It’s this time of year that Ed Pinckney’s name most frequently comes up.
And while his 1985 Villanova team now has competition as one of the unlikeliest national champions in NCAA Tournament history after Connecticut’s victory Monday night over Kentucky, the current Bulls assistant coach is still recognized as the face of the preeminent Final Four moment in the history of college basketball. In the 29 years that have passed since he led an upset of Big East rival Georgetown—featuring long-time counterpart Patrick Ewing, an All-American center who would go on to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft a few months later—in what was dubbed “The Perfect Game,” the easygoing Bronx, N.Y., native has gone on to quietly develop a reputation as one of the league’s more highly-regarded assistant coaches and a viable head-coaching candidate.
Pinckney went on to a long and solid, if unspectacular professional career and after retiring from the league in 1997, he became a broadcaster for the Miami Heat, the final NBA team he played for. He soon embarked upon his coaching career, starting from the bottom with a stint in the now-defunct USBL, then returning to his alma mater as an assistant coach—helping Villanova to the school’s only Final Four appearance since its championship run, a 2006 berth led by current NBA guards Kyle Lowry and Randy Foye—before jumping back to the pro ranks when he was hired by former Boston Celtics teammate Kevin McHale to be an assistant coach in Minnesota.
After a few seasons with the Timberwolves and a brief return to Philadelphia, where he was the 76ers’ television analyst for a year, Pinckney came to Chicago with Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Thibodeau isn’t a huge proponent of his staff talking to the media—Pinckney isn’t much of a self-promoter anyway—but that unique background, in the opinion of ex-colleague Ron Adams, is part of the reason Pinckney’s stock is rising in NBA coaching circles these days.
“The one thing about Ed is he has a real love for basketball and he really loves the game. Enjoys the game, enjoys the players. It’s kind of interesting with the guys he’s recruited over the years at Villanova, he’s still in contact with the kids, with the parents. That’s just who Ed is. If you look at Ed’s background as both a player in the pros, a player in college, he has an interesting perspective because he’s also done broadcasting. Some people may not think that’s important, but I think it is because you get to sit back, you watch people, you watch games obviously,” explained Adams, now the Celtics’ lead assistant after holding the same position with the Bulls under Thibodeau. “You look at the game from a different level and I think as a head coach in this league, it’s important to look at the game through many lenses and I think Ed has the potential to do that. But let’s face it: in this league, for many people, it’s just a matter of getting a break. He’s been around the league for a long time, been around really great coaches, been at great programs. He’s learned from Tom, [legendary Villanova coach Rollie] Massimino in college. He really has a rich legacy of basketball behind him, so why not?
“I think Ed should easily be a head coach in this league,” the long-time NBA assistant coach went on to say. “I just think he’s a really solid human being. He’s fun, serious. He cares. He’s easy to be around on a staff. He contributes something—not only as a professional, but as a human being, he contributes. So Ed’s a real positive individual in that regard and I think he has a really intense desire to be successful, for his team to be successful, for individuals he’s coaching to be successful in that regard.”
Pinckney’s good-guy persona is no façade, enough to where Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, despite Indiana being one of the Bulls’ primary rivals and his own team going through their own turmoil, feels comfortable talking up Pinckney’s coaching acumen.
“Ed’s someone I’ve known for a long time. I got to know him a lot when I was working with the 76ers. They were obviously right up the street from where I lived. He’s really a knowledgeable guy in the game of basketball, in terms of the big-man play,” said the native of South Jersey, who was befriended by Pinckney when he was an anonymous young coach. “But working here in this system, under coach Thibs, when you just have conversations with him, you see his experience level and knowledge level has grown to the point that I think that he’d be a great candidate for head-coaching jobs. I think he’d do a great job.”
During the course of a Bulls’ game, it might be hard to quantify the value of Thibodeau’s staff, as the head coach is on his feet from the jump ball to the final buzzer, usually conversing more frequently with the team’s trainer when live action is happening to find out how many timeouts he has than discussing strategy on the bench with his assistants. But as preparation-oriented as he is, Thibodeau also gives significant responsibility to the rest of the coaching staff—including having the assistants individually scout upcoming opponents and this season, lead the team in game-day shootaround walk-throughs—borne out of his own experience as an assistant coach.
