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Basketball Notes

Long road to the top

Patient Kuester gets his chance

(File/Mark Duncan/Associated Press)
By Peter May
August 23, 2009

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After a while, John Kuester figured “the call’’ would never come. Two decades in the NBA, 15 of those seasons as an assistant coach for six teams, probably left most to conclude he was your basic assistant coach lifer.

“I was always comfortable with what I was doing,’’ Kuester said. “I would have been fine continuing to be an assistant coach. It’s a great life. You meet great people. But did I want to someday be a head coach? Absolutely.’’

And now he is.

Kuester has been given the somewhat daunting task of making the Detroit Pistons relevant again. The Pistons are either (a) rebuilding, which a lot of people think or (b) reconfiguring on the fly to return to the elite of the East, where they had resided for much of the decade, which is the company line.

Either way, it’s a challenge for Kuester, who began his NBA odyssey as a video coordinator in Boston under Chris Ford. (He also worked for and succeeded Rick Pitino at Boston University.)

There is some talent waiting for him in Detroit, with Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, both of whom he knows from his one previous year with the Pistons, 2003-04, which resulted in an NBA title. Kuester also knows Ben Wallace from that year, and Big Ben is making a return to the place where he made his name (and fortune). There are new free agents in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and promising young-uns Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell.

In other words, it’s not the Sacramento Kings or Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I just keep thinking, ‘How lucky am I?’ ’’ said Kuester. “I feel blessed to be in this situation, in a great environment, with a great organization that wants to compete for a championship. The Pistons are one of the premier organizations in the league. They’re accustomed to winning.’’

While Kuester undeniably had paid his coaching dues, his name rarely surfaced on any list of “hot assistants’’ who seemed destined to land a head job. He did say that Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry told him over the winter that he might expect to attract some interest at the end of the season, “but I never gave it much thought,’’ he said.

And until Pistons hoops boss Joe Dumars called him, Kuester had never interviewed for a head job. He had never gotten so much as a call for an interview.

But after brainstorming with Dumars, he called his wife, Tricia, and told her he thought the interview had gone exceedingly well and that he felt he had a good shot at the job. And when Dumars called with the offer, “Well, of course, I was ecstatic,’’ said Kuester. “You never know with these things, how they’ll go. But I thought, ‘Wow!’ It has taken a while to sink in, and then you realize that you have so much on your plate and so little time.’’

Kuester had a brief NBA playing career (he played college ball at North Carolina) and, after a couple of college jobs, he started his nonplaying NBA days by joining the Celtics in 1990. He spent seven years with Boston, the last two as an assistant to M.L. Carr.

Then came a six-year stint as Larry Brown’s assistant in Philadelphia. He stayed with Brown for the 2003-04 season in Detroit, starting a stretch in which he spent one year in four places (Detroit, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Orlando) before moving to Cleveland, where he spent the last two years with Mike Brown.

Kuester has brought in NBA coaching vet Brian Hill to be his lead assistant. Kuester worked under Hill in Orlando during the 2006-07 season. He said he will also have Darrell Walker and Pat Sullivan as assistants. And he can draw on a wealth of experience, having worked for Larry Brown, Mike Brown, Maurice Cheeks, Lawrence Frank, Hill, and, of course, Carr.

“What’s neat about that group is that every one of them either played in, or coached in, an NBA Finals,’’ Kuester said.

Here’s something else that’s neat. When Kuester last passed through Detroit, he lived at a suites-style hotel in Oakland, Mich., not far from the Palace of Auburn Hills, while his family remained in Philadelphia. This time around, he splurged - and got an actual house.

He can’t wiggle out of this one

The 2008-09 season will likely be filed under the chapter “annus horribilis’’ when Antoine Walker pens his memoirs.

He never got into a game, spending the first six weeks as an inactive or nonplaying Memphis Grizzly before being bought out of his contract. No one picked him up.

There were a couple of well-publicized brushes with the authorities - an arrest in Miami in January and another in Las Vegas in July, the latter of which resulted in three felony charges of kiting checks worth $1 million. (The actual debt when he was arrested was more than $822,000, and there is a hearing next month to see if there is enough evidence to proceed.)

