Good for Charlotte

A hoops upbringing coupled with an understated but fiery demeanor make ex-Cavs star Mark Price a natural as a head coach

Photo courtesy of Sam Roberts

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Years ago, when Mark Price was just starting his Mark Price Shooting Lab outside Atlanta, he practiced with a shooting machine called NOAH. This machine instantly calculates the arc at which a shot is released, and barks out the number while the ball is airborne.

The optimum number, the percentage Price was aiming for to produce a perfect shot from the free-throw line, was 46.

Kevin Cantwell, a former assistant coach at Georgia Tech who has worked off and on with Price since the former guard’s days with the Yellow Jackets, watched in amazement as Price — long retired and out of competition — began putting NOAH to the test.

Shot. “46!” the machine shouted.

Shot. “46!” Shot. “46!” Shot. “46!”

“He shoots about 25 shots, and he makes all 25 while I’m standing there,” Cantwell remembered.

And then, suddenly: Shot. “45!”

“He started getting mad,” Cantwell said. “I could just see it. He was determined to get back to 46. You talk about a patented shot.”

This is the kind of story that might seem at odds with the overall impression of Price. The 51-year-old has pale skin, sandy hair, and light eyes with crinkles around the edges from years of smiling politely. He’s an even 6-feet; not too tall, not too stocky.

He’s so very nice, so very bland, so very average. Milquetoast and non-descript.

This is the guy that UNC Charlotte has hired to lead its basketball team? This average guy who will be taking his first real head-coaching job (not counting high school or a short stint in Australia) and charged with making the 49ers relevant again in the world of college basketball?

This is the guy. The one who shoots with perfect form and has been paid to teach professionals how to do the same for years, the one who has the kind of aw-shucks personality that his friends in the profession predict will win over with ease the parents of recruits, the one who is so fiercely loyal to the team he played 12 NBA seasons for that he took his youngest son to Cleveland to revel in Game 3 of the NBA Finals this week.

“I used to call him a ‘Quiet Assassin,” said Bobby Cremins, the former Georgia Tech coach who guided Price in college. “He’s an altar boy until he gets on the court. Then he’d knock your socks off.”

“Don’t take him being quiet with not being demanding,” added Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, who hired Price as an assistant in Orlando. “He’s a very demanding guy. He wants things done the right way all the time.”

He’s also the guy without a bit of head-coaching experience at the collegiate level, but who has been training to be a head coach his entire life — since he first realized what his father, Denny, did for a living as an assistant for the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma and the head coach at Phillips University in Oklahoma.

“It’s kind of been in my blood, so to speak, all these years,” Mark Price said. “I guess at some point, you’ve got that pull, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, it’s time to quit fighting it and go with it.’”

* * * * * *

Price tried to pull away from basketball for awhile. After a 12-year career in the NBA, primarily for the Cleveland Cavaliers where he was a four-time All-Star point guard, he took a step back and a step away. He had four children he wanted to spend time with. He went into real estate.

But a year after his final NBA season, a friend of Price’s who was coaching Duluth (Ga.) High School’s varsity team learned he was ill with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Price took over the reins, and the team made it to the Georgia High School Class 5A Finals, the school’s best season in 16 years.

A year later, he was an assistant coach for Cremins at Georgia Tech. A year after that, Price found himself as the head coach at Georgia’s Whitfield Academy, the same high school where now-NBA player Josh Smith was playing. Price led Whitfield to 27-5 — after its previous two season finishes were 7-13 and 0-21.

Then came some a job as a shooting consultant, a short-lived stint in Australia (he lasted five games — all losses), and back to the NBA as a shooting coach for teams across the map.

“I didn’t have a vast plan at the time when it started,” Price said. “I think it just slowly started pulling me back in. When you’ve been good at something and had success at it, and have the knowledge you’ve gained over the years, I think you have a lot to share and a lot to give.”

Nowhere has been a long-term fit, however. He bounced from Denver (one season) to Atlanta (two seasons) to Golden State (one season) to Orlando (one season) to Charlotte (two seasons).

His four children traipsed across the country with him, and eldest son, Hudson, attended three different high schools.

But Hudson is now a junior at TCU, where he plays on the basketball team (and was named Academic All-Big 12 his sophomore season). Younger daughter Caroline just completed her senior year at North Carolina, where she played on the top-ranked Tar Heels tennis team and was a two-time All-America.

“If you’re not involved in sports, it can be a little awkward around our family, sometimes,” Price confessed, laughing.

Youngest son Josh is entering his sophomore year at Charlotte Christian School — where he plays basketball, naturally —  and Price, finally, is ready to stay in one city. So, when a five-year contract offer from Charlotte appeared when Price was nearing the end of his second season as an assistant coach with the Hornets, it was perfect.

