Sam Vincent: THRILL RIDE
The Sam Vincent Interview
By: Michael D. McClellan | Monday, May 15th, 2006
He grew up with a basketball in his hands, idolizing his older brother while forging a remarkable legacy of his own, and hoping that one day he, too, would don an NBA uniform and complete against the best athletes in the world. The spotlight certainly did not intimidate – how could it? He had played in front of raucous crowds from an early age. His brother had starred at Eastern High School before him, and had preceded him at Michigan State University. He had watched the Spartans win a national championship in 1979, his brother teaming with boyhood friend Magic Johnson to conquer Larry Bird and the Cinderella Sycamores, and he had followed that daunting act with an All-American season of his own. So to say that Sam Vincent seemed predestined for a career in the National Basketball Association would be something of an understatement, and on June 18th, 1985, the Boston Celtics fulfilled Vincent’s destiny by snatching up the savvy playmaker with the 20th pick in the 1985 NBA Draft. For the Celtics, Vincent’s selection was a practical matter based on a need for depth in its backcourt; for Vincent, his arrival in Boston marked the beginning of something else – a thrill ride culminating with arguably the greatest team in NBA history winning a league-record sixteenth championship banner, this with Vincent smack in the middle of it all.
Call it the impatience of youth, but Vincent, circa 1985, had a hard time grasping the special circumstances to which he suddenly found himself privy. There were contract problems out of the gate, and an agent’s threat of a lengthy holdout in order to get the numbers right. There were several proven veterans, including starters Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, entrenched ahead of him on the depth chart. There was a head coach in place who had spent his entire professional playing career learning the Celtic Way, which is to say that rookies not named Bill Russell and Larry Bird spend most of their first season watching from the sidelines. The young Sam Vincent had a hard time accepting this. He was confident in his ability, and felt that he could step in and contribute as the first guard off of the bench. He also had a hard time understanding the team’s desire to add a veteran ball handler to the mix, a player with NBA experience who could not only spell Ainge and Johnson, but who could perform under the blast-furnace pressure that is NBA playoff basketball. But before you find fault in his actions, you would be wise to walk a mile in Sam Vincent’s shoes. When you are that young and that talented, you feel that you can step into a championship situation and contribute immediately, regardless of your own relative inexperience at the pro level. You see your brother play 81 games as a rookie, albeit on a moribund, 28-win Dallas Maverick squad, and you figure that big-time minutes come as part of the requisite NBA package. All you need to succeed is the trust of your coaches and teammates, a healthy dose of playing time, and the rest takes care of itself.
Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, Vincent played neighborhood pickup games at a time when an effervescent Magic Johnson was leading Everett High School to a state basketball championship. He also watched his brother, Jay, star at Eastern and battle Magic for state prep supremacy. Four years younger than Jay, the Vincent soaked it all in and worked hard to hone his own game. Even then he was easy with a smile, articulate, and a natural leader. He arrived at Eastern with the requisite tools to play varsity basketball – good size for a high school guard, exceptional strength, great quickness and leaping ability – but freshmen were not allowed to play varsity ball under the rules at the time. Still, few doubted that he would make a big-time impact. Vincent didn’t disappoint; as a sophomore, he hit the ground running, dazzling fans and foes alike, all while leading the Quakers to the semifinals of Michigan’s ultra-competitive high school basketball tournament. A year later, Eastern claimed the state championship. Vincent rocketed up-and-down the court that season, averaging more than 20 points-per-game and burnishing his reputation as one of the best high school players in the country. As a senior, Vincent scored 61 points against Lansing Waverly, a performance that still ranks among the best in the history of Michigan high school basketball. His average jumped 10 points, to 30-per-game, and scholarship offers poured in. He was named Michigan’s inaugural Mr. Basketball, and landed on the McDonald’s All-American Team.
Vincent followed his brother’s path to Michigan State, where he put together an incrementally solid, workmanlike career. Just how good a college basketball player was Sam Vincent? Twenty years later, his 1,851 points still rank sixth all-time in school history. His senior average of 23.7 points-per-game was tops in the Big Ten, and he was honored as a Sporting News first team All-American. (AP and UPI also selected him as a third team All-American.) Suddenly, Jay’s kid brother was being talked about as a potential lottery pick.
