CHICAGO — In his first full day on the job, new coach John Beilein called each of the Cavaliers players individually.
Save for an "old head" reference that needed some explaining, the former University of Michigan coach came away enthused about the Cavs’ young talent and upbeat attitude despite a 19-63 season that tied for the second-worst record in the NBA.
“I feel a good karma right now,” Beilein said. “Last year, although it was difficult for all, we all learned a lot and everybody’s going to grow from it and attack next year with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of spirit, a lot of optimism.
“What was striking was their enthusiasm. They were like, ‘Coach, I can’t wait to meet you. I can’t wait to get together.’ I thought that was a great sign. The ages of some of these players are what I’m used to coaching. I think I said to one of them, I called him an old head at 28, [and] he didn’t like that very much. And I said, ‘No, you’re in your prime. But compared to the others, I’m going to rely on the old head.’ We’ll get through all that stuff.”
Beilein didn’t identify the offended player. The Cavs have three 28-year-olds — Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson — who will be surpassed in age only by Kevin Love, 30, once J.R. Smith is traded.
Agreeing to a five-year contract Monday, Beilein made his first Cavs appearance at Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery at the Hilton Chicago, where the team came away with the fifth overall pick in the June 20 draft.
Beilein flew in from Detroit with owner Dan Gilbert and his son Nick on Tuesday, meeting General Manager Koby Altman, who had arrived Monday. As Altman and Beilein worked the Hilton ballroom, Beilein was a magnet, constantly stopping to chat. Altman, Beilein and the personnel staff will remain in Chicago, where the NBA combine runs Thursday and Friday.
The Cavs kept their two meetings last week with Beilein secret, which made Monday’s announcement a bombshell. Beilein, 66, took Michigan to the NCAA Tournament in nine of his 12 seasons, including appearances in the title game in 2013 and 2018, and departed as the winningest coach in school history. He’d coached college basketball for 41 years, working his way up at each of seven stops. He’d talked to the Detroit Pistons a year ago and also with the Orlando Magic and let those opportunities pass.
Asked why this was the right time to leave, he said, “There’s never a good time to leave. You can make a couple choices. You can leave too early maybe or you can leave too late. You never know when to leave. This was an opportunity that has so much potential, it was too difficult to pass up. It was the right thing to do.
“Once I watched some film on [the Cavs], a lot of film, saw the great young talent, and then meeting the support staff, meeting Dan Gilbert, those all made a tough decision much easier.”
Beilein didn’t know Gilbert, but said he hit it off right away with a “Michigan State guy” when they talked on Friday.
Many college coaches have struggled to adjust to the NBA game, and Beilein isn’t sure what will be the most difficult part of the transition.
“I don’t know. I grind so hard, going all the time,” he said. “I think the adjustment is I’m going to have to learn quickly, I’m going to really have to learn the NBA language and just obviously begin this relationship with these players, build this culture that is rock solid.”
As he tries to get through all that, Beilein will have plenty of support. He’s already heard from the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens, the former coach at Butler, and Chicago Bulls coach Jim Boylen, previously at the University of Utah.
“I got great advice today from one former NBA coach I won’t identify. He said, ‘My advice is don’t get too much advice,’ ” Beilein said. “I’ve heard from 12, I have quite a few contacts in the NBA, head coaches that I know fairly well and they all reached out and said, ‘You’re going to love it.’
“Brad Stevens said, ‘The NBA just got better today.’ Just really complimentary things. Guys that have been in college, Jimmy Boylen and Brad, who have been in the pros and just happen to love coaching basketball.”
Beilein wouldn’t get into whether he was disillusioned with the college game and players leaving early for the NBA and whether that played a part in a decision he said didn’t take that long.
“I think that’s a discussion for another time,” he said. “I'm really happy to be here right now, get my feet on the floor. We can probably talk about that later on.”
Beilein’s son Patrick, the new basketball coach at Niagara, told WGRZ-TV in Buffalo on Monday that he believed his father was ready for a new challenge.
Asked what it was about the Cavs that made this challenge intriguing, John Beilein said: “Just the fact that we’re in position to be in position. We’ve got good, young, really good teammates on this team. Now we’re all going to really grow together. I’m going to lean on a lot of people for experience, but we’re going to make it happen.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.