By Mike Barrett
It’s early August, three months from the start of the NBA season, but Zach Randolph is on a court in Atlanta, on the campus of Georgia Tech University. He’s pounding away at the hoop, literally destroying a much smaller man, who is wearing khaki shorts and a plain white t-shirt. All the while, this man is talking, challenging Randolph to go harder and longer. “Come at me Zach,” he says. “Bring it right into me. You’re not going to hurt me. Attack the basket. Again.” Moments later the words “water break” are heard, and Zach heads for the bench to grab some Gatorade. The man in the white shirt stays on the floor, never stopping his dribble, antsy for the player to return so they can resume the workout.
Ah, the life of an NBA player development coach. For the Portland Trail Blazers, this position now belongs to Bill Bayno, the man in the t-shirt. He’s sweating as much as Randolph, but looks like he can’t get enough. That’s love, and that’s passion, and that’s just part of what it takes to succeed at the NBA level- for players and coaches.
Bayno is new to the position, but isn’t new to traveling around the world working with players. Teaching the game, helping players with their skills, and helping them handle life in the big time, isn’t new either. That’s why he’s here.
It takes a unique individual to be a player development coach. The term “gym rat” is used a lot to describe players who are tireless workers. It should also be applied to coaches, like Bayno. They don’t want attention, shy away from the spotlight and TV cameras, and have an incredibly selfless attitude.
“I want to be way in the background,” says Bayno. “My job is just to make sure our guys are absolutely ready- ready to play, and ready to buy in. Anything I can do to help Nate McMillan and our assistant coaches, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The Blazers are fortunate in that Bayno not only has experience at teaching the game, and working with players, but has also been a head coach at several different levels. He knows what’s expected of him, and what’s expected of his players.
“I have to be around a gym, and have to be around basketball,” says Bayno. “That’s just the way it is.”
A Lasting Relationship is Born
Bayno was born and raised in Newberg, New York, about 30 minutes north of New York City. Like many coaches, his love for the game started as a player. Bayno excelled in high school, and enrolled at the University of Massacusetts, where he played for two seasons. It was then on to Sacred Heart in Connecticut, where he became a Division II All-American. Following a short tryout with the New York Knicks, Bayno immediately went into coaching.
Bayno’s first coaching job came as a graduate assistant for P.J. Carlisimo at Seton Hall. After that, it was on to Kansas, where he accepted a similar position under Larry Brown. It was there he met a young freshman point guard, and took the player under his wing. The player was Kevin Pritchard, the current director of player personnel for the Trail Blazers. Pritchard ended up leading the Jayhawks to the 1987 NCAA National Championship.
“I was 23, and Kevin was 19,” remembers Bayno. “We had a unique relationship. KP and I spent hours playing together. We developed a bond that has stayed through to this day. Kevin is like a brother to me.”
Pritchard, who played on that title team at Kansas with Danny Manning, gives Bayno a lot of credit for his success as a player.
“Right away I felt Billy had a special quality, in that you trust him,” says Pritchard. “He has a great way of building players’ trust, not only on but off the court. I’ve known him now for over 20 years, and I would say he’s a big reason why I was able to make it to the NBA. He was always pushing me to be better.”
Two years ago, with that feeling still fresh in his mind, Pritchard set out to team up with Bayno once again, this time with the Trail Blazers. After Pritchard served as the Blazers interim head coach late in the 2004-05 season, following the dismissal of Maurice Cheeks, he needed someone to coach the Blazers’ youngsters at the Las Vegas Summer League. He called his old friend, who accepted the short assignment.
Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the summer league experience, was the fact that Bayno was able to develop a relationship with new-Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who was hired after the summer league was already underway. This summer, McMillan was happy enough with what he saw of Bayno the previous summer in Las Vegas, that the offered him the position of player development coach. “I’ll be eternally grateful to Nate for believing in me, and for giving me this chance, says Bayno.”
Not everyone watching the Trail Blazers at that 2005 summer league in Vegas recognized the irony of that situation, or even realize it now.
The UNLV Experience
Following his stint as a graduate assistant coach at Seton Hall and Kansas, Bayno’s first full-time job came at Charleston Southern University, where he was in charge or recruiting. It didn’t take him long to be chased down by a major program, and shortly after he was off to the school where his basketball career, as a player, started- The University of Massachusetts.
Bayno accepted the job at UMass and spent seven seasons as an assistant coach. He learned under John Calapari as that program rose to the top, and competed in a Final Four. Bayno recruited and helped develop players like Marcus Camby and Lou Roe.
