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Sean Marks talks coronavirus, ‘Kevin and Ky,’ legacies and Brooklyn grit

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Marks says every day he spends “seven or eight hours ... on Zoom chats” with players and staff, discussing draft picks, reviewing the team’s process and protocols —what makes up its culture, free agency. He says that the nine weeks since the NBA shut down has given him and the organization some needed time just to think. But he told Jeff Wilson, a legendary New Zealand rugby player and cricketer, there’s no substitute for what he calls “touch points.”

“I like to put my arm around people, share a cup of coffee. Those touch points are invaluable. “Now, we’re trying to do it over text or a Zoom conference, webinar and so forth. We’re all trying to figure out what the best medium is to still have this staff interaction and also the players.”

Marks noted there’s a fine balance between communicating with players in this time of crisis and pushing them too hard.

“You don’t want to bombard them, ‘I need this, I need this, I need that’ because I think because first and foremost every single person is going through this on an individual basis. So each of us is different. Each family is different. Their whereabouts, their situation is different. Do they have kids or not? Who’s living with them? And so forth. We’re trying to treat everyone as one family but at the same time, we have to cater to their individual needs.”

The 72-minute interview took place last week, broadcast on SkySport, a New Zealand outlet. It’s the longest and most wide-ranging of the seven interviews he’s done since the shutdown. Local reporters picked up on the New Zealand aspects of the interview, but most of the interview concerned the NBA and the Nets.

The Nets, he hopes, represent the borough in many different ways.

“There are two sides, the New Jersey Nets and the Brooklyn Nets. I've been part of the Brooklyn Nets for four years. And our story here sort of transcends what the Brooklyn borough is. It’s a working class borough. It’s got grit. It’s got fiber to it.

“And I think that’s where our team has come from. For our last four years, we’ve been able to hang our hats on. Look, we may not have been the most talented team. We may not have been a team with super high expectations but we’ve fought and clawed our way and everyone who comes into Barclays to play realizes they’re going to get a fight. The team is never giving up. They’ve got a sense of resilience and grit about them.

“The team has changed over time. You know obviously we’ve rotated the roster several times over the last four years trying to find those right pieces to put around each other and give ourselves a real shot at going far here. That’s what we’ve done so far here. So the next couple of years will be entertaining, to say the least. It certainly won’t be easy but at the same time you hope to carry forth that resilience and grit that got us here.”

Marks when asked if his team has a shot at the championship, offered a number of caveats and discussed so many things need to go right... and offered an example of how things can go awry.

“You’d have to have the humility and quite frankly the intelligence to realize that a lot of things have to fall into place for us to get there. As we saw, the Warriors may have been one Achilles away from winning another.”

There has to be uncertainty, he said, and some of that, naturally, is a result of the big changes that will come with the introduction of Durant ... and the re-introduction of Irving who only played 20 of 64 games.

“How does Kevin look when he comes back? I can tell you now he looks pretty damn good and I’m excited about him being on the floor at Barclays in front of that fan base. But how do they mesh? How do they play together? That’s the chess game, the intricacies of what a coaching staff does. What the management group does to put the right pieces around them. But it’s also about the ownership those players have, some taking a back seat, some saying now, it’s your game. Now, it’s your turn to shine, whatever it may be. So it will be an interesting journey. and part of it is embracing that journey.

That didn’t seem to bode well for a KD return this year. Sadly, there won’t be any more games played in Barclays Center. If the season comes back, games will be played at Walt Disney World, maybe Las Vegas.

As for whether stars should have outsized influence, Marks seemed to agree but within bounds.

“The players certainly have influence. I think you have to be very careful how much you give them and when you give them it. I don’t know if they all want autonomy over everything. They’ve got to trust your vision and talking to those guys I think they trust what we want to put out there and how we’re building this.

“We know there isn’t an immediate rush. There hasn’t been a rush the last four years. It’s about something systematic and well thought out. However, we now know we have Kyrie and Kevin and this group of players here. It’s going take more than those two. It’s gonna take a group that stays healthy. You have to have a little bit of luck involved here. We’ll see how it all meshes and how it unfolds.”

