Two years ago, Cavaliers assistant coach Larry Drew was ready for a break from the NBA.
It was July 1, 2014 — one day after he’d been unceremoniously dumped as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, who swung a trade with the Nets to bring in Jason Kidd as his replacement.
Drew, a Wyandotte High and Mizzou graduate from Kansas City, Kan., had just finished the first year of a four-year contract, the first three seasons of which were guaranteed at $2 million annually.
He could have stepped away from the game and collected that money from the comfort of his couch, but a phone call from Tyronn Lue changed things.
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“Just so you know, your name came up in our meeting, and they asked me about you,” Lue told Drew during the phone conversation. “I said, ‘Look, we’ve got to get Coach Drew on board.’”
Lue, who a week earlier the Cavs had lured away from the Clippers with the richest contract for an assistant coach in NBA history, played for three teams — the Lakers, Wizards and Hawks — when Drew was an assistant coach on those staffs.
Cleveland, which had hired David Blatt as its head coach, needed an assistant with head coaching experience in the league.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I wanted to do it,” said Drew, who first met Blatt during a professional visit with Maccabi Tel Aviv during the summer of 2012.
Eventually, Drew accepted Blatt’s offer thanks to a little prodding from his sons — Larry II, who plays for the NBA Developmental League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce, and Landon, who played at California State-Northridge.
“You've got to go,” Drew’s sons implored. “LeBron (James) is going back there, so you can’t sit out.”
Drew is grateful he heeded that advice, because — after 34 seasons as a player and coach — it allowed him to become an NBA champion for the first time Sunday when Cleveland knocked off Golden State in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
“That was always the one question that bothered me more than anything presently as a coach,” said Drew, whose only NBA Finals appearance as a player came in his final season with the Lakers in 1990-91. “I could talk to people, and they’d always ask me, ‘Did you ever get a ring?’ My answer has always been no, but now I can finally look them in the eye and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got a ring now.’”
After his career at Missouri, Drew was selected No. 17 by the Pistons in the 1980 NBA Draft. He spent 10 of the next 11 seasons in the league, including five seasons with the Kansas City/Sacramento Kings and the final two with the Showtime era Lakers.
Drew, who also played one season in Italy (1988-89), transitioned into a coaching role with the Lakers in 1992-93 after his playing career ended.
During the next 18 seasons, he also was an assistant with the Pistons, Wizards, Nets and Hawks before becoming Atlanta’s head coach in 2010-11.
Those Hawks teams went 128-102 and reached the playoffs all three seasons. But Drew’s contract wasn’t renewed after the 2012-13 season, and he wound up with the Bucks.
Drew’s NBA journey had become frustrating, but he credited his time at Mizzou under legendary coach Norm Stewart for helping him weather such storms.
“My years with Norm shaped me into being who I am today,” Drew said. “I owe a great deal to Coach Stewart — a great, great deal. Had it not been for him, I would not be in a position that I am today.”
Drew — who played alongside Magic Johnson and coached Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and now James among other NBA greats — believes everything happens for a reason, including the midseason coaching change when Blatt was canned and Lue was elevated to head coach.
“When the situation changed with Coach T-Lue, he said, ‘I need you; I need you right there by me,’” Drew said. “He was there for me when Milwaukee fired me. Certainly, when he took over as head coach, I was going to be there for him. That’s the kind of bond that we have.”
It’s also how Drew wound up standing at the back of the stage with Lue, a 1995 Raytown graduate, as the Cavs received the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time.
“I looked at him and he looked at me, we just embraced each other and we cried like babies,” Drew said. “It was such an emotional time. … It was such a special ride and such an incredible feeling to be crowned kings of the NBA.”