The Ohio State and Linden-McKinley hoops great talks about his basketball odyssey—and why he's back in Columbus.
Jim Cleamons has had an extraordinary basketball life.
The Columbus native won a state title with Linden-McKinley High School, a Big Ten title with Ohio State and an astounding 10 championships in the NBA (one as a player and nine as an assistant on Phil Jackson’s coaching staff for the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers). He played alongside legends like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain and coached legends like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s even spent time overseas, coaching in the Chinese Basketball Association, as well as in the American Basketball League, the pioneering professional women’s league. It’s been a career of extraordinary highs but also a few disappointments, including being passed over continually for head coaching jobs despite his enormous success as an assistant.
Now, Cleamons’ journey has brought him back to his hometown. For the past year or so, he and his wife, Cheryl, have been living on the East Side of Columbus. After spending parts of late 2019 and early 2020 serving as an NBA ambassador in Africa and Australia, Cleamons is back in Columbus and preparing for the next stage in his life. Which definitely isn’t retirement. “I’ve got too much energy to be retired,” says Cleamons, who turns 71 on Sunday. “I don’t ever want to consider myself retired.”
Earlier this week, Columbus Monthly spoke with Cleamons about his hoops odyssey, his recent homecoming and his plans for the future. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Why did you decide to come back to Columbus?
I spent the last 20-some years in California, and we’d always talked about not really living in California after I left the sport, and my wife, Cheryl, wanted me to feel comfortable after basketball. My family members and my close friends still live in the area, and so I think that was part of it. As we age, we’re going to do that gracefully, and enjoying people that are in my life. And so at this stage, Columbus satisfies a lot of those boxes.
Are you considering doing some more informal coaching locally, maybe at Ohio State or some of the high school teams?
I’m open to whatever comes my way if it’s going to help my cause. Now my cause has always been community based, even when I was a student at Ohio State. I enjoy working with young people and watching their games grow both on the floor and off the court because basketball is not who you are, it’s what you do. Basketball occupies about four, five hours of the day at most, and what you do with the rest of your life, that’s up to you. That’s the major message that I try to put out there.
You coached both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, perhaps the two greatest shooting guards ever. What was the difference between coaching them?
Just maturity. I got Kobe when it was his third year. I don’t know what his age was when we got him in ’99 to 2000. You can do the math on that. [Editor’s note: He was 21.]But Michael was a grown man. We got M.J. in his sixth year. Michael also played three years of collegiate basketball, won a national championship. Kobe had, what, a high school state title?
OK, I won a high school title, too, but I didn’t win an NCAA one. We got beat my senior year by Western Kentucky in overtime, and that haunts me to this day. That was the regional finals. We win that game, we go to the Final Four.
Was UCLA in your way, though?
They would have been, but so what? That was the challenge. Yeah. I wanted to play UCLA. I wanted to beat them.
One of the things that struck me about your coaching career is that you won all these championships with Phil Jackson, but you only got that one shot as a head coach in the NBA—just over a year with the Dallas Mavericks in 1996-97. Why was that the case?
That’s a wonderful question. If it’s not now, when?When I was young, they said I was too young. Now I guess I’m too old. I guess I’m like the jilted wife: I wasted all my good times teaching and winning championships, and I haven’t got a chance to put all this knowledge to use. I’m being facetious, but once again, you know, I don’t know what general managers are or were looking for. I mean, so be it.
Do you think race played a part?
I can’t go there. I’m like Popeye the sailor man. I am who I am.
At this stage in your life, do you find yourself looking back at your career, reflecting on what you’ve achieved?
I’m happy with the life that the Creator has blessed me with, and I’m the eternal optimist. The best is yet to come.
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