Signing on as a Rutgers basketball assistant is a two-fold homecoming for Mike O’Koren. O’Koren returns to coaching in his home state of New Jersey for the first time in 11 years.
An 11-year NBA coach, nine-year NBA player and two-time All-American at North Carolina, O’Koren is happy to be back coaching in his home state.
“I always wanted to come back,” O’Koren said after a workout at the RAC. “When I was at Carolina, I wanted to come back to Jersey. I love it. This is home for me. I bounced around for 10 years coaching in the NBA, and I still kept my house in Bergen County. I love it.”
A reunion with Jordan, who worked with him at three different NBA stops, is equally exciting.
“Everything I know about coaching, I’ve learned from Eddie,” O’Koren said. “Defensively in my first years with the Nets, Eddie installed a defense that was No. 2 in the NBA behind the San Antonio defense. Sometimes he gets a bad rap, at least in the pro end, where he’s considered an offensive coach. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
O’Koren has spent the last two years as a color analyst with Verizon Fios in New Jersey. He popped around Rutgers multiple times to visit with Jordan, and was one of the first phone calls when associate head coach David Cox was fired at the end of the season.
“It was a whirlwind for Eddie then … I was just more worried about him keeping players, getting players,” O’Koren said on Jordan’s first year. “He could call, anything I could help him with, I was there. I really didn’t think much about coaching. [I didn’t know] if I would ever make it to the college ranks. I coached 12 years in the pros. I came down to a couple of practices during this past season, and it was exciting. We started to talk right after the season and here it is.”
Where O’Koren is green, however, is in college recruiting.
“To me it’s going to be a lot like what these kids are going through, especially the freshmen — it’s a learning experience,” he said. “The common denominator, though, is everyone says be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
“I only know how to be myself, so that part should be easy. I’m going to be honest. If they ask for a story, I’ll tell a story. I’m going out [tomorrow]. I’m going to do it. I’m going to try. I’ll make mistakes, but I’m going to try.”
Question -- On relationship with Jordan
Answer -- ” “He’s a very good friend—like a brother to me. We’ve been together a long time. … They couldn’t find a better person and coach. He’s an alumni, always talked about Rutgers and still does. From a personal standpoint, I’m glad to be right next to him in any way I can help build the program up. Eddie is a great coach and a better person, and I’m excited to help him.”
Question --On Jordan’s offense
Answer -- “I call it a thing of beauty, the offense, and in 35 seconds you can even see more of it. [It is] the way the game is supposed to be played with the passing and cutting, something that San Antonio made famous during the finals in the NBA. It’s spacing, it’s reads, it’s cuts. It gives the players a lot of freedom. The players, at least the little bit I’ve seen during the season watching games, they really picked it up. The thing is, each day you get better at it.”
Question -- On playing for Dean Smith
Answer -- “There’s a lot instilled in me from coach Smith — he’s a Hall of Fame coach and a Hall of Fame guy. A lot of things that he implemented … I would like to sit down with Eddie on some the things, especially some late-game things that he did.”
Question -- On development
Answer -- “Sitting in this seat, you’re always learning. You learn about these players. I watch them on tape a little bit. I watched a lot of games last year. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but everybody likes a challenge.”
Question -- On Rutgers academics
Answer -- “I know the academic standards here are very high … so academics comes first, and Rutgers runs a tremendous program as far as that. As coaches it’s our job to develop these kids into, not only good basketball players, but strong young men. I know Eddie loves these kids like they’re his sons. He keeps an eye on them along with everybody else. They’re in good hands. They’re in very good hands.”
Question -- Does Kadeem Jack have NBA potential?
Answer -- “No question about it, he’s as talented as they come. I can’t wait to work with him even more. He’s a solid player. He works hard. He seems like he’s a good leader. … My advice to him is, ‘Once you step on that floor, go as hard as you can and the other guys will follow that, when they see one of the best players competing hard, that makes them want to go hard. He understands that.”
Question -- On NBA experience
Answer -- “I’ve played in the pros against the best players in the world. To get to that level, you’ve got to work at it. But the thing here too is you want to make sure that these kids go to school and get a solid education. Rutgers takes it very seriously – student athlete. It’s very, very serious and I want to be a part of that also.”
Question -- On recruiting Jersey
Answer -- “We’d like to get some of these kids from Jersey, especially now in the Big Ten. There’s so much talent around here, and we’d like to keep some of these guys home.”