The 1985 NBA Draft promised plenty of excitement, with Patrick Ewing a lock at Number 1, and players such as Xavier McDaniel, Chris Mullin and Karl Malone making it one of the deepest talent pools in years. Vincent’s presence added to the intrigue. He was big-name guard from a big-time program, and he had proven himself against some of the best competition in the country. The Celtics, sitting at No. 20, expected Vincent to go far earlier, possibly to the Chicago Bulls at No. 11. The slide was as surprising as it was unexpected, and Boston suddenly found itself in position to nab the Michigan State star. Torn between Vincent and the relatively unknown Terry Porter from Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Celtic management opted for the player with the Big Ten résumé and the All-American credentials. And just like that, Vincent found himself playing on an historic team with serious championship aspirations. It was at once a blessing and a curse, and in many ways the ultimate Catch-22: While landing on a great team loaded with veteran talent meant a chance to compete for a title, it also meant that minutes would not come easily.
"Sam joined a veteran team looking to win now,” recalls center Robert Parish. “He wanted to play, and he wanted to contribute, just like any young player coming into the league. I think it was hard for him to sit and watch, especially at first. But as the year went on he gradually accepted his role on the team.”
With salary negations stalled, Vincent stayed at home and prepared for an extended holdout. He didn’t stay in playing shape, something that hurt his progress in training camp once the contract issues were resolved. Still, it was hard not to be excited by the prospect of playing with guys like Parish, Bird and Kevin McHale. A healthy Bill Walton, who had arrived that summer via trade, also had the city buzzing. The Celtics were loaded, and they were determined to make amends for the Finals loss to the Lakers just a few months before.
“We were focused,” said former teammate Scott Wedman. “We came to training camp on a mission. We were sorry to see Cedric [Maxwell] leave, but the trade produced Bill Walton. He brought and incredible amount of low-post intensity to the team. Once the season started, the rest of the league got a chance to see that we were going to be pretty special.”
A season-opening, 113-109 road loss to the New Jersey Nets may have started things off on the wrong foot, but the Celtics did little else wrong the rest of the way. An eight-game winning streak followed that Meadowlands defeat, including a 124-105 trouncing of the rival Pistons in Detroit. That game in particular was something of a low-water mark for Vincent, who had hoped to play, and play well, in front of family and friends back home. Despite the blowout, head coach KC Jones didn’t play his rookie point guard until just over two minutes remained in the fourth quarter. Coach and pupil talked afterward, with Jones explaining the Celtic Way, at times in not so subtle terms. He pointed to the veteran roster and the abundance of guards on the team, and explained that the team historically didn’t give playing time to untested rookies. Minutes – and trust – were earned during practice. Vincent understood where his coach was coming from, but he also felt much like the college graduate trying to land that first job – unable to contribute due to a lack of professional experience, and yet eager to contribute in any way possible. The conflict would plague him during his entire career as a Boston Celtic.
“It was hard not getting the minutes that I expected, but it was special to practice against guys like Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson,” said Vincent. “Every day was like playoff basketball. Every day you’re going up against superstars like Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton. It doesn’t take you long to figure out how fortunate you are to be a part of something like that. In the years since, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the thrill of playing with all of those Hall-of-Fame players. It was a truly great ride.”
The Celtics finished the regular season with a 67-15 record and then stormed through the playoffs, the Houston Rockets nothing more than a speed bump on the road to basketball glory. Vincent celebrated the Celtics’ record 16th championship with the rest of his teammates, slapping high-fives and drinking champagne inside the jubilant locker room, and his appreciation for that transcendent journey into NBA history has only grown stronger through the years. Traded to Seattle, and then traded again to the Chicago Bulls, Vincent became just one of four players to play with both Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Left unprotected by the Bulls in the 1988 expansion draft, Vincent suddenly found himself the property of the Orlando Magic. He played three seasons there, before a trade to Milwaukee and an Achilles tendon injury short-circuited his dream of returning to the NBA Finals. He retired, played some basketball overseas, and then discovered a passion for coaching. In addition to coaching gigs in the NBA Developmental League, Vincent began working with African basketball teams in 1997, starting in South Africa. In 2004, he served as the head coach of the Nigerian Women’s Olympic Basketball Team. From Lansing to Boston to Nigeria and beyond, Vincent’s life and career has been a thrill ride indeed.
Celtic Nation is honored to bring you this interview.
You were born on May 18th, 1963, in Lansing, Michigan. Please tell me a little about your childhood – your family life, your friendships, the sports that you played, and some of the things that led you to the basketball court.
