Bulls assistant Fleming took the path less traveled through Germany
Bulls assistant coach Chris Fleming has similarities to both Bruce Springsteen and David Hasselhoff.
Springsteen because Fleming grew up on the Jersey Shore, roughly halfway between Atlantic City and Asbury Park. And like Hasselhoff (as a recording artist, anyway), Fleming became popular in Germany.
Now he's the new lead assistant to Jim Boylen, moving to Chicago after spending three years in Brooklyn with Kenny Atkinson, Fleming's former college teammate at Richmond.
Even though he's worked in the NBA for just four seasons -- after living in Germany for 20 years -- Fleming has quickly developed a reputation as a rising star in the coaching profession and an astute offensive mind. How does that description fit his own perception?
"I don't know. I think I've learned how to hopefully help players get better and realize their potential a little bit," Fleming said this week. "I think that's maybe the biggest part of being an NBA coach. You're dealing with exclusively very, very talented young people and you've got to kind of find a way to help them reach their best."
Asked to describe his offensive philosophy, Fleming skipped the coaches' clinic speech and came up with a simple response.
"I think the biggest part about it is I want guys to play confident," he said. "I don't want people being afraid to make mistakes. I want to play confident and play aggressive. I think that's kind of the backbone of the offensive philosophy."
The fact that Fleming spent the majority of his coaching career in Germany seems a little odd at first. Germany is a great place for a soccer tactician to learn, but was considered a relative basketball wasteland, at least until Dirk Nowitzki came along. It's been gaining ground fast and Fleming was in the right spot to take advantage of that growth.
He was first a player, then coach for the Artland Dragons in the German second division. Then he moved onto Brose Bamberg from 2008-14, a club that won four straight German league titles and was a regular EuroLeague participant.
So even if Germany is not a world basketball powerhouse, it was a great place for Fleming to gain experience, make mistakes and develop his coaching style.
"In Europe at the time, there weren't many places you could coach as an American," Fleming said. "Belgium, Holland, maybe some of the Scandinavian countries. But the other countries were pretty closed off to U.S. coaches.
"I was able to work, was able to make my mistakes and I ended up working for two different clubs, both that had pretty good infrastructure -- the paychecks came on time, guys lived in good situations. Obviously it's a very different path than most people take, but I can't imagine a better preparation for this."
Fleming met his wife in Germany and the couple has three kids that were born there. He spent three years leading the German national team. So he had no plans to leave, that is, until a disappointing season in Bamberg arrived.
"Sometimes it takes getting fired to get you a new perspective on life," he said. "That's basically what happened. We hadn't planned on moving. We started exploring the possibility. I took that year, traveled a lot, watching practices, watching different coaches work and kind of feeling if I really wanted to do this."
Fleming used a European connection to land a job with the Denver Nuggets in 2015. When Atkinson got the head job with the Nets, Fleming joined his longtime friend.
Leaving that job wasn't really on his radar, either. After the Nets made the playoffs last season, Fleming was looking forward to more success. But the offer from the Bulls amounted to a promotion and Boylen was persistent.
"I met Jim in 2014, right after he won the championship with San Antonio. I was a guest coach for their summer league team. It was funny they just won the championship, everybody was gassed and stayed away. Jim was there every day. This guy had boundless energy.
"Jim's been great to work for. I love our staff. Everybody's very collaborative on how we do things. So I think we're building something good."
When you think about it, German efficiency should work well in an NBA offense.