“When this opportunity came up in the same city, it just seemed like an ideal opportunity,” Price said. “To kind of feel settled and be in one place and try to build something here.”

* * * * * *

Mark Price playing for Cleveland in 1988. (Getty Images)

When you think of Mark Price the Player, two main things probably come to mind: 1. His unbelievable shooting accuracy — from the free-throw line, in particular; he still holds the NBA career record at 90.4 percent from the charity stripe, and 2. The vicious elbow he took to the head in a game in 1989 from Detroit Pistons notorious tough-guy Rick Mahorn.

Both also give insight into who he is.

The free-throw shooting he learned from his dad, who was one of the first — and only — coaches to specialize in instructing the optimum form from 15 feet.

Countless times, Price would have a game where he’d score 20-something points, dish double-digits in assists, and the first thing Denny Price would ask afterward was, “What happened in that free throw you missed tonight?”

“I guess part of me being a good free-throw shooter is I just didn’t want to come home and hear it from my dad,” Price said, laughing. “So I figured I might as well make them all.”

Price’s father died in 2000 at age 62, suffering a heart attack while playing a pickup game with his sons Mark and Brent.

“I suppose if Denny were going to choose how he wanted to go, I’d bet it would have been playing basketball with his boys,” said Ken Rapp at the time, then the executive director of the Enid Family YMCA — now renamed the Denny Price Family YMCA — where the Prices had been playing.

Mark Price still turns somber at the mention of the death of his father, whose love for the game and belief in a strong, Christian family, became the hallmarks of his son’s life.

“My dad was my hero growing up,” Price said. “Just the way he went about things, the kind of person he was, the integrity he had with things, and his passion, really, for the game of basketball. I wouldn’t have the love of the game that I do if it wasn’t for my dad just being around him all those years growing up.”

He is his father’s son in so many ways; still trying to be like him in every way, still trying to shoot that perfect form or coach it in someone else.

“I always thought he had coaching in him because of his dad,” Cremins said.

Added Van Gundy: “Those kinds of people who grow up around it and are used to teaching, I find they have a leg up on everybody.”

* * * * * *

The elbow is something else entirely.

When Mahorn swung his elbow into Price’s head during a February 1989 game, it showcased and amplified the resilience and determination that always have been there in the little player who was told he was too short, too slow and too average to play in the NBA. Price suffered a concussion and missed only one game, but many count that moment as the time when the Cavaliers finally succumbed in what had been a fierce divisional battle with the Pistons.

Some wonder if the head injury affected Price and his play for years after the incident — the years when the Cavaliers were at their prime and had their best chance at dethroning the Pistons.

But there’s also no denying that the 6-foot Price showed the feistiness that defined him as a player when he set his jaw, returned quickly to the game, and played three of his All-Star seasons (1992-94) after the incident. In his career, Price averaged 15.2 points on .472 shooting, and 6.7 assists.

Just as he was then, Price is scrappy and determined and eager to prove wrong all his doubters.

“I always tell people you don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to jump high, you don’t have to run fast to play at the highest level of basketball,” Cantwell said. “He was one of the greatest shooters ever.”

Which is also why those who know him have no qualms about his first-time head-coaching position with Charlotte. So what if he’s never recruited players before? So what if even he admits that there will be bumps in strategy, that he will have to figure out things as simple as when to call timeouts? And that he has to quickly learn how to sell players on a program he’s building when he has no track record of success?

He’s proven he has the ability to help players improve individually, as he’s done most notably of late with revamping the shooting form of Hornets guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He’s shown the determination to stick with a fickle profession that has bounced him around the country until he’s found what he believes is, at long last, the right fit.

“He did a phenomenal job,” Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said. “But Mark’s just a really good coach. He’s just a very good teacher, very technical. He has a vision for how Mike needed to change his technique, and he basically changed the framework of his shot.”

He’s also shown the determination to stick with a fickle profession that has bounced him around the country until he’s found what he believes is, at long last, the right fit.

“Clearly he had very good talent, but he’s also a guy who worked extremely hard to become the player he was,” Van Gundy said. “I think if you’re a player and you’re considering where to go to school and Mark Price is recruiting you, you’ve got to look at this guy just from what he did as a player and think, ‘This guy understands what it takes to play for money when I’m done.’”

And Cantwell can’t help but remember that time in a gym years ago, when he watched a retired player put a machine to the test in a way that made him a believer in Price’s ability to transcend his average appearance.

“He’s made for this,” Cantwell said. “He’s really made for this.”