tell guys, but I just saw something in him,” Rivers said of Lue. “He had this ability to communicate.”
When Lue retired as a player, he called Rivers, who was then coach of the Boston Celtics.
“I really don’t know what Doc saw in me,” Lue said. “But I called him after my playing career was over in 2009 and I said, ‘Doc, I’m done. I want to try coaching.’”
Rivers created a position for Lue on his staff, naming him director of basketball development.
Now all of a sudden Lue was working with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, players he had played against. A couple years later, Lue became an assistant coach with the Celtics.
It went so well that Lue followed Rivers to Los Angeles in 2013 and was named an assistant coach with the Clippers.
“About halfway through my second year with Doc in Boston, I knew then I wanted to be a coach,” Lue said in a phone interview. “I was like, ‘I can do this.’ ''
Lue continued his development when Rivers assigned him to him spend one summer learning about the other 29 NBA teams, making him study film and learn more about defensive schemes.
“He proved that he wanted to do it,” Rivers recalled. “He could tell you the truth without offending you. And that’s a gift.
“What I like about him is that he understands that just because you played, it doesn’t give you a free pass to be a coach. And I think that’s what makes him special.”
After three seasons as an assistant under Rivers, Lue interviewed for the Cavaliers’ head coaching job in 2014 that ultimately went to Blatt. But the Cavaliers were impressed by Lue and named him associate head coach and made him the highest-paid assistant in the NBA on a four-year, $6.5-million deal.
James also decided to return to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 and last season the Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals, losing to the Golden State Warriors.
The Cavaliers had the best record in the Eastern Conference (30-11) when Blatt was fired.
Lue signed a three-year contract to take over a team with high expectations because of a roster that includes James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Cleveland assistant coach Larry Drew said Lue has “handled this situation very well and has been very calm but yet stern,” even with James.
“I’ve witnessed Lue face-to-face with LeBron and just making corrections on things,” Drew said. “And LeBron has responded to it in a positive way. When we watch film together as a team, he’ll point something out to LeBron, just like he’ll point it out to any player on our team. There’s no special treatment. We’re trying to get to the ultimate and the way to get to the ultimate is not to cut corners and sugarcoat things. And Lue is a straight-to-the-point guy.”
The Cavaliers, 8-3 since Lue took over, hold a three-game lead over Toronto in the East.
They are built to win right now.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Lue said. “All I know is that I can control what I can control, being prepared, being organized, holding guys accountable, trying to change the culture of this team and doing what I know is best..
“If things work out and we win a championship, that’s great. But I’m not going to put pressure on myself and say, ‘You know what? We’ve got to win a championship right now, this year.’ I’m not going to put that kind of pressure on myself after taking over a team with 40 games left in the season. That’s not fair. But, yeah, our goal is to definitely win a championship.”
Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter @BA_Turner