Nate McMillan COACH

Blazers head coach Nate McMillan patrols practice with his arms crossed and his face set blankly. His eyes pan from side to side, scanning for any trace of imperfection amid the sneaker squeaks and sweat of the on-court melee. He wears his shorts high on his waist, and his hair is precisely buzzed in military style. Everything about his appearance screams old school. Yet despite his predilection for rigidity, he knows that to succeed as a coach in the NBA—a horribly cutthroat milieu where players get the praise, upper management calls the shots, and the coach just gets fired—you have to remain flexible.

It’s a delicate dance. It means balancing strategy and tactics, emotional appeal and stone-cold discipline. One must stick to a core philosophy while constantly adapting to advances in game play. But above all, a coach has to be able to connect with and motivate players immersed in the ADD era of hip-hop and Twitter. Even at the age of 45, McMillan finds this balance through sheer authenticity. He’s been there and done that as a player, and he isn’t shy in the slightest about telling his young squad about it.

McMillan’s knowledge, and his unquenchable thirst for more of it, are his greatest weapons. He watches opponents’ game tapes endlessly, rewinding plays over and over in search of the slightest weakness. He’s been known to pull all-nighters in his office, mulling over prospects in the days before the NBA’s annual draft. He speaks fondly of four-hour dinners in China during the Olympics, arguing strategy with his fellow coaches on the US National Team. He spent the four-day All-Star break—his only extended respite between September and May—in a gym watching his son play basketball for Arizona State University. Asked how it went upon his return, McMillan began breaking down the play that decided the game.

If there’s been a knock on McMillan, it’s that maybe he’s too hard on a squad that is still one of the most baby-faced in the league. Some say he stifles the development of young players by being too unyielding, too unwilling to cede control to anyone who’s actually on the court. Only the sheer force of Brandon Roy’s All-Star talent forced McMillan to loosen his grip a tad last year. He turned late-game play-calling duties over to Roy, the team captain. Yet that trust never extended to the rest of the squad. McMillan—a key cog in the well-balanced Seattle SuperSonics teams of the mid-1990s—knows that a coach alone can’t win a championship. But will he be able to believe in his players enough to let them make the Blazers their own?

This September, when a group of fans toured the team’s practice facility, McMillan excitedly began shaking hands, not as a team marketeer, but as a fellow fan of the game. Many photos from that day found their way onto Facebook walls and web forums; McMillan’s grin was the widest of anyone’s.

It’s a relaxed side rarely seen in public. But if his maturing team continues to earn his respect—and if McMillan in turn loosens his hold on the reins long enough to let his players play their game—that smile could become a permanent fixture, perfect for a victory parade through the middle of Pioneer Courthouse Square.