“It All Flies By”
Derrick Coleman is ready to unravel his somewhat twisted legacy.
by Alan Paul
Derrick Coleman jumps out of a chair in the Prudential Center pressroom to hug a smiling, middle-aged man. A few minutes later, it’s a warm, two-handed shake and quick hug with a veteran reporter for the Star-Ledger.
It’s the Nets’ final game in New Jersey after 30 years and the team is paying tribute to a host of players who starred during the team’s bizarre, up-and-down tenure. Micheal Ray Richardson, Otis Birdsong, Chris Morris and Kenny Anderson are in the house, but DC is holding court. What’s striking is that Coleman’s reputation with people who have dealt with him the most—team officials and reporters tonight—is so different than what the wider public thinks of him. It’s hard to reconcile the smiling, quick-witted 45-year-old guy with the player who developed an NBA reputation as surly yet supremely talented, someone who squandered his talent over the course of a 15-year career.
Even when his reputation was at its worst, however, Coleman remained a beloved figure in his hometown of Detroit. He returned every offseason, pouring millions of dollars into rec centers, basketball camps and businesses, attempting to revitalize pockets of his struggling city. He has also remained a revered figure at his alma mater, Syracuse, constantly showing up for games as a committed cheerleader and recruiter.
The No. 1 overall pick in the ’90 Draft, Coleman averaged 18.4 ppg and 10.3 ppg as a rookie and was named ROY. The next year the Nets added PG Kenny Anderson, Croatian SG Drazen Petrovic blossomed into a star and the team seemed on the cusp of greatness. It was not to be. Anderson broke his wrist and the Nets struggled through the last third of the ’92-93 season without him, eventually losing in the first round of a thrilling five-game series that saw Petrovic, dragging a lame leg behind him, drop one three after another.
That summer, Petrovic was killed in a car accident while in Germany. A year later, the Nets let coach Chuck Daly leave. DC still averaged better than 20-10, but he clashed with coach Butch Beard and was traded to the Sixers at the end of the season. He had averaged 19.9 ppg and 10.6 rpg in five years with the Nets, numbers he would never approach again.
But Coleman, now seven years removed from donning an NBA jersey, refuses to view his career as a letdown. “I’m grateful to the sport,” he says. “The game of basketball has taken me places I dreamt about as a kid.” Our conversation began in a packed pressroom on the Nets last night in New Jersey, with Anderson holding court at a nearby table and the two former teammates exchanging friendly insults and barbs. It ended with the two of us almost alone, Coleman in no hurry to quit talking about the sport he loves.
SLAM: You and Kenny were really developing great on-court chemistry and then he got hurt…
Derrick Coleman: John Starks broke his wrist! They don’t play like that anymore.
SLAM: Did you have bitterness toward Starks?
DC: Hell yes! About two plays later, Greg Anthony drove the lane and I drove his ass right into the back of the basket. I always had bitter feelings about it, and even when I see John Starks right now I get on him about it. Rumeal Robinson took over, then Maurice Cheeks, who was past his prime. You could not really replace Kenny. He was so fast and did so much. He and Allen Iverson, who I played with in Philly, were by far the fastest people I ever saw with a basketball; they were almost faster with a ball than without one.
SLAM: People thought you two were going to become the next Stockton and Malone.
DC: You know what? I didn’t like that comparison because I thought Kenny and I were so much more. Karl was a great power forward, but I thought my game was so much more versatile and Kenny was so much faster than John. People called us the East Coast version of Karl and John, but I thought we were better.
SLAM: Drazen was inspiring to watch. What was it like to have that passion on your side?
DC: Tremendous. He had such heart and desire to play no matter what his injury was. And that motivates your teammates. Kenny wanted to play with a cast on, which they wouldn’t let him do. Drazen was special and he was a trendsetter, along with [Sarunas] Marciulionis, for showing European guys that they could come here and play with the best. Drazen was fearless. He loved the emotional side and did not back down from anyone. He would throw bows and talk trash with the best of them. I saw him give Mike [Jordan] fits.
