FORMER TOREROS FORM AN NBA BROTHERHOOD
If you’re looking for the definition of stellar success in NBA leadership, a group of eight Toreros are at the front of the pack.
Bernie Bickerstaff ‘68 (BA), James Borrego ‘00 (BA), Mike Brown ‘93 (BBA), Hank Egan, David Fizdale ‘97 (BA), Chris Grant ‘94 (BA), ‘96 (MEd), Eric Musselman ‘87 (BA) and Neal Meyer ’94 (BBA) have coached, drafted or been connected to many of the NBA’s most elite players, including luminaries like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
The USD connection is an enduring thread. “It started with Mike Brown,” Egan recalls. “I was USD head coach and Bernie was the general manager of the Denver Nuggets. [Then-Athletic Director] Ky Snyder and I were in Colorado for a USD game. We talked about it in the car, met with Bernie and told him what Mike wanted to do.”
Brown’s idea was born when he’d learned that veteran NBA coach and executive Bickerstaff’s pathway to the professional ranks from playing and coaching for USD did not require first playing in the league.
A light bulb went on. All Brown wanted was a shot.
“Bernie said, ‘We don’t have interns, but maybe we should,’“ Egan recalls. Brown went to work as an unpaid video coordinator. “Mike did a terrific job. He became an ambassador for other guys. They’d volunteer during summer league and hook up with the NBA teams. It went from there,” Egan explains.
Twenty-seven years later, Brown’s NBA resumé includes three NBA championships, two head coaching jobs and NBA Coach of the Year. Today he’s a top assistant with the two-time defending NBA champion, the Golden State Warriors.
Brown’s in good company. Fizdale and Borrego are now NBA head coaches with the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets, respectively. Bickerstaff is a senior advisor with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Grant, former Cavaliers’ general manager, is a San Antonio Spurs scout. Musselman is a former two-time NBA head coach with Golden State and Sacramento. Meyer was an NBA assistant and is now a senior director for the NBA’s international operations in Europe.
Egan’s initial meeting with Bickerstaff has a permanent reminder for visitors: it’s part of a wall mural near current Men’s Basketball Head Coach Sam Scholl’s office. “It’s one of our key selling points, for sure,” says Scholl ‘01 (BA), a former USD player and assistant who was coached by Fizdale and subsequently worked at his side and as an assistant to Borrego.
“After we talk to prospective players about the education they’ll receive, about the campus and people they’ll be around, the mural is right there.”
Brown has returned to campus to speak to the team and offer encouragement, and is a big advocate of the pipeline.
“It all started with Bernie, with him giving me hope to work in the NBA without playing in the league,” Brown recalls. “After I got to Denver, I started hiring buddies I played with at USD who I thought were capable of the (intern) job. Neal Meyer was first, then Chris Grant. Once we had guys transitioning into the NBA, more guys took a leap of faith with the internship or low-low entry jobs and worked their tails off to get where they are now.”
Says Fizdale, whose opening was with Musselman at Golden State: “You always want to try and pull another guy up from the team and give them an opportunity to learn their craft and be a part of this league.”
Egan, USD head coach from 1984-94, left USD to be an assistant in San Antonio and was with the Spurs for their 1999 NBA title run. He then left that post to assist Musselman when he got his first head coaching job at Golden State in 2002. Brown hired Egan when he was named Cleveland’s head coach in 2005.
Bickerstaff, the original NBA Torero, played at USD from 1964-66, was an assistant under Coach Phil Woolpert and became head coach in 1969. He took an assistant coaching job with the Washington Bullets in 1973, starting an NBA life that’s included five head coaching stints, two general manager posts and assorted executive roles.
“We’ve got to keep this going. It’s a great group of guys we have in the league,” he says. “We should help the program, get behind the athletics department. We owe USD a great deal.”
Two years ago, Brown and Grant started a reunion dinner for the NBA Toreros. Thirty attended that dinner and attendance nearly doubled in 2018.
“The NBA Torero Family Gathering is uniquely special to USD,” says USD Athletics Director Bill McGillis. “It’s a tribute to the foundation laid by so many men who wore the blue jersey, graced the Sports Center or JCP sideline as a coach, or otherwise contributed to building our program. The NBA Torero family is a gift to today’s program and players.” — Ryan T. Blystone
Pictured: USD alumnus David Fizdale ’97 (BA).