After 18 years of paying dues, former Pistons coach Kokoskov finally sitting in lead chair

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Phoenix Suns first-year head coach Igor Kokoskov, at the urging of then assistant general manager John Hammond, joined Larry Brown’s Pistons coaching staff.

What a first year in Detroit that was for a young man from Belgrade, Serbia. Working daily with Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Corliss Williamson, then later Rasheed Wallace. In what had to feel like a blur, Kokoskov found himself that June, champagne-soaked and posing for pictures with the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“I had the privilege of being with Larry Brown for two years and Flip Saunders for three years,” Kokoskov said before the game here Sunday. “I was very fortunate to learn from those great coaches and those great players.

“Just being a part of that group, with those guys all in their prime, I had a chance to steal the best from those guys. I learned a lot. Especially when you are winning.”

Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov served as an assistant under former Pistons coach Larry Brown, winning an NBA Championship in 2004.

Kokoskov spent a lot of time working with Williamson during that 2003-2004 season and the two have remained close through the years. Williamson was one of the first assistants Kokoskov hired to his staff in Phoenix.

“Make sure you say 'hello' to Corliss,” Kokoskov said. “Big Nasty was a big part of that team and he is a big part of our coaching staff.”

Kokoskov, who is 19 games into his first head coaching job with the Suns, was a Pistons assistant for five seasons — the team won the Eastern Conference all five seasons, went to the NBA Finals twice and won a championship. Not a bad run.

“Nothing but great memories,” he said. “For a half of a decade I lived in this city. Detroit is one of the peaks of my coaching career. Definitely a chapter I’ll never forget.”

It took Kokoskov 18 years to get his first head coaching job. He is the first NBA head coach who was born and raised outside North America. But this Suns team he’s inherited is a far cry from the cagey veterans he was with in Detroit.

His Suns came in 4-14, starting two rookies. Six of his top eight players have been in the league less than four seasons. Listening to him talk before the game, you could hear echoes of Brown. He described the task of playing the Pistons as “basketball wrestling.”

“They are very physical,” he said. “They have two dominant big guys who play around the basket. We have to match them physically, but also be smart when it comes to the physicality. We don’t want to call them floppers, but they know how to use their strength when necessary.

“We have to be able to defend without fouling.”

When it was suggested that playing physical defense without fouling might be easier said than done, Kokoskov quipped, “That’s why I coach and they play.”

Since leaving the Pistons, Kokoskov has been an assistant with the Suns (five seasons), the Cavaliers (one) and the Jazz (three). He also led Slovenia to the EuroBasket championship in 2017.

“He’s definitely paid his dues,” Williamson said. “And he’s doing fine. He’s been even-keeled. He’s been on both sides of this — the ups and the downs. He understands the process. He deserves a shot to see this through.”

Speaking of Williamson, it’s hard to believe he’s in the 12th year his coaching career. He spent three seasons at Arkansas Baptist, three more at Central Arkansas, then three years as an assistant for the Sacramento Kings and two with the Orlando Magic before joining Kokoskov.

“I am enjoying it,” he said.

Banging on Blake

Pistons' Blake Griffin was icing a nasty red welt on his forehead after the game Sunday. At least twice, he took elbows to the head and once he got drilled in the nose.

And yet, in 35 minutes of work, he did not attempt a single free throw.

“It was a very physical game,” Griffin said, choosing his words carefully. “That’s why you look at the stat sheet and not getting to the free-throw line at all seems a little out of the ordinary, I would say. I don’t know what I need to do to combat that.

“I enjoy when the game is physical like that. But I also have to get whistles at both ends.”

No concussion

Despite taking at least three head shots Sunday, Griffin said he didn’t need or have a concussion test.

“No,” he said. “I came to the trainers after both shots to the head and there was nothing. No dizziness or anything like that. Just keep moving forward.”

Slam dunks

Suns starting power forward T.J. Warren got a double-technical foul and was ejected with 3:56 left in the first half. He was protesting an offensive foul that wiped out his driving layup. Kokoskov thought the referee overreacted. “The referee has to use his judgment is that’s in the heat of the moment or if it was inappropriate behavior,” he said. “T.J. is one of the nicest people in this business. I had a chance to talk to the referees and I told them it was the heat of the moment. They understand, but we lost T.J. for the game.”

… Former Michigan gunner Jamal Crawford, in his 18th season, is still as dangerous as ever coming off the Suns bench. He hit the winning shot in Milwaukee on Friday and came into the game and hit his first three shots Sunday. He finished with 12 points.

… The Pistons tied their season-high with 30 assists.

Twitter: @cmccosky