“What is your definition,” Snyder asked players that day, “of making it?”
Success means something different to everyone, and so one player answered, then the next. Some wanted to taste life in the NBA, if only briefly; a few had been sent down and wanted to return. At least one had made it by reaching even the pro game’s bottom rung, and another wanted to someday be a coach.
Snyder nodded, listening as his eyes traveled the semicircle, and this was a glimpse at why he once had been a coaching star and would be again. He could raise or lower himself to each player’s level, connect with him, build a team, make it seem capable of most anything.
“He can make you believe,” said Justin Bowen, who played for the Toros under Snyder. Then as now, that is Snyder’s most powerful secret.
Snyder, who in Austin began to collect the ashes of his own broken career and systematically rebuild it over most of a decade, is now the coach of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, a team that opened a playoff series Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. And more impressive than pushing the team into the playoffs was the way Snyder took a group that lost star forward Gordon Hayward to free agency and started this season 17-26 and turned it into a team that went 31-8 over the past three months.
Future, not the past
“A chemistry builder” is how Kenton Paulino, a former University of Texas player who played for Snyder’s Toros, described his old coach.
In Austin, they were all there because of one commonality: There was some blemish or shortcoming that kept them from basketball’s mountaintop. Bowen wasn’t a good enough three-point shooter. DerMarr Johnson, a former lottery pick, wasn’t yet patient enough. Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson struggled to master the pick and roll.
Snyder’s reputation was more bruised than that, but he largely kept the details to himself. Something had happened at the University of Missouri, that much players knew, and many of them were curious but avoided the subject.
“We never got into that,” said DerMarr Johnson, the No. 6 overall draft pick in 2000. “I was the vet on that team, and . . . Quin came to me a lot with stuff. I heard of stuff [regarding Snyder’s past], but it never even came up.”
Johnson kept discussions confined to basketball, and like everyone here, he had his own business to mind. He would watch Snyder go ballistic during timeouts or after losses, frantically drawing up some play to win a game in front of a few hundred fans.
That was life in the D-League, as it was known then, lacking the NBA’s glamour, chartered flights or posh hotels. The Toros flew commercial, and when players were rubbing sleep from their eyes before some 6 a.m. flight to South Dakota or Albuquerque, there was Snyder scribbling on notecards to empty the play designs in his mind. Film sessions were at Snyder’s home or, once, at a local YMCA — plastic chairs surrounding a box TV — and the coach might stop a player in the stairwell or a hallway for quick encouragement.
“ ‘Who else is better than you? You’ve just got to believe,’ ” Squeaky Johnson recalled Snyder asking him, and tailoring his coaching to a player’s needs was indeed his true gift.
Squeaky Johnson needed review of his talents, not his mistakes; DerMarr Johnson needed encouragement and patience as he rebuilt his career following a car crash; and Bowen needed hands-on coaching on fundamentals that had never been such a point of emphasis.
“He understands that habits have to be created,” said Gregg Popovich, whose San Antonio Spurs were the Toros’ parent organization.
The journey back
Snyder had his own complicated road ahead — after Austin he would work in player development for the Philadelphia 76ers, take an assistant coaching job with the Los Angeles Clippers and spend one season coaching in Moscow — and for various reasons he was navigating it alone. Paulino never outright asked him about Missouri, but Snyder knew Paulino dreamed of being a college coach and there were realities he needed to understand.
“It wore him down. It absolutely wore him down,” Paulino said. “He wanted to make sure I was completely, 100 percent ready for: ‘If you want to do this, you’ve got to know exactly what you’re getting into.’ ”
Eventually, Paulino — who played against the Missouri Tigers when Snyder coached them — went looking for answers. Indeed, Snyder had been a coaching wunderkind whose career rose fast and crashed hard. A former point guard with a Duke pedigree, three Final Four appearances and a pair of graduate degrees, Snyder was a head coach at 32 and the architect of an Elite Eight team by 35.
Then he recruited a troubled player named Ricky Clemons, whom Snyder kept believing in even after Clemons choked his girlfriend and kept on scholarship after he was charged with domestic assault. Clemons later crashed an all-terrain vehicle at the home of the university president, went to jail for violating his probation and was the subject of an NCAA investigation that unspooled Snyder’s program and, following jailhouse interviews with the FBI and accusations that Clemons received improper benefits, led to the coach’s resignation.
Snyder, who through a Jazz spokesman declined an interview request for this story, learned to perfect the art of conversational evasion. Paulino said Snyder never shared the specifics with him, but by the time their paths crossed in Austin, one thing seemed clear.
“He was almost grateful for the experience,” said Paulino, who indeed is now an assistant coach at Tulsa.
Regardless of how everyone had found his way to Austin, here they were, and Snyder was now leading them. He spent extra hours working with Bowen and Squeaky Johnson, players who would never be NBA stars but those who, like Snyder, enjoyed the pursuit of improvement, and he picked Popovich’s brain, though the Spurs coach suggested recently that “we probably picked up more from him than he did from us.”
Regardless, Snyder did in his three seasons in Austin what he did this year in Utah, and his former players watch him on the Jazz sideline and see familiarity. The same intensity and optimism, the same frenetic scribbling of plays, the same coach who would find a way to connect with each player before trying to pull greatness out of him and the team.
Several of them watched as Utah’s season turned, and it made them think back to that “intervention” in Austin and the way that seemed to push the Toros toward that season’s division championship.
That day he listened to each player’s answer — “What is your definition of making it?” — and then it was Snyder’s turn. After Missouri, he told the men surrounding him, he disappeared to North Carolina and planned to quit coaching. His marriage fell apart, his son was back in North Carolina, and his life was mostly in shambles.
One day he climbed into a van and started driving, and the way he told the story, he wasn’t sure where he was headed. But on the way he realized he missed the game, and eventually he found himself in Austin, where there was an opening to coach the Toros — basketball instruction and, for better or worse, nothing more.
Now here he was, and when it came to answering his own question, Snyder told them he wasn’t sure anymore what his own definition was, but if this was it and coaching the game for a living was as good as it ever got for him, at least in that moment, that seemed okay by him.