I was one of five boys – my older brother Jay also played basketball. Actually, that was my biggest motivation for getting involved in athletics. It really helped to spur my interest in the game, because I looked up to him and I got to follow his career. I really enjoyed watching him play. He was a good role model for me, and someone who also turned out to be a pretty good player [laughs]. I aspired to achieve the same kind of success on the basketball court.
Family life was about growing up middle class in Lansing, Michigan, with a mom and a dad and the same sorts of things that other middle class families had during that timeframe. We lived in a good neighborhood, had plenty of friends, and didn’t get into a lot of trouble. My dad actually passed away when I was six years old. It was a big loss for our family, and a painful period in my life. So it was more of a single-parent home following that. We had to make adjustments as a family, which was hard for everyone to deal with at first, but we stuck together and supported each other. In that respect, it helped to make us stronger.
I went to school in Lansing, and I have plenty of fond memories about my time in Lansing’s public school system. All things considered, I guess you could say that I had a pretty normal childhood. Sports were a big part of my life at that time. Early on I played a little football and baseball, and even ran a little track. When I got to junior high school it was narrowed down to just football and basketball. Baseball just kind of dropped off. By the time I got to high school it was pretty much just basketball. That was my focus.
You played your high school basketball at Eastern, were also honored with the inaugural Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award, symbolic of being the best high school player in the State of Michigan. What memories from this period stand out in your mind after all of these years?
The love that I had for the sport of basketball. It was my release, it was my fun time, it was pretty much my everything. I’d go to the court and shoot, and I’d play a lot by myself. It was what I enjoyed doing most. And then as I grew up and became a pretty good player, awards suddenly became pretty important. Trying to achieve certain things on the court, and then be recognized for my efforts – as I moved on into high school, those things became pretty important to me.
As a senior In 1981, you were honored as a McDonald’s High School All-American. How did it feel to be recognized as one of the best high school players in the country?
Great feeling. In retrospect, I think those accomplishments mean significantly more to me now than they did at that time in my life. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t fully aware of what I was accomplishing – I was just so involved in playing basketball, and in working hard to succeed on the court, that some of those things were oblivious to me. I didn’t really have the frame of mind at the time to really appreciate what I was doing. It was probably immaturity on my part. But now when I look back at it, and I think about some of those accomplishments, they mean a whole lot more.
You signed to play collegiate basketball at Michigan State. Please take me back to the recruiting process, and the factors that led you to sign with the Spartans.
was heavily recruited coming out of Eastern, and by a lot of different programs. I took the time to go out and visit a few – Wichita State and the University of Hawaii, for example – because I wanted to get some kind of balance in the recruiting process. I think that Michigan State was always the favorite and the frontrunner – my brother Jay went there, and I was pretty close to Magic [Johnson] at that time. Staying home was also something that I really wanted to do, and visiting the other schools helped to solidify that in my mind. So even though I had a chance to run around and see a bunch of different programs, and to get a feel for a lot of different campuses in the process, it all boiled down to two factors – Michigan State was close to home, where I would have the support of my family, and it was also the school where my brother won a national championship.
In 1985, you earned Sporting News All-America honors. How big a deal was this for you?
Back then I was really caught up in the moment – I was playing hard and working hard, and I really didn’t truly appreciate what I was doing. Now, as I look back on those accomplishments all over again, they mean even more. I’ve had a number of years to be removed from all of the hoopla, and I’ve also had a chance to become a basketball coach – and that in itself has helped me understand what goes into becoming a pretty good basketball player. So now I have a higher level of appreciation for it all.
You were also recognized with the George Alderton Male Athlete of the Year award. How were you able to keep a level head, and not succumb to the ‘Big Man on Campus’ mindset?
A big part of it was focus. I realized that I wanted to become the best player possible, and that I had to stay focused in order to do that. I also knew that I had to maintain a level head. So my main objective throughout that period was to work hard, and to continue doing the things I needed to do in order to become a pretty good collegiate player. And I also wanted to stay away from anything that was detrimental to that goal. I stayed out of trouble, went to class, and went to basketball practice. Those things kept me very busy, and naturally kept me pretty focused.
The Boston Celtics selected you with the 20th overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft. Please take me back to that experience. And how has draft changed since then?