In 1995, at just 32 years of age, the time had come for Bayno to take over his own program, and there was no wading into the shallow end, as it was former powerhouse UNLV that named him its head coach on April 1st, 1995. It’s the same UNLV that rose to college basketball’s elite in the early 90s, under legend Jerry Tarkanian. The team won the NCAA title in 1990, drilling Duke 103-73, and then put together a 45-game winning streak that lasted until March of 2001. To put it mildly, expectations were off the charts. The school tried Rollie Massimino, and then Tim Grgurich as head coaches, and then turned to a very young Bayno.
“A lot of coaches turned that job down before I got it,” says Bayno. “It was a job that probably wasn’t as good as it looked. Tark had built up an amazing program, but when he left support dwindled. I knew how to get kids to play hard, and I could recruit. I was just a young coach figuring things out as I went.”
The success was steady under Bayno, as UNLV won four conference titles, and returned to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, Bayno is still the only coach since Tarkanian to take UNLV to the big dance.
However, it was after that trip to the NCAA tourney in 1999, that things took a downhill turn, at least off the court. Anyone familiar with big-time college hoops knows one of the biggest challenges coaches face is keeping boosters away from players and recruits. A Las Vegas-area dentist had been accused of giving financial aid to current L.A. Laker Lamar Odom, who, as it turns out, never played a minute at UNLV.
“Lamar had been taking money from a booster to survive,” says Bayno. “We had already kicked him out of school and he never played for us. The NCAA report put all the blame on the administration. But, before the report came out, they fired me. I accept it, and take full responsibility for it. I was the coach. But, I do take pride in the fact that I don’t have one violation against me. I’m not ashamed. We had a lot of success at UNLV.”
As expected, Bayno’s public image took the hardest hits, and he decided to try coaching in the ABA. He coached the Phoenix Eclipse, and went up against Kevin Pritchard’s Kansas City Knights. Pritchard’s team went on to win the ABA title that year.
After that, Bayno was off to the Philippines, where he coached the Talk n’ Text Phone Pals. Right after that season ended he took the head-coaching job with the CBA’s Yakima Sun Kings, and won the CBA title in 2003. Obviously, it was hardly a straight line to the NBA.
Conquering Other Demons
The life of a coach is tough, especially at the highest levels, and Bayno’s story isn’t that unique in this business. Dealing with expectations, the pressure of keeping a job, the constant traveling, the late nights, and the long off seasons. Coaches deal with these things in different ways- sometimes in destructive ways. For Bayno, the battle was with alcohol.
“If you’re an alcoholic, you know it. That’s the simplest way I can put it,” says Bayno. “My parents were alcoholics and I knew I was going to have it face it at some point in my life.” That point came when he was fighting the wars of big-time college basketball, at UNLV. Although Bayno says he never drank during the season, it was a constant temptation in the off-season.
“I was a young coach at Vegas, at just 32. I was under extreme pressure, I was making a lot of money, and my alcoholism got the best of me. It was just the combination of Vegas, money, and stress.” Like most people battling this disease, Bayno doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked when he had his last drink. “December 23rd, 1999,” he proudly says.
The most painful part of being a public figure can be when one does succumb to the trials of everyday life. The battle is fought on a very big stage, in front of lot judging eyes.
“That was the most painful part of all of that,” says Bayno. “I put myself in a position for people who don’t know me, to take shots at me and make unfair assumptions. The only person I hurt was myself. I take such pride in being a good person. I’ve just tried to use my experience to help others, and I think I’ve done that. I’m proud of that. There are a lot of people in this business, including players, who struggle with this. I’m happy that I’ve been able to help a lot of them, and I’ll continue to try and do that.”
The NBA Opportunity
For Bayno, this is the opportunity he’s been wanting. He turned down an offer from the L.A. Clippers to work with the young Trail Blazers. One only has to watch him workout with a player to realize what this chance means to him. The 2005 summer league experience was like a brief tease. Now, he’s got the real thing.
“I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than having the opportunity to make someone better,” says Bayno. “I love making them better players and better people. I’m very open with my life experiences, and I think that’s as important as my work with the players on the court. I’m teaching these guys how to maximize their lives, how to handle adversity, and how to be professionals.”
He didn’t have to sell that aspiration to Pritchard or McMillan when the opportunity presented itself in Portland.
“We’re so lucky to have him,” says Pritchard. “He has developed so many players in this league. He was a great scout for his last season, but I felt like the better role for him was as a player development coach. Where we’re at as a team, we needed the best one we could find. All he wants to do is get on the floor and help guys get better. He’s a success story, and we’re better because of him.”
And, where some assistants aspire to gain their own spots in the head coaching community, Bayno has been there. He’s thrilled to be in Portland, in this position, and wants nothing more.
“I don’t like the pressure of being a head coach,” says Bayno. “If I’m never a head coach again I’ll be happy. This job, doing what I’m doing now, it’s the most fun I could ever have in basketball.”