“I want them to view the game as a head coach, so they’re involved with a lot of different things. Obviously, in terms of preparation before a game, each guy’s assigned individual players,” he explained. “But in the course of a game, I want them to analyze what’s going on, on offense and defense. Now, there’s specific things that are charted during a game, so they’re charting, they’re communicating, both to the players and to me. Then, we meet at halftime. We go over the stuff that’s been charted. We talk about the adjustments we want to make in the second half. Then, we go from there.”
After 12 professional seasons as a 6-foot-9 power forward best known for his defensive prowess, Pinckney is respected by the Bulls’ players for his own NBA playing experience, as well as his ability to connect with them. Each of the team’s assistant coaches—Andy Greer, Adrian Griffin and Mike Wilhelm are the others—are assigned to work with individual players throughout the season and while Pinckney isn’t only limited to working with the Bulls’ big men, it doesn’t take much prodding for some of the post players to rave about him.
“I really like working with Ed. I think that he’s somebody who’s been through it, somebody who understands what I’m going through, in terms of playing in the league and being a big. A good dude. Every day, comes with the same attitude and I like working with Ed because he’s the same every day,” All-Star center Joakim Noah said. “Overall, just being there and telling me things that I can do to improve my game. I feel a lot more comfortable off two feet this year than I have in the past and that’s all just working with Ed.”
Carlos Boozer added: “That’s my guy. Ed is great, man. Ed was a dope big man as a player, great big-man coach. He’s helped me a lot—playing inside, looking at different aspects—because he sees the game from a coach’s perspective now, but also as a player. So he’s helped me a lot, especially with the system that Thibs has put in place. I love working with him.”
Last offseason, Pinckney was brought in to interview for Memphis’ head-coaching vacancy and while he wasn’t hired—the job went to Grizzlies’ assistant coach Dave Joerger—he was a final candidate for the position. Along with Griffin, who interviewed to be the Sixers’ head coach last summer, it’s widely believed that because of the Bulls’ success under Thibodeau, Pinckney will get the chance to run his own show in the near future.
“Well, I think they’re all deserving. I think they’ve all done a great job. I think just as with our players and our team, when a team has success, usually there’s recognition. So I think the winning has been important for the team. I think our guys have prepared themselves well and they’re all capable,” Thibodeau said. “They’re all capable of being head coaches and sometimes, opportunities come at different times and you’ve got to be ready when that time does come, and right now, what’s trending in the league is more assistants are getting opportunities. So it’s good, but I’m hopeful that our guys will continue to be recognized and there will be more opportunities for them to interview, and hopefully get a chance.”
Veteran center Nazr Mohammed, who has his own aspirations of joining an NBA team’s front office when his playing career ends, believes Pinckney is capable of making a smooth transition to becoming a head coach.
“Oh yeah, definitely. First off, he’s learning from an unbelievable coach like Thibs, as far as the preparation that goes into the game. Being an ex-player, he just understands what we go through, just the grind of the NBA. He’s seen every defense, every offense. I definitely think he’ll be a good coach one day,” said Mohammed, adding that the stigma of big men not traditionally becoming head coaches—despite the aforementioned McHale, now in Houston, having success, as did fellow Hall of Famers like Phil Jackson and Rudy Tomjanovich—compared to guards. “If guards can do it, then why can’t big men? It’s all about how you build your staff. It’s not just one guy making all the decisions about how the offense runs. Everybody has a philosophy and everybody assumes that all big men can’t tell guards what to do.”
Sixth man Taj Gibson concurred: “Yeah, of course. You look at the coaching staff, you look at the guys that we’ve got on the coaching staff, they’re great. You’ve got Ed, he’s right there. I see him being a head coach, either next year or in the future, because he knows what it takes. He doesn’t panic. He’s been really up under Thibs for the last couple of years, preparing and preparing, knowing plays and you can tell in the way we walk through, because Thibs lets the assistant coaches do the walk-throughs in the morning. That’s about scouting guys and knowing how to set defenses. I think he’s going to be great.”