Going back to draft day, I remember sitting around the living room waiting for my name to be called. I remember thinking that I should have gone earlier in the draft – there was a lot of talk that the Chicago Bulls were going to take me at No. 11, because they had just drafted Michael Jordan the year before and needed a point guard – and then kind of feeling disappointed because I slid a little bit. I wasn’t disappointed to be drafted by the Boston Celtics – it was just the fact that I had slipped to the twentieth overall pick in the draft. As far as Celtics went, I knew their history and I knew about all of the legends who had made that franchise so great. I had heard about Bill Russell and John Havlicek. I general, I knew who they were and some of the things that they had accomplished. It was exciting from that standpoint. But growing up, the Boston Celtics really weren’t the team that I fantasized about. As a young kid, I didn’t step onto the court imagining myself as this guy or that guy – I don’t ever remember pretending to be Nate Archibald, or M.L. Carr, or any of those guys. But I do remember being excited about my it on draft day, once I got over the disappointment of slipping so far down in the order. I was thrilled to be picked to play in the NBA, and thrilled to join a team like the Celtics.
You joined a Celtic team loaded with talent – led by Hall of Fame mainstays Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. What was that first training camp like for you, and how quickly were you accepted by these legendary veterans?
The first training camp was tough because I had high expectations coming in. I thought that I would immediately play and get a lot of minutes, and upon getting there I realized the Celtics were loaded with Hall of Fame guys and great players. Coach [KC] Jones was more of a veteran kind of coach. So I think that the realization that I wasn’t going to play proved to be a tough adjustment for me at that time. I don’t think I had the support structure around me to help me understand that being patient, and waiting for my opportunity, would go a long way toward starting in this league. I was just wrapped up in wanting to play.
In addition to drafting Sam Vincent, the Celtics’ other big acquisition was the trade that brought Bill Walton to Boston. Please tell me what Bill meant in terms of the Celtics reclaiming the NBA Championship.
Bill was huge that year. I think that was probably one of his most successful years. He came in almost completely healed from the foot ailments that cost him so much playing time prior to that. He was just so strong – he had been lifting and working out, and it helped him to come off the bench for Robert and just play a physical brand of basketball. That isn’t to say that he had become just a bruiser; he was still the same great passer he had been through the years, hitting the cutter with those perfect feeds, and he loved working the ball with Larry. He also seemed to embody what the Celtics were all about, which was selflessness and teamwork. He was also a hard worker, and was all about winning, attributes which carried over to the rest of the team.
The Celtics were virtually unbeatable at home during the 1985-86 season, losing just one game at the fabled Boston Garden. What made the Garden so special, and what was it like for you to play in front of those great Boston fans?
It was a great feeling! I remember playing in front of those fans as one of the best basketball times of my life. I couldn’t really appreciate it then, just like I couldn’t appreciate my high school career until after it was over, but when I look back now – those fans, my teammates, that building, the history – it is purely one of the most special times in my life.
When you arrived in Boston, Larry Bird was a two-time league MVP at the height of his powers. What was it like playing with the great Larry Bird?
Whoa – it was pretty incredible. Being a rookie, coming in and trying to get playing time, I think that the greatness of Larry Bird may have been lost on me to some degree. Now, as I look back, I can step outside of that situation and truly appreciate the opportunities that I’ve had, and the moments that I’ve had with some truly incredible players – and Larry Bird was that the forefront of that. I think that perspective has helped shape some of my coaching philosophy.
On April 20th, 1986, the Boston Celtics hosted the Chicago Bulls in Game 2 of their opening round playoff series. When it was over the Celtics had a commanding 2-0 series lead, but the game really belonged to Michael Jordan. Please take me back to Michael’s 63-point coming out party.
It was a very special performance. I think we came into that game feeling like we were the more mature team, the better team, and the more confident team. We knew that we were playing a younger team, and one that was clearly up-and-coming. We also knew that Michael Jordan was going to be something special. The thing that stands out now is the shear variety of shots that he made, from everywhere on the court. It wasn’t just jumpers, and it wasn’t just dunks. He was everywhere on the court. He was hitting bank shots, shots in traffic, shots with guys draped all over him. He was making moves that left guys flat-footed. It was just an outstanding performance by a truly special player.
The Celtics stormed through the playoffs, meeting the Houston Rockets in the 1986 NBA Finals. What was it like for you to be on the biggest stage in basketball?
It was an absolutely great feeling. But being a rookie, and in awe of where I was and the guys that I was playing with, I had a hard time fully appreciating the situation. I didn’t fully understand how special an opportunity that was for me. I look back now with incredible pride, because it was an honor to be a teammate to such a talented group of players.
