Hornets Head Coach James Borrego remembers the moment, even if he believes Gregg Popovich probably doesn’t.
“He used to call me Ray Romano. At the time, Ray Romano was big and he used to love that show,” Borrego said in an exclusive interview with Stadium.
“I was a video coordinator. It was probably my second year in the NBA. We were playing the New York Knicks, we were in New York, I think we played a tough overtime game or a really close game.
“The team walks in. We’re all sitting there waiting for this great speech by Gregg Popovich and he looks over at me and says, ‘Ray, you got ‘em.’” Borrego was surprised, as expected.
“I look over and I said, ‘I got ‘em? What do you want me to say, coach?’” Finally, Borrego spoke up, pumping the Spurs’ locker room up after the big win.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” Borrego said. “That’s how [Popovich] deals with life and people. He gives you opportunities and you got to be ready for them. He wants you to feel included and a part of everything that you’re doing in the program.”
It’s just one of many moments Borrego will take with him as he embarks on a new challenge as the first-year head coach of the Hornets. After spending 12 years on Popovich’s staff, Borrego is attempting to bring a similar culture to Charlotte.
“We enjoy each other. That was the number one thing I took from his time, we enjoy each other.
“There’s a bigger picture here. There’s a life out here we’re trying to live,” Borrego said on his time in San Antonio. “Basketball is our job. It’s what we do, but it’s not everything. When we come to work, there’s an expectation and a pride about how we work. I learned that balance from him. Balance is big and I’ll always take that from my time in San Antonio.”
The Hornets created NBA history when they tabbed Borrego as their head coach. He became the first Hispanic full-time head coach in NBA history, and wrote a strong first-person essay about the moment. Borrego doesn’t see himself as some sort of pioneer, but said he felt the moment was special for the people around him.
“I think it’s significant for the people that helped me along the way. This isn’t just my journey. There’s a lot of people that have influenced my life from my early years on,” Borrego said.
“Coaches in middle school, high school, college, friends, families that included me, brought me in, helped push me to get to where I am today. I look at it more as an appreciation for those people that helped me get to this point.”
Popovich is certainly one of those people, and now Borrego will be charged with bringing the “Spurs way” to Charlotte — something the Hawks attempted when they hired longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer in 2013.
Borrego will have a familiar face to help. Charlotte snagged Tony Parker, who spent 17 years with the Spurs, in free agency to add veteran leadership to the team. Borrego said Parker’s presence will help on and off the court.
“Any time you have a player that’s been through battles with you and has been tested, he’s walked the rope with you, there’s a confidence there and I think Tony provides that for me,” Borrego said. “He understands the system I’m trying to put in place. A lot of the parts do look familiar to him. There’s an immediate respect that he commands in the locker room. I’m going to rely on him.”
The Hornets missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons after their 2015 appearance, netting the franchise lottery picks Malik Monk and Miles Bridges to pair with a veteran core. Borrego says the plan to develop Monk and Bridges will also come from his experiences in San Antonio.
“We have to have a plan in place every day for those guys to get better. I’ve come out of a program that we’ve seen that happen,” Borrego said.
“The Spurs were always about winning games and winning championships, but at the same time they were able to develop young players along the way. It’s not an accident that these young late-first-round picks in San Antonio got better every year.”
Borrego says he has a player development program in place for the two prized prospects, but won’t be hesitant to alter the path if it results in more wins for the team.
“We have to figure out who gives us the best opportunity to win games. That’s at the top of our list every night,” Borrego said. “If Monk or Bridges provides us the best opportunity to win games, I’m going to play those guys.”
Winning games will be important to Charlotte for two reasons. The team has seen attendance drop despite playing in the NBA’s 12th largest city, and a third straight season without postseason basketball won’t help attendance. The other reason: Kemba Walker. The star guard is a free agent at the end of the season, and Borrego thinks winning this year will allow the Hornets to retain Walker.
“I think Kemba, really at his core, just wants to win. He wants to win and he wants to do it in Charlotte. He loves Charlotte. Until you get around someone, you don’t really know if that’s genuine,” Borrego said.
“I really have a sense that he loves it here, he loves the people of the Charlotte, loves the city, loves the organization. He wants to win and he wants to win for Charlotte.”
If the Hornets endure another rough season, that love will be tested. Losing a franchise player is tough; it’s especially tough for a first-year head coach trying to change the organizational culture.
Luckily for Charlotte, the Eastern conference will be as open as it has been in the last decade. With LeBron James moving to Los Angeles, the Hornets will be one of several teams attempting to make the most of a new window.
Vegas currently has the Hornets at 35.5 wins, good for ninth in the East. A playoff appearance in his first season will do wonders for Borrego in his attempt to transform the Hornets into perennial Eastern conference contenders and retain his franchise star. Borrego says he expects the Hornets to be in that mix.
“There is no ceiling for us. People can speculate, they can talk all they want about what they think, it’s really up to us to go make it happen and there is an opportunity here in the East right now,” Borrego said.
“We feel like if we do things the right way, and we get better every single day, and our young guys develop, and our veterans play up to their capabilities, that we can be standing right there with these teams.”