No coach in the league did a better job this season than Quin Snyder did with the Utah Jazz, who now get rewarded for beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round with a trip to Oakland and a series with the Warriors. But whatever happens in the Western Conference semis does not change the work Snyder has done with the Jazz. Mike D'Antoni will probably win the Coach of the Year Award for his own work with Houston. Brad Stevens of the Celtics, now up a game on the Wizards, is one of the best basketball coaches on the planet and so is Gregg Popovich, always. Snyder was as good as any of them this year. His team won 51 games during the regular season and now beat the Clippers.
The Jazz keep going now. Snyder continues to be one of the best stories in the playoffs, and in his league. He is 50 now, but there was a time when he was the hot kid of coaching the way Stevens became that later at Butler, long before Stevens got to Boston. Snyder was the head coach at Missouri when he was 32 years old, kept taking the Tigers to the NCAAs. Back then they were already starting to talk about Quin Snyder, Duke guy, as somebody who might replace Mike Kryzyzewski at Duke someday.
Then came recruiting violations at Missouri, and probation. Snyder resigned in February of 2006, midseason, with a 10-11 record. Now he wasn't the hot kid anymore. He had made the tournament four straight times, but became a .500 coach after that. A record like that wasn't good enough for him to survive the NCAA coming after him, and the probation. He was out of work not long after he had turned 40. And he was damaged goods.
Here was Quin Snyder, whom I have known a long time, between the end of the Clippers game and the plane on Sunday evening:
"I thought about doing something else."
Everybody had always thought the kid from the state of Washington who had played for Coach K and then later served as an administrative assistant to him, was born to be a coach. Snyder had a wonderful basketball mind, looked like a movie star, had style and a ton of charm. He was going places when he got to Missouri until he wasn't. Until he began to battle depression and start thinking about not being in the public eye any longer, doing something else with his life other than be a basketball coach.
What he did instead of walking away was go back to work, began building his career back from the bottom up. He ended up taking a job with the Austin Toros, the San Antonio Spurs' team in the NBA Development League. He was a coach, despite how things had gone wrong at Missouri. He wasn't too proud to coach in the D-League. It was here, of course, that Quin Snyder began to get back up.
Snyder, on Sunday night in LA: "Actually pursued a couple of other things. Decided to find out just how much of [coaching] was who I was or what I did. The D-League helped me see that clearly."
In his first year in Austin, his team won a division championship and made it to the league finals. The next year he was Coach of the Year, his team won 32 games, made it to the league semis. In his third year there, with more rookies than anybody else in the league, the Toros reached the semis again.
Snyder: "Pro basketball saved my life."
He wasn't going back to college. He was going to coach in the pros. He worked for the 76ers after that. Worked for the Lakers, an assistant coach under Mike Brown. If he wasn't learning his craft, he was relearning it. He had once been Larry Brown's son-in-law. So he had learned from one of the very best coaches of all time, still the only man to have ever won an NCAA championship and an NBA championship in the same career. After the Lakers, Snyder even went to work as an assistant coach for CSKA Moscow in the Russian Professional Basketball League under a legendary coach named Ettore Messina.
By the time Snyder was back in the NBA, he was an assistant head coach with the Atlanta Hawks. It was the same as being a coordinator in the National Football League. All of a sudden people were looking at Snyder as head coaching material in pro basketball, the sport he now says saved his life. The Jazz hired him three years ago. Snyder had worked with Dennis Lindsey, the gifted Jazz general manager when Lindsey was an assistant GM with the Spurs, during the time Snyder was coaching in the D-League.
Now he has put his first big points on the board, with his 51-31 record, a team built around Gordon Hayward, who nearly beat Duke and won a national championship for Brad Stevens' Butler team with a halfcourt shot in Indianapolis. Snyder wins now with Hayward, who had 26 points against the Clippers on Sunday and was the best player in the game, and Rudy Gobert and George Hill and Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson, an old shooter who has played just about everywhere. If there has been a quieter 50-win team lately in the NBA than the Jazz were this season, I would like to know about it.
We all talk about the work D'Antoni did with the Rockets, and rightly so, he did the best work he has done as a head coach in the pros since he was with the Phoenix Suns. You know how many games the Rockets won during the regular season? Fifty-five. Four more than Snyder's Utah Jazz, who were in play again, who were a serious team again, for the first time since Stockton and Malone.
They had a chance to close out the Clippers in Salt Lake City on Friday night. Did not. But went into the Staples Center on Sunday afternoon and closed the deal. They started to run away with the thing at the end of the third quarter, pretty much kept the lead at 10 points or more the rest of the way. It is no easy thing to win a Game 7 on the road in the National Basketball Association, even against the Clippers, who've always had a glass jaw at this time of year. Snyder's Jazz did that. In all the important ways, and even with the Warriors waiting for the Jazz in Oakland, Snyder had made it all the way back.
I first met him a long time ago, at "21" in New York City, the night of Larry Brown's 50th birthday party. In the middle of it, Snyder proposed marriage to Larry's daughter. They would later get divorced, and Quin would remarry. But we stayed in touch over the years. It was always hard not to like Quin Snyder, even when he was making mistakes. There was a night when we were in the same restaurant in San Antonio during the Final Four when it was all starting to come apart for him at Missouri. We sat together for a long time that night. Snyder looked a lot older than 40. Long way from being the hot kid.
Now he is back and the Jazz are back, even if the Warriors smack them around the way they smacked around the Trailblazers in the first round of the playoffs.
I asked him Sunday night if he had ever imagined a moment like the one had and his team just had when he was knocking around his sport after Missouri.
Quin Snyder: "The moment? I made sure not to think about it or even wish for it. Just grateful."
Sometimes you get the idea that it is only the Cavs and the Warriors at this time of year, and everybody else is the undercard. It didn't seem that way in Los Angeles on Sunday. It didn't seem like that in Game 7, Jazz against the Clips. Hayward was a star, because he almost always is, even when he starts out shooting 4-for-14. But so is his coach, at long last. This wasn't any kind of finish line for him in LA. Just another part of the story, another part of his journey. Some story. Some journey for Quin Snyder.