But Marks did talk at length about how KD and Kyrie are all about their “legacy,” having won championships already. Now it was time for something new, the challenge of the big market for KD, home for Kyrie.

“It’s about their legacy. That’s what these guys are fighting for now. If you talk to Kevin and Ky —Kevin’s won two championships, Ky’s won a championship— so now, it’s how do we make this ours, how do we take this to the next level. and who do we do it with? That’s a big part of their decisions. The players situation. They’re going to have a voice. It’s ‘hey I want to play with Caris LeVert and the other guys. Spencer Dinwiddie, the other guys on our team. Not to leave anybody out.”

He’s seen it before, Marks said, with the Spurs Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili when he won titles with them first as a player in 2007, then as an assistant coach seven years later.

“They’re playing for their legacy. The rest of us are playing for a great story. What an incredible opportunity. We may never get back here again but for a guy who’s been back there four or five times, they’re playing at a whole different level.”

In fact, he said, Durant told him after he signed that he had liked the idea of moving to New York to do something new with the Nets young core.

“As you saw, Kevin even announced it before we even had a conversation. He knew. ‘I’m coming to Brooklyn.’ When I talked to him about it, he told me, ‘I’ve been watching you guys for the last year or two. I’m interested in the market. I want to come there. I want to do something different. I like your young guys. I like these other players you have on your team which was a credit to THEM. And he liked the Brooklyn feel of how we were playing, how we were fighting for something. Now, those guys have ownership in this, which is great.

Durant of course also mentioned how much he liked Kenny Atkinson.

The stage in fact was set long before The Clean Sweep, Marks said. Players talk and the ones who played in Brooklyn talked Brooklyn up.

“First and foremost, what’s happening in the league now is that the world is so small and players talk all the time. You seem in their chat rooms, on their social media. They have friends throughout the league. We’re doing something right or maybe wrong but I can’t sell that the way the players are going to sell that.

“All the players and all the staff who’ve been through Brooklyn since we’ve been here, they’re the best selling point I could possibly have. When they speak to the media, and say, ‘Hey, I really enjoyed my time here in Brooklyn, this is what they did. My game improved, my family loved it.’ THAT sells what we do. They’re selling our vision. They’re selling the empathy we bring towards players and so forth. So, the decision was really made by Kevin and Kyrie. When they’re sitting here, saying, ‘I’m in, I want to come there,’ that’s great for us too because they have ownership in that. I don’t know how much selling I actually did.”

A lot of the Nets success, Marks told Wilson, is about never being unprepared and getting everyone to buy in.

“I trust in the work that we’re doing, in the processes and protocols that are in place and I know if we’re being extremely thorough in our preparation to draft player x or to sign player y, whatever it may be then I can sleep at night. I don’t get a whole lot of sleep but I can still sleep at night. I’m not going to worry long term.

“I’m going to trust the people I’ve hired to help us all get through this together. They all have ownership in this. one thing I think that’s a little unique is that everyone who came to Brooklyn with me left a great job. I left the best job in the NBA, assistant general manager to R.C. Buford in San Antonio. That’s pretty cool. So now to try this on my own, I asked everyone else to do the same, to leave a position and come here. Now they have ownership in the success of us.”

Part of that “ownership,” he added, should be translated into player-driven initiatives,

“Good teams had a unique bond where you’d get into a city where somebody had arranged dinner. ‘hey dinner here, we’re all going. Who wants to go.’ It wasn’t mandatory but it was player-driven, player-led. I think the great teams that’s what it’s about. As much as the GM or the coach or the trainer can say, ‘hey guys, we got this restaurant, we got this sorted out for you.’ You can say, yes, lead the horse to water, but it becomes great when it becomes player led and when they take that responsibility,”

That preparation and ownership, he added, extends to ... ownership. He offered insights into what Mikhail Prokhorov’s specific focus, the implications ownership must consider when a big deal is at hand, how Clara Wu Tsai is also part of the decision-making process

“I’m very fortunate. I had Mikhail Prokhorov as our first owner, Russian oligarch, and it was great to pick his brain on a variety of different things. Really negotiating tactics. I loved talking to him about that, which was terrific. He was very much involved in the performance side of things, the fitness of our playrs. So that was great. And he empowered me to run it the way we did. He liked the vision we set out for and the results. He could see those coming.

