JOE P GAME FOR ONE FINAL FAMILY TRIP

Great Britain’s coach has a message of hope as he prepares to take his leave.

 

The Apps may vary but the messages have always been found their way through. ‘Nice game last weekend.’ ‘Happy Birthday.’ ‘Merry Christmas – see you next August.’

WhatsApp, Viber. Texts. Occasionally, old-fashioned email. Joe Prunty’s role as lead assistant at the Milwaukee Bucks is like any in the NBA: all-consuming, 24/7. Yet, still, the 52-year-old Californian has carved out time and space for his role as Great Britain’s head coach outwith the six weeks per year stipulated in his contract.

Above and beyond the call of duty. Ever since he was unveiled as the unexpected and unheralded successor to Chris Finch ahead of EuroBasket 2013 and took a leap of faith into the unknown.

Upon his hire, he reached out to those who might be part of his team. Largely, platitudes came back, despite a call for enquiries. Only Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who he already knew, stepped up to pose the question on everyone’s mind.

“He asked ‘why are you doing it?’ It was pretty simple: ‘Because they asked.’ It’s a great honour to be part of this national team, to help build the programme.”

Back then, Prunty hoped it would open doors but also his mind. The passport has more stamps than it every had before.

But as he prepares for his final fortnight at the helm at EuroBasket 2017 in Istanbul before vacating the job in favour of Tony Garbelotto, you sense it is the people who he will miss, the alerts on his cellphone, the to and fros – some regular, others sporadic.

There has been a routine to his second job between October to July. Stay connected, somehow.

“I can look at a box score for our guys,” he says. “But sometimes, I need to find a webpage or find out someone has changed team, so I need to go somewhere else.

“But then, whether it’s birthdays, holidays, whatever, I’m constantly trying to reach out to guys and that’s about relationships. I trust these guys. I love these guys – what they’ve done for me and what they’ve done for the programme.

“And so the challenge is that every day, when you’re not around each other, you communicate.”

It was one of three key mantras he laid down to his players, and to himself when he introduced himself at the outset of his opening camp. That he would be invested in their careers, and their development.

That he would nurture their health and well-being. And that chats – electronic or verbal – would be two-way within what he has referred to from the outset as the ‘GB Family.’

“And I care about the culture we’re building here,” Prunty adds. “All of those go hand in hand. But that culture has been built. There are multiple people who want to be here.

“But you have to earn the right to be here as well. You don’t want guys going ‘I’ll just show up this year or that year’. I talk to guys all the time.”

Prunty is known as a teacher in the NBA (Mansoor Ahmed)

With the British Basketball Federation, until the recent temporary appointment of Mark Clark lacking an effective point man to liaise with its talents since the departure of Ron Wuotila post-London 2012, don’t underestimate how valuable Prunty’s extra-curricular reaching out has been.

Born of a commitment that has been steadfast – even when funding crises chiselled away at assurances made, creating headaches that would have caused many, with ample justification, to get up and walk.

Regrettably, his arrival coincided with a mass exit, some through retirement (Robert Archibald, Andy Betts), others due to self-imposed exile (Luol Deng, Joel Freeland).

It is known that Prunty has had regular conversations with Deng – the Los Angeles Lakers forward has never shut the door but likewise declined to venture back through due to either contractual or personal issues. Ditto with Freeland, primarily via his agent, but with lesser enthusiasm felt in return.

Significant losses, who could have slashed GB’s odds of progress from Group D with their presence this week in Istanbul.

“But,” Prunty adds, “we talk about the guys that are here. Every year: Dan Clark, Eric Boateng, Kieron Achara, Kyle Johnson, I could go on. They’re committed to the programme.

“Then you have a guy like Gabe Olaseni who didn’t come through the GB system at age groups. A guy like Sasha Killeya-Jones who is the same. There might be five years between those but the future right now is bright.”

New talent has come through to bolster GB (Mansoor Ahmed)

Collectively, and individually. It is still a huge ask for Britain to emerge onward from their first round group and make a knockout phase for the first time.

Winning Friday’s opener with Belgium is all but a necessity. Turkey on Friday on home soil will be mightily tough. So too Serbia and Latvia. Russia look vulnerable but by next Thursday, it could be too late.

However there is some cautious optimism again, rebuilding giving way to rejuvenation after some promising performances in the build-up.

We have individuals who can step up, Prunty says. But also a squad willing to lean on one other, 1 through 12.

“One of the things we stress is that understanding team success is individual success,” he affirms. “If you go into games thinking about points, assistants, rebounds, individual things that come along.

“One thing is to stress the wrong issues as opposed to how can we learn what the right play is and how can we learn to play with each other. It’s not about what can I get out of it. It’s about how can I help the team. If the team has success, then we’ll all have success.

“But at the end of the day, it’s been about GB basketball, how to grow the sport, to grow a culture where people want to be involved.

“I’ve had several messages from guys reaching out to me saying ‘hey coach, if you need me I’m ready.’ It’s just a different atmosphere from five years ago where people now want to be involved in this.”

If he’d had his druthers, Prunty would be pondering the next leap rather then preparing his farewells. With FIBA’s new international schedule slotting World Cup qualifiers into the season, there was never a realistic hope that he could absent himself from the NBA for short spells to remain at the helm.

He offered himself for the summers. British Basketball declined. Arguably correct in the interests of continuity. Yet, regardless of results in Turkey, he can depart with head held high and be assured of a warm future welcome back.

Families endure. Relationships continue. Messages are sent and received. Joe’s careful stewardship through the tough days and the good will leave behind a vat of goodwill.

“The federation has made the decision that I won’t be coaching next year,” he confirms.

“But this all shouldn’t change. When we go into the World Cup qualifiers in November, there should be no starting over. And the programme should be in a better spot.”

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