August 19, 2018
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UMaine ties that bind: Former basketball standout savors NBA grind

John E. Sokolowski | USA Today Sports
John E. Sokolowski | USA Today Sports
Mar 21, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Jim Boylen (second left), a former standout at the University of Maine, is now an assistant head coach under Fred Hoiberg (left) with the NBA's Chicago Bulls. Boylen's ties to UMaine and the state have helped him enjoy a long, successful coaching career. John E. Sokolowski | USA TODAY Sports
By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff
Updated:

It was 13 hours before game time on Tuesday, but Jim Boylen had little time to celebrate his 52nd birthday.

The 1987 University of Maine graduate, the associate head coach of the Chicago Bulls, was busy before 7 a.m. generating a video from their previous game for the team to watch at its breakfast gathering in preparation for Game 2 of its National Basketball Association playoff series against the Boston Celtics.

“The playoffs are about adjustments,” said Boylen, who has spent nearly 20 years on NBA sidelines. “If you win game one you’re always in that dilemma of, do you stay pat with that game plan or do you try to make an adjustment thinking about maybe their adjustments? That chess match started after the first game and continues through the rest of the series.

“That’s the fun part. You don’t want to overdo it, you don’t want to do things you haven’t done for 82 games. But is there a little tweak, a little something that can get you an extra possession, because we say possessions are like gold at this time of year.”

Boylen and the eighth-seeded Bulls hoped to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series after scoring a 106-102 victory Sunday at TD Garden.

“We have so much respect for the Celtics that I thought (Game 1) established with our guys that we can play with them, that we belong in this playoff and that we’re going to compete as hard as we can,” said Boylen.

Boylen’s coaching career includes being part of three NBA championship staffs — at Houston in 1994 and 1995 and at San Antonio in 2014.

But if not for his journey from his native East Grand Rapids, Michigan, to UMaine, Boylen might have taken a different career path.

He grew up longing to play for Michigan State, where his father played football.

“I took a visit there and they did not offer me a scholarship, but (then-MSU basketball coach) Jud Heathcote said, ‘I heard the University of Maine’s looking at you, that would be a great place for you,’” recalled Boylen.

Boylen arrived at UMaine in the fall of 1983 and became a two-year captain as well as a first-team All-North Atlantic Conference guard and as a senior was runner-up for league MVP honors to former Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis of Northeastern.

“I’m really thankful for the guys I played with there,” he said. “I loved my experience at Maine. Obviously I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t gone there.”

One of Boylen’s UMaine highlights came at Michigan State’s expense.

Coach Skip Chappelle had arranged for a home-and-home series against the Spartans, who scored an 89-58 victory at East Lansing, Michigan, to open the 1985-1986 season. A year later, UMaine rebounded from a season-opening loss to the Division III University of Southern Maine with an equally shocking 84-81 victory over Michigan State at the Bangor Auditorium.

“It was a fun time,” said Boylen, who contributed 19 points and eight assists to the upset.

“I was just happy for our guys that we were able to get the win.”

Boylen went to Michigan State as a graduate assistant after graduating from UMaine and then was an assistant coach during a five-year span that included the Spartans’ 1990 Big Ten Conference championship.

An opportunity to coach in the former Southern California Summer Pro Basketball League in 1991 heightened his interest in the professional game. Then, a chance meeting with another Maine connection a few months later led to Boylen realizing that dream.

Boylen and longtime NBA coach John Killilea, then player personnel director for the Houston Rockets, were scouting next to each other at a Furman-Dayton game in Ohio in December 1991.

“The game goes on and he gives me his card at halftime and introduced himself and we started talking and he says, ‘Where did you go to college?’ and I said the University of Maine,” Boylen recalled.

“‘Did you play for Skip Chappelle?’ he asked, and I said, ‘Yeah, I sure did.’

“Then he said, ‘Do you know who Skip Chappelle’s high school coach was?’ I said, ‘No sir, I don’t,’’ and he said, ‘I was.’

“So the game ended and he said he loved the way I worked at it and said I seemed to have a passion for it,” Boylen added. “He said if you ever want to come to the NBA you call me.”

Boylen began an 11-year association with the Rockets the next season as video coordinator and later was an assistant coach under Rudy Tomjanovich, a tenure that continued until Tomjanovich retired in 2003.

Boylen then spent a year each with Golden State and Milwaukee before returning to Michigan State as an assistant under Tom Izzo in 2005 to be closer to his ailing father.

Boylen became head coach at the University of Utah in 2007 and in his second season guided the Utes to the Mountain West Conference championship to earn a five-year contract extension.

Two years later, Boylen was fired after a second straight sub-.500 campaign.

“I loved the college level, there’s nothing like having your own program and I loved the college kids,” he said. “There’s no sour grapes, that’s the business we chose and those things happen.”

Boylen returned to the NBA as an assistant with Indiana for two years before spending two seasons with San Antonio. The Spurs reached the NBA Finals in 2013 and won it all a year later.

“Those years when you hang a banner are really rewarding because those banners are there forever,” he said.

Now in his second year under Bulls’ head coach Fred Hoiberg, Boylen’s responsibilities include coordinating the defense, part of the game that takes on heightened importance during the playoffs.

“Since the all-star break we’re third in the league in DER (defensive efficiency rating),” he said. “It’s exciting to see your team get better at that end of the floor because defense and rebounding travel. I think you saw an example of that Sunday night.”

Boylen credits his defensive acumen to working with the likes of Izzo, Tomjanovich, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and former Indiana coach Frank Vogel, who is now with the Orlando Magic.

“But I learned as much from Skip Chappelle as any of those guys,” said Boylen. “Skip was great at having you think like a basketball player. He always used to tell me to never get out of my stance, to stay in my stance and be thinking about the next play.

“A lot of things I learned from Skip I talk about today with our guys.”

While Boylen is comfortable coaching back in the Midwest, he is not without further ambition.

“I’d love to be a head coach in the NBA,” he said. “I’m very happy here, very thankful to be a Bull and for my role. I get to teach, I get to coach and that’s really what I love doing. I have a lot of gratitude for where I’m at and what I’m doing, but if the next door opens I’d love to walk through it.

“If it doesn’t, I’m going to keep grinding at what I’m doing. That’s how I’ve always done it.”


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