“And he sold basically a year ago to Joe Tsai. So now, between Joe Tsai and his family, his wife Clara, they run the Nets from an ownership standpoint and they’ve been great. I’m looking at an incredible businessman in Joe Tsai and what kind of things I can learn from him.

“I think it’s important to empower the ownership group and talk to them about what you’re doing. They don’t like being surprised just like I don’t want to be surprised. SO I try to give them as much in-depth knowledge going into a draft or going into a free agency as I can. I’ll preface this by telling them that ‘Look, this may not happen,’ but this is where we want to go. If you want to hold me to this because you’re going to have to wrap your head around spending $50 million here or $10 million here or whatever it may be ... We’re talking big numbers.”

Asked if he’s as competitive as a GM as he was a player, Marks admitted he was and his staff knows it.

“The group that I work with knows how competitive I am and knows they are empowered to be the very best at what they do. I mean, I want my analytics crew to go out and source everything they possibly can. They need to master that, be the best they possibly can be, that there’s nothing holding them in their away. If they want to go do a conference, I’ll send them. If they need more of whatever it may be, nothing should get in the way to hinder their development.

“I think we should all carry that chip on their shoulder. We should all sit there and say, ‘golly why did the Lakers beat us to that or why did the Knicks beat us to this’ or ‘we didn’t see this coming’ or ‘We weren’t prepared for that.’ I don’t ever want to be sitting in that situation and going, ‘we weren’t prepared for that’ or ‘that caught us by surprise.’ So yeah, not only do I have to be competitive but my group has to. We push each other and I’m certainly only going to be as good as my group. That includes coaching staff, performance staff, scouts worldwide who are going to push us, hopefully, to have the success that’s going to come.”

He also offered insights to Wilson about how he got the job, how the Nets search committee, organized by then ONEXIM Sports president Irina Pavlova, came after him.

“I was asked to come in and interview for the role. i believe there was eight of us who got an interview for this. I was in the room. I think there was a total of six people in the room —our previous owners and so forth— and they ask you every question, ‘What’s your vision for the team, How would you go about that.’ You’re also interviewing them, too. You’re saying, ‘Hey look, I want this job but tell me the role you play in this. But it is a partnership here.’ I’m very fortunate to have had two sets of great owners, great partners in that.”

Among the other candidates who were interviewed were Bryan Colangelo who later worked as 76ers’ GM; Dan Ferry, who had Hawks GM; Gerson Rosas, who’s now the Timberwolves GM; Arturas Karnishovas, now the Bulls GM; Frank Zanin, then the Nets assistant GM and now the Knicks assistant GM for scouting.

Marks also talked about how his playing career as journeyman prepared him for his job. Marks holds the NBA record for fewest minutes played in a career lasting 10 years or longer.

“I think you have to know your role. As much as I would love to say, ‘Hey, I think I should be starting, I think I should be doing this,’ I got to come to terms with there are 10 other guys out there better than me.

“So what do i need to do in order to help this team, help those guys whether it’s being a practice buddy and a dummy for those guys, that’s great and I’ve got to embrace that role and do everything I possibly can. I’ll not be a distraction. I’ll be a team player ... all the cliches and so forth.

“You’re often a sounding board. You’re a practice dummy for a guy but you’re also the guy he’ll come vent to you. And sometimes you just have to be there for the guys. it’s not enough for everybody. Some people want more and that’s where they bounce around and find a place where they’re getting more. Ultimately for me, my journey was a roller coaster ride and it was one I definitely didn’t want to get off, right.”

“That was my game. That was my game. I didn’t get to be on TNT but I got to play against Shaq in practice. You embrace it. you enjoy the heck out of it.”