By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Mike O’Koren’s basketball resumé reads like New Jersey hoops royalty.
He starred at Hudson Catholic High School in the mid-1970s before becoming a two-time first-team All-America (1978 and 1980) at North Carolina under legendary coach Dean Smith, helping the Tar Heels to the 1977 national title game.
He was a first round NBA Draft pick (sixth overall) in 1980 and played eight years in the NBA, all but one with the then-New Jersey Nets. He has also served as an assistant NBA coach at two different stops and most recently was working as a basketball broadcaster.
Now he’s taking on a hoops challenge like none other in his life: An assistant coaching job in the college ranks.
O’Koren, tapped by Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan in mid-June to join the Scarlet Knights’ coaching staff, enters into his first college job of any kind with his eyes wide open. He’s here largely because of Jordan, an old friend and former NBA teammate, but also because he believes in the untapped potential of Rutgers basketball.
ScarletKnights.com recently caught up with O’Koren to get his thoughts on a variety of subjects:
Q. What was the lure of college coaching after all these years?
MO: “A lot of it is Eddie Jordan. We were teammates (in the NBA). Ironically enough, my first year in the NBA we played our home games here at the RAC with the Nets in 1980-81. I was in the pros coaching for about 12 years, then was out of it for a little bit, and Eddie approached me about joining the staff at Rutgers. He said the big change is recruiting. I wanted to try it.”
Q. How long have you known Eddie Jordan?
MO: “We were teammates that one year in the NBA (in 1980-81) and then Eddie got traded. We had six rookies on that team and really were not going to win much. So they started to trade some veterans and Eddie was one of them. They traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers and he wound up winning a championship. So it was great for him.
“Then Eddie retired and he got into coaching and we met back up in 1998. Don Casey had taken over the Nets. I was a broadcaster and community affairs director and Casey needed a staff. He asked if I would get into coaching with him and I did. He said `I’m going to have Jimmy Lynam and Eddie Jordan join the staff.’ Then when Eddie was the head coach at Washington (in 2005-2008) and Philadelphia (2009-10) I was on his staff.”
Q. What do you feel you bring to the Rutgers staff?
MO: “I come in with a little bit of an advantage as far as knowing players. I did broadcasting for Verizon. We did a lot of high school games. Maybe 30 to 50 high school games a year so I know the players, which is good. And I know a lot of good coaches from being from Hudson County. I got to know a lot more from the broadcasts and talking to them. But the thing I’m learning is it’s not just the high school coaches. It’s the AAU games. Back in my day the coaches would come watch you in high school. They don’t necessarily do that now. You go on a three-week tour in July and watch 1,000 games, it seems like. So that’s been a change.
“I think I bring a work ethic. I think I know the game. I like to work with players. I don’t necessarily consider myself a big man’s coach. I consider myself a coach who can help with all different skills on both sides of the floor. But I’d like to take on the task of working with the big men at Rutgers. I think I can help them.”
Q. How did playing for Dean Smith shape you as a person?
MO: “He said back when he recruited me that he wanted me to get an education. This is what Rutgers is all about. This is a great academic school. For a kid being from New Jersey, and being older now, I didn’t realize how much quality there is in the education here at Rutgers. That’s what I like to stress when I’m talking to kids and that’s what coach Smith stressed. I never forgot that. He stressed a four-year education and what it would be worth to you later in life.”
Q. What was it like playing for Dean Smith?
MO: “It was a great experience. You always felt confident going into a game no matter what the score was. You always felt because of him you had a chance to win the game. He just prepared you. It wasn’t so much game to game. He prepared you for your team. For example, we wouldn’t scout a team. Coach Smith felt his defensive principles will take care of things. He taught you that. He taught you about being unselfish, about moving the ball, getting a better shot. We were taught to always complement your teammates. It wasn’t you, it was your team. If I was open it was because I got a good screen. He was a genuine class act. The thing is, you got to know him better as you got out of school and whatever you did in life. You could always call him. He always knew your family. He always knew your name. Hall of Fame coach, Hall of Fame person.”
Q. Is the Rutgers job one of the more daunting challenges you’ve taken on in basketball?
MO: “No question about it. Even our schedule this year is like two schedules. You play your November and December schedules, then you play the Big Ten. The teams we play before the Big Ten feature a lot of quality teams. So that’s a daunting challenge. And then you get into the Big Ten, one of the toughest leagues in the country night in and night out, from top to bottom, playing against the best players and the best coaches in the country. So, yes, it’s a daunting challenge.
“We just have to continue to build. I know Eddie is the best at this – being positive. Because you lose doesn’t mean you’re a loser. I hope there will be some patience out there. We’re out on the recruiting trail trying to bring some players. We’re trying to build. It’s baby steps. Hopefully one day we’ll be talking about going to the NCAA Tournament year after year.”
Q. Do you have a sense of how intimidating the RAC can be at its best?
MO: “I’ve been to games here. I’ve seen the place at its most intimidating. It’s loud. The fans are right on top of you. It’s very similar to where I played in college at Carmichael Auditorium at North Carolina and also at Cameron when we played Duke. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself think. You can’t look over and get a call from your coach because you can’t hear it. That’s what we want this place to be. When teams walk in we want them to think `we better jump on these guys early because if we don’t this place is going to come down on us.’ We want people waiting outside to come see us play. That’s the dream we have. It’s not going to be easy but I think we’re up to the task.”
Q. Let’s test your memory. Who are the best players you’ve played against in high school, college and the NBA?
MO: “The best player I played against in high school was probably Kelly Tripucka. He was just a tremendous player. And my old high school teammate, Jim Spanarkel (who starred at Duke). I had to go head to head with him every day for three years in practice.
“In college, there are a few. Kenny Carr (of North Carolina State) comes to mind. My first weekend in college we played in something called the Big Four Tournament and you had three top 15 teams in North Carolina State, Wake and us. Duke was down then. So Kenny Carr was my introduction to college. That was a tough thing for a freshman.
“Other guys that come to mind that I played against in the NCAA Tournament that really stood out were Bo Ellis and Butch Lee (of Marquette, which beat UNC and O’Koren for the 1977 national title), Jack Givens (of Kentucky) and maybe the best player we came across that year was Reggie Theus (of UNLV).
“As far as the NBA, Larry Bird was the toughest guy I ever played against, hands down. And he told you about it every chance he could get.”