That series included the memorable for fight between Jerry Sichting and Ralph Sampson in Game 5. Sampson was rudely welcomed back in Boston for Game 6, where fans booed him mercilessly and held up signs that read ‘Sampson is a sissy’. What was the mood of the team in the locker room prior to that title-clinching Game 6, and was there ever any doubt that the series would end with this game?
I don’t know that we were so confident that we felt the series was going to end, but the mood of the team was one of incredible focus. We were very energetic, and motivated to take care of business. There was a very tough energy in that locker room, and a very deep focus on the part of all our guys. We were definitely prepared to play.
With exactly eleven minutes left in regulation, Larry Bird passed up an inside shot and instead sprinted for the three-point line. His shot became the signature moment of the signature game in the series, and provided the knockout blow that the team and its title-hungry fans. Please take me Larry’s performance in Game 6.
Like always, you expected Larry to come out and take tough shots – and make tough shots. He was our leader, and the guy you went to when things were dire, and he responded like a true superstar in that game. I think he was the most focused player in that game, and he wanted to make a statement with the world watching. That particular play is a prime example of how well focused he was, and how determined he was to achieve his goal of winning another championship. He knew all of his options available to him on that play, and he had the presence of mind to navigate beyond the three-point line and deliver that killer blow.
As a rookie, what was it like for you to win a ring? And what does it mean to you now, twenty years later?
As a rookie, I was a young guy caught up in the moment. I wanted to play more, there were a lot of great players ahead of me, so it was a case of wanting to contribute more to the team’s success. So I wasn’t as appreciative then as I am now. Now, I look back at all of those Hall-of-Fame players and I understand that it helped to mold me into the person that I’ve become. It has helped me to become a better coach, and it has helped me to develop the younger players in a way that maybe I couldn’t have otherwise.
You played 43 games for Seattle SuperSonics, teaming with future Celtic Xavier McDaniel. Please tell me about your experience in Seattle in general, and about Xavier McDaniel in particular.
My experience in Seattle was probably one of the toughest times in my career. I think I was still pretty disappointed about the trade. I still felt that I didn’t get the opportunity that maybe I should have in Boston. On the other hand, I also thought the additional playing time that I received in Seattle was great – it was a welcome change – but at the same time, I had trouble getting over the circumstances that put me in a Sonic uniform. I felt that it affected my development as a player, and it was something that I struggled with the rest of my career. So, with that said, I think my time in Seattle was pretty disgruntled. I just wasn’t happy. But even with all of that going on, Xavier and I had a great relationship. I enjoyed being there with him – he was a tough competitor, a tough guy, and a tough player.
You were traded from Seattle to Chicago for Sedale Threatt. In Chicago, you enjoyed the best statistical numbers of your career: 13 points and 8.4 rebounds-per-game. What was this experience like for you, and what was it like to team with a young Michael Jordan?
It was great experience. I think I played a little bit better because I was around a team that was more my age, unlike the veteran situations in Boston and Seattle. The guys on that Bulls team were pretty much my peers, age-wise, and because of that I was able to be a little more relaxed. Playing with Michael was a great feeling. He was the consummate pro – a hard worker who expected the best out of everyone, including himself. Hw was also a super-duper-star [laughs]. I feel that I really learned a lot from him, as far as how to conduct myself as a player in the National Basketball Association.
You began working with African basketball teams in 1997, starting in South Africa. In 2004, you were the head coach of the Nigerian Women’s Olympic Basketball Team. Please tell me about your experience in Athens.
I was a special time, because it made me feel like I was doing something that very few people have ever had the opportunity to do. Being an American coach of a foreign national team was a proud moment for me. My work with that team didn’t show up in wins and losses, or medals for that matter – we won one game, which was an Olympic first for Nigeria, but it was the start of something that will one day pay dividends for that country. I was able to fit into that role because of my experience in the NBA, and also because of my coaching experience in the WNBA and the NBA Developmental League. It helped prepare me for the task at hand.
I hear that you will be coaching the men’s Olympic team in Beijing.
I’m coaching the men’s team at the world championships in Japan this coming summer, and then we have to qualify for the Olympic Games by doing well in Angola. I anticipate that we’ll do well enough there to compete in Beijing.
Final Question: You’ve achieved great success in your life. You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA. If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?
Understand how important your actions are, because your actions impact so many people. Always work as hard as you can in every aspect of your life, whether it is a family relationship or a professional relationship, because what you put into those relationships is what you’re going to get out.