SLAM: Does it bug you to have played on some very talented teams that didn’t get that far?
DC: It bugs me to lose, period. It’s always frustrating to play the game of basketball knowing you had an opportunity to win and you don’t seize it, but there are times when you have to accept that the Gods are not with you. Every time we seemed ready to take the next step, something happened. We were putting those pieces in place to be a better team. Then Kenny got hurt. Then the tragedy happened with Drazen, which set us back so far both on the court and mentally. And then they let Chuck Daly leave…We had taken off when he arrived because he understood the Xs and Os, but it was never just about basketball with him. He understood the game of life.
SLAM: Your first year at Cuse, you led the team to the Championship game, where you played brilliantly only to miss a free throw and watch your team lose on a last-second shot. That’s a lot for an 18-year-old to deal with.
DC: It just made me a better free-throw shooter. I’ve never lacked confidence in my life. I could not have known I’d never have another chance to be there. When you’re a freshman, you think you have all these other opportunities coming, but it flies by.
SLAM: You were ahead of your time as a big man who liked to play on the perimeter. How did you develop that?
DC: It’s a Detroit thing—guys who do everything at any height. My coach never tagged me with a position, and I thank him for that. It was just about playing fundamental basketball, which all of us coming out of Detroit shared. The one who never got his due was Roy Tarpley, a 20-10 big man who could flat out ball. Tarpley had his other problems [he was banned from the NBA in 1991 for violating the League’s drug policies.—Ed.], but he was the first guy that I saw rebounding, pushing it, passing, shooting. He and Magic set the mold.
The other thing we had in Detroit was great interaction between high school, college and pro players. Will Robinson was a scout for the Pistons and he coached my high school coach in high school. He’d come get me when I was 15 and take me to play against guys like Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Kelly Tripucka, Kent Benson. Then I’d I see them again at St. Cecilia’s, under the eye of my mentor, Dott Wilson, a great man who recently passed. The pros came home in the summer and gave high school and college kids a chance to play against them. You don’t see that anymore.
SLAM: Your reputation among people who do and don’t know you couldn’t be more different.
DC: I was just discussing this with my mom the other day. I’ve never let a lot of people into my circle. I never had a lot of friends. I’ve always been very, very loyal to my friends and had a shield up in front of me to everyone else. Was that a result of seeing my best friend shot and killed after my freshman year of college? Maybe. After that, I kind of put a force field up in front of me for the rest of my life.
SLAM: People in Detroit know you and…
DC: …they love me. They been knowing me my whole life. Every summer I was back in my neighborhood and I was never, “Derrick Coleman the basketball star.” I was just, “Yo, it’s DC. What up, Derrick?”
I was running camps for kids who never got a chance to see the Pistons down the road or even see a professional person. I’d have my friends come and I always said, “Don’t give the kids a speech about life. Just come run a drill and hang out.” Kids just want to be able to reach out and touch you. I had that when I was a kid and then me, Willie Burton and Steve Smith had Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Howard Eisley and Voshon Lenard coming up after us. Now we’ve stopped producing players. Willie Green is the last of the Mohicans.
SLAM: What happened?
DC: Guys stopped coming home and the level of talent dropped off. Now everyone has personal trainers, strength trainers, agility trainers. Also, AAU took over high school, and I hate it. If I’m 15, I should be playing on my freshman high school basketball team. I’m going through some of this with my son. I don’t even know if I want him to play AAU, because that’s not basketball. He can be something different, but it’s up to him. He’s 6-4 and he may not get to 6-10, so I tell him he better learn to dribble that basketball. He’s at Detroit Country Day with Rasheed Wallace’s son and Maceo Baston’s boy. They have the chance to really be something special, but it has to be from within.
photos 1-2 courtesy of NBAE/Getty Images, 3 courtesy of Syracuse University Athletic Communications