Mahorn faces former colleague in first two games as coach

Lightning Strikes Twice

Of course Gary Kloppenburg had to be there.

Not only did he witness Rick Mahorn’s first game as Shock head coach Friday at The Palace, he was at Conseco Fieldhouse for the second one Sunday. And rightly so. After all, Kloppenburg, an Indiana Fever assistant coach, was at Mahorn’s other head coaching debut a decade earlier.

Recently retired after an 18-year career in the NBA, Mahorn drove to Rockford, Ill., where he relieved an interim head coach to take over the Rockford Lightning of the CBA. Kloppenburg was that coach. As Mahorn’s lead assistant, “Klop” was an invaluable resource for the novice head coach, helping lay the groundwork for Mahorn to become the man who now leads the defending WNBA champions.

“He was a great assistant coach,” Mahorn said following Sunday’s loss to the Fever. “He taught me a lot of things. It was my first year embarking on coaching and he taught me a lot of stuff – how to be a coach, how to relax, how to make sure you make the right substitutions. He was a great person to be working with.”

The Lightning began the 1999-2000 season under another former Pistons player, Darrell Walker. Now on the Pistons staff, Walker left in midseason to become interim head coach of another NBA club, the Toronto Raptors. Kloppenburg was promoted to head coach for the next four games until Mahorn arrived for his first day of work. Though he wasn’t sure exactly what his job would be.

“He thought he was going to be the assistant,” Kloppenburg recalled. “That’s what he told me, ‘I drove in and thought I was going to be your assistant. Then they come in [from the front office] and introduce me as the head coach.'”

Accepting his limitations as a newcomer to not only the CBA and the Lightning but also the profession, Mahorn didn’t let his ego get in the way. “He was really good,” Kloppenburg said. “Since he had never coached, he let me help him through the games.”

Mahorn’s inclination to collaborate is one of the top reasons the Shock are so confident he can make their unique chain of command work with assistant coach Cheryl Reeve, who also technically holds the higher rank as the team’s general manager.

“He knew the team and what players could do what,” Mahorn said. “The only thing I came [to Rockford] to do was orchestrate and make sure the guys had the best opportunities to score and win games.”

And they won a lot. The Lightning rallied past rival Quad City to win the American Conference, going 15-7 down the stretch under Mahorn, who was twice named the CBA Coach of the Month. Still in shape from his playing days, Mahorn scratched his competitive itch by scrimmaging in practices.

“Where Rick was really good was with the players, just holding them accountable. He knew when to put the hammer down on them, but he also knew when to keep it light,” Kloppenburg said. “They really loved him. They loved playing for him. He communicated so well with him.”

The Lightning lost in the CBA finals, and then both coaches moved on. Mahorn returned to the NBA as an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks; Kloppenburg eventually landed in Seattle, where he spent three seasons under current Fever coach Lin Dunn with the WNBA’s Storm. The Lightning folded in 2006.

Though the union was brief, the coaches enjoy reminiscing about their CBA days, which they did on the Palace court in the hours before Mahorn’s debut Friday. “We just kind of shake our head sometimes,” Kloppenburg said. “We had a lot of fun down there.”

Kloppenburg recollected one perilous journey from Grand Rapids to LaCrosse, Wis., a seven and a half hour bus trip even in clear conditions. “We played there the next night and the road was a sheet of ice. We were sitting at the front of the bus and the bus is kind of (sliding) and we were shaking,” he said. “I go, ‘Rick, this is a little different than the NBA, huh?’ But he loved it though.”

Before reuniting with Dunn in Indiana, Kloppenburg spent three seasons with the inaugural coaching staff of the NBA expansion franchise Charlotte Bobcats. He also had a stint with the Raptors, making him a reliable evaluator of Mahorn’s coaching acumen.

“I’m happy for him because I think he’s going to be a very good coach in this league or in the NBA, or wherever he ends up at some point,” he said. “He manages the players so well and he lets his assistants teach and coach.”

All the more reason for Shock fans not to fret Mahorn’s 0-2 start against the Fever. There’s still plenty of time for Mahorn to prove his initial head coaching success was more than lightning in a bottle.