With the Phoenix Suns announcing Igor Kokoskov as their new head coach, Emmet Ryan on how the hiring signals a breakthrough for non-American coaches in the NBA
David Blatt was the trailblazer despite being American. He cut his teeth as a coach, beyond any question, on this side of the Atlantic. Between his successes at Maccabi Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow, that’s what got him on the radar of the Cleveland Cavaliers for his year and a half long tenure there. That was the same time Ettore Messina made his second voyage across the Atlantic, linking up with the San Antonio Spurs where he is an assistant coach.
Igor Kokoskov really doesn’t fit their description at all yet his rise to the top chair at a NBA side represents so much more. Blatt had the qualifiers of being a native English speaker due to the whole being American thing. He grew up in the US, that was easier to translate.
Kokoskov hasn’t coached outside of international level in Europe since 1997 when he was 26. His coaching career at the top level has been defined by work in the US despite his success in FIBA ball, firstly through a gig at Missouri before jumping right into the NBA where he has spent 18 years as an assistant coach.
Kokoskov has, by any reasonable measure, done enough to be considered a NBA lifer. Yet it’s being born in Banatski Brestovac that makes him stand out. He was born in Europe and is now one of a select group of 32 people who can call themselves NBA head coaches. That’s an awfully exclusive club and finally a Euro has made the big breakthrough.
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The natural talk will turn to him possibly reuniting with Luka Doncic. Kokoskov had perfectly fine runs as an assistant to Zeljko Obradovic with Serbia & Montenegro and then with Georgia but it’s his performance last summer with everyone’s favourite wunderkind that has tongues wagging. That 9-0 run where Slovenia utterly dominated en route to the EuroBasket 2017 title, particularly while able to lean on its bench down the stretch in the final against Serbia, that reminded a continent what Kokoskov could do.
Messina is a regular name in discussions of open jobs now, Blatt too while still being based in Europe with Darussafaka. We’ve reached that glass ceiling moment for coaches from Europe to be able to realistically go after the highest height in their profession.
Whether an Obradovic would have worked in the NBA is hard to know but Messina’s manner was seen as too much by scribes before he went to the Lakers where Kobe Bryant openly praised the Italian. If Messina could make Kobe happy, it’s hard to see anything that isn’t possible on that front.
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We love seeing our best coaches coaching in Europe but it’s also vital to see that path there for them. Just look at Sarunas Jasikevicius right now. He’s only 42 and in his third season, second full, as a head coach. In his first full campaign, he made Zalgiris Kaunas relevant before watching his roster get chomped away in the off-season. Coming into this year, everyone expected Zalgiris to struggle but that it wouldn’t hurt the rep of Saras. Instead he took the side with the second worst budget in Euroleague and has them two games away from a championship.
Only four years ago the best, outside of international play, for a promising up and coming coach like Saras was a Euroleague crown. That title means everything to folk here but like players wanting to go to the association, a time may come where Saras may want to test himself with the absolute best in the sport.
Igor Kokoskov, through 20 years of proving himself, has shown that is no longer an impossible dream. He’s broken that ceiling and it can never be resealed.
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