Veteran basketball coach Phil Weber shares his fondest memories and the lessons he learned working with some of the NBA’s top players and coaches. Phil was an assistant coach at Iona College (1991-95), Chaminade University (1990-91) and the University of Florida (1984-89) before joining the NBA as an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns (1999-2008) and the New York Knicks (2008-12). Some of his claims to fame include helping the Suns to 7 out of 9 playoff series and two Western Conference Finals and mentoring countless players through summer workouts at UCLA. He also served as Head Coach for the Miami Heat’s Skyforce G-League team and coached the New Orleans Pelicans before working in the Pelicans’ front office.
Phil turned his experience into a book, How Do You Make Them Thirsty? A Road Map for Developing the Potential in Others, which came out this year. He describes the book as a labor of love.
“Leadership is your language and the language speaks to you…it’s the actions that you take, players, employees, students, fans, they’re always watching, right? Words are cheap, they really are. And if you were going to ask me my definition of integrity, it would be very simple. When actions follow words.”
Phil calls his philosophy being a “builder of belief” and used this winning strategy as assistant coach of the Phoenix Suns. He worked under Mike D’Antoni who had just been promoted to Head Coach in 2003. In the 2003-04 season, the team went 29-53. The next season, they went to Western Conference and finished with a 62-20 season.
“It was important for us to learn winning,” Phil said. “??They have to learn what their levels are and that will create playing time. But number one is believing that they can do it, you have to stay empowered. You can never erase that negative thought. You may think it’s a slight one. I know I would drive Mike crazy a little bit because I was like, a walking limiting belief Geiger counter.”
While taking individual players into consideration, Phil was able to build a strong team culture. Andy recalls covering the Phoenix Suns’ victory over Virtus Lottomatica Roma as part of the NBA Europe Live tour in 2006:
“You write about it really eloquently in your book specifically about the Heat culture that Coach Spoelstra had with Pat Riley and, of course, Micky Arison. I remember the trip that I made with you with the Suns to Italy in 2006. We were able to see where Mike’s game started, how revered he was in Italy, first of all, but where his mindset kind of took shape, as a player. The bonding was probably the biggest, the most profound bonding situation I’ve ever been in a team and I’ve been zillion places with the NBA with teams. But it just seemed like it was the right place, right time, right group,” Andy said.
Andy recalls setting up to do the team photo at the Coliseum. The team was mistakenly dropped off a quarter mile away from the photo location. Instead of leaving and going back to practice, the Suns went through with their photo shoot.
“Seriously, I’ve been around a long time any other team would have said, screw this. Except for the Suns led by Mike D’Antoni, who walked who walked he was like a quarter of a half a mile to the photo location,” Andy said.
“What you have to understand is the team chemistry. It’s always trickled down by the leadership,” Phil said. “If you have great guys, you don’t need rules. If you have guys that are not that good, they’re not going to follow the rules anyways. So, the key is just go get good guys. We just had a great, great group there starting with Mike.”
Phil elaborates on the Sun’s culture and how players and leadership embodied the team values.
“They don’t believe in quick fixes, they believe in their people. So many people in the Heat culture have been there for over 20 odd years,” Phil said. “They have core values. Unfortunately, for many people, core values are just those things that are written on the wall. It’s another whole thing, to actually live it, breathe it, follow it, be accountable, sacrifice your family, commit to greatness, compete with class. Those are our important things that they don’t fit. That’s who they are. They value that.”
As part of their discussion on leadership and team values, Andy and Phil share memories of Kobe Bryant. Phil recalls running workouts with a 19-year-old Kobe at UCLA.
“He was getting fired up and you saw it in his eyes. He was so intense and scrolling through everything. So that workout ended and I had three workouts that day. I have four guys waiting on the sidelines at UCLA ready to come get another workout in. Kobe comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, Coach, can I stay?’
“He was the hardest player and the most intense. He just wanted to just jump in. It was just all about intensity,” Phil said. “As a person, as a coach who had been around the game all my life, I was just in awe. I said, ‘Keep working as hard as you’re doing here and you’ll be one of the best players to ever play the game.’ He just about interrupted me and said, ‘No, I am going to be the best player to ever play.’”
Phil and Andy discuss the similarities between Kobe’s insatiable curiosity and the traits that make a good leader. Phiil adds that leaders work to bring out the best in their teams.
“Every player is different. It’s a coach’s job, it’s a leader’s job, it’s a parent’s job to understand how those people, students, players, whatever, learn. But one of the things that rings so true to me, is, when you walk onto a court, in all reality, they don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Hear more of Phil’s NBA memories and details on his new book and the importance of leadership.