But there also was a much less-publicized setback for the former Celtic in March, when an arbitrator ruled that he owed his former agent, Mark Bartelstein, more than $450,000 in unpaid fees. Bartelstein sought the money after Walker came up short on paying his 4 percent agent commission, apparently upset at Bartelstein for not being able to get him a new, lucrative deal. (The last two years of Walker’s last contract were not guaranteed because of concern about his knees.)

Bartelstein filed a grievance to get his money and arbitrator George Nicolau ruled in the agent’s favor March 19. Nicolau ordered Walker to make the back payments to Bartelstein within 10 days, but it is unclear whether that has happened. When reached, Bartelstein didn’t want to comment on the matter.

Walker, who has played for five teams over a 12-year career, is a free agent.

Etc.

Men overboard
Wasn’t the luxury tax supposed to rein in big spenders? So most people thought, and, with a few exceptions (Knicks, Mavericks) the dollar-for-dollar tax on payroll above a specified number has worked. Until now. According to hoopshype.com, there are 12 teams (40 percent of the league) with payrolls above the tax threshold of $69.92 million. The Lakers top the list at more than $91 million. The Celtics are going to be taxpayers for the third straight year, but they decided that having Kevin Garnett made it worthwhile. “We won the championship paying a heavy tax,’’ principal owner Wyc Grousbeck said. “We had reached the stage where that investment made sense and we are still there today.’’ So, too, are the Spurs. “Everyone trying to win a championship is spending. You have no choice,’’ said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “The way it is now, if you’re going to compete, you have to spend the big bucks. It’s amazing how it has all changed in the last few years.’’ All the preseason favorites for the 2010 title (Lakers, Boston, Cleveland, Orlando, San Antonio) have payrolls over the threshold. But also on the list are Utah and Washington. Longtime Jazz owner Larry Miller, who died last year, was known for running one of the most frugal franchises. According to hoopshype.com, Utah has the second-highest payroll. And even longer-time Washington owner Abe Pollin was one of the many owners who pushed for the 1999 lockout because salaries had gotten out of hand. His team ranks No. 7.

School cues
File this under the “Hot Rumor’’ category. Ray Allen’s contract is up at the end of the season and Celtics president Danny Ainge reports that no serious talks have taken place regarding an extension. But there is considerable chatter in Wellesley, where Allen lives, that his teenage daughter may move in with him. Tierra Allen has lived with her mother in South Carolina and plays volleyball and basketball in high school. She would be a junior at Wellesley High (and why would she come if dad wasn’t planning on playing beyond this year? Just an observation). Needless to say, the Wellesley basketball community is watching all this with great interest. With volleyball starting this week, one would think something has to break pretty soon.

Holding call
How do you solve a problem like Barea? In the case of Dallas, you just say no. In a polite way, of course. The Mavericks have asked J.J. Barea, their sparkplug point guard off the bench, not to participate in the FIBA Tournament of the Americas, which gets under way this week in Barea’s homeland of Puerto Rico. While Barea told a Spanish newspaper he was not happy with the request, FIBA rules allow a team to hold back a player from international competition if he is injured or recuperating. Barea had left shoulder surgery in May. Last year was a breakout year for the former Northeastern Husky, who started 15 regular-season games and five in the playoffs.

Questions about Answer
You figured an Allen Iverson-Larry Brown reunion was about as likely as Led Zeppelin getting back together. But Brown told the Charlotte Observer last week that he wouldn’t object to his former star/enfant terrible joining the Bobcats. “He’s done a lot for me, and if we could work it out - the money, the opportunity to play - I’d be all for it,’’ said Brown. The money and the playing time are major hurdles in Charlotte, which is trying to hold the line on spending (witness the Emeka Okafor-Tyson Chandler trade) as owner Bob Johnson is rumored to be selling. The Bobcats also have two point guards in Ray Felton and D.J. Augustin.

Picturesque setting
Visitors to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield are in for a treat - and we’re not talking about the Michael Jordan exhibit. There’s another exhibit, this one the work of NBA photographer extraordinaire Andy Bernstein. The exhibit features 30 pieces of Bernstein’s work covering NBA Finals from 1983-2009. It is scheduled to run for the 2009-10 season.

Peter May is a former Celtics and NBA writer for the Globe.

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