LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.
Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel was smiling when he was asked what it felt like to finally reach the NBA Finals for the first time, after getting into the league in 2001.
“I actually came in in ’98,” Vogel said, offering a polite correction.
Either way, the point was clear: This opportunity was a long time coming.
Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Paul Westhead, Bill Sharman and John Kundla all won championships in their first seasons as Lakers coach, and now Vogel has the chance to join that group. The 47-year-old New Jersey native will see the finals stage for the first time this week when the Lakers face off against the Miami Heat. Game 1 is Wednesday.
“This career achievement is so far away from where I’m at mentally right now,” Vogel said Saturday night, talking while wearing the Lakers’ new Western Conference championship shirt and cap. “I’m just trying to play my part. Give our guys a plan, make sure that everybody is playing together.”
He makes it sound simple.
Nothing was simple. Not this year.
The Lakers are 64-22 this season when adding up the regular season and the playoffs, on pace for the seventh-best record in franchise history. For an organization with 16 championships, that’s no small achievement.
Vogel’s season started with championship expectations, which are always accompanied by immense pressure. He had to navigate his team through a preseason made rocky by getting caught in the political squabble between China and the NBA — a mess that flared to a very ugly level when the Lakers were in China last October. And then came the devastation on Jan. 26, when Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash.
“He’s been great. He’s been unbelievable,” Lakers forward LeBron James said of Vogel. “I mean, it’s been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise this whole year. … He’s been able to manage it the whole time. Bringing in guys, losing guys. He’s just always been the anchor, and our coaching staff has been right behind him. I can’t say anything more than that.”
The Lakers were sputtering in their early days in the bubble, with the offense the lowest-ranked out of the 22 teams at Disney.
Vogel never flinched. And the Lakers have gone 12-3 in the first three rounds of the playoffs. The sputter is long forgotten.
“He trusts us,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “And that’s the only thing you can ask for in a coach is to trust your players. But at the same time. we have to trust him.”
There’s so much irony that can be found surrounding Vogel’s first trip to the NBA Finals.
First, it comes on the outskirts of Orlando, where Vogel coached for two dismal seasons and took the fall when he was fired in April 2018 for the Magic having a roster that featured a bad combination of too little talent and too many injuries.
Next, it comes with James playing for him instead of against him, as he was when the Miami Heat ended Vogel’s seasons with the Indiana Pacers in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Those Heat and Pacers teams, quite simply, hated each other. Vogel wound up leaving the Pacers as their NBA-era leader in coaching wins, then had two bad seasons in Orlando, and the finals seemed a long way away.
“You always wonder,” Vogel said. “I was always hopeful that I would get another opportunity. I remained confident in my belief in myself.”
That’s always been a Vogel trademark.
Vogel fell in love with the game as a kid, his first brush with fame coming as a 13-year-old when he appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and spun a basketball on one end of a toothbrush while using the bristled end on his teeth.
“You’re going to knock every tooth out of your head doing this,” Letterman said.
The teeth were fine. The trick he learned at a basketball camp is still in his arsenal, too. Clearly, he’s added a few more skills along the way.
He eventually made his way to Kentucky and got noticed by then-Wildcats coach Rick Pitino. After Pitino jumped to the NBA (and Vogel got his degree from Kentucky in biology), he brought Vogel to the Celtics as a video coordinator.
A career began. And more than two decades later, a ring is four wins from Vogel’s finger. The Heat are in his way, just as they were in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Only this time, he’s got James on his side.
“This run is about LeBron James and Anthony Davis and all the guys that bought into starring in their roles and about the Lakers family who is used to being in this position and used to being in the finals, used to winning championships,” Vogel said. “It’s been a long time for them and it’s been a difficult number of years out of the playoffs. So it’s really just all about them.”