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UP coach keeps NBA at bay

Michael Holton sticks to his Pilots, rebuffing two offers to go to the pros

Given the choice between the NBA and college, Michael Holton would pick the NBA.

We're not talking coaching. He made that decision in the offseason, choosing to stay at the University of Portland rather than take either of two NBA assistant jobs offered to him. A magnanimous decision, you could call it, because his salary would have jumped tremendously.

We're talking television.

'If there's an NBA game on and a college game on, I'm going to watch the NBA game every time,' says Holton, who played six years in the NBA and then parts of four seasons in the CBA before becoming a coach. His third season with the Pilots starts Nov. 21 at home against Boise State.

'I respect the NBA for its high level of basketball,' he says. 'It's the bigger part of the fabric of who I am as a basketball mind. I operate at that speed and continually have to slow down because, with a college kid, there's a lot more teaching involved.'

But, when Larry Brown, his former coach at UCLA and longtime mentor, called and asked Holton to be on his staff with the Detroit Pistons, Holton said no, thanks.

'I've tried to hire him a number of times,' Brown says. 'I admire the heck out of him. He's a great young coach. He felt his job there wasn't finished. I admire that.'

Former Blazer teammate and friend Terry Porter, hired this year as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, tried to recruit Holton as an assistant. After 24 hours of deliberating, Holton said no thanks.

'Yeah, I was kind of surprised,' Porter says. 'But, I'm happy with the decision he made.'

Holton, 42, wants to build something of his own. The Pilots won six games in his first year, the highlight being an upset of Elite Eight-bound Oregon. They won 11 games last year, including an out-of-nowhere win at West Coast Conference power Gonzaga.

Since he arrived on the Bluff, Holton has been deflecting questions about the Portland job being his steppingstone. He served as an assistant at UP (1994-95) and Oregon State (1995-96) and then under Steve Lavin for five years at UCLA, where he helped the Bruins attract some of the country's top recruiting classes and make the NCAA Tournament every year.

Holton, who is married with three children, does not deny an interest in coaching in the NBA some day.

'I think about it, down the road, 10 years,' he says. 'My endgame has been to get to the highest level.

'But I'm ideally suited to be a college coach. I'm in a giving-back stage right now. I want to have an impact on others. It's a good fit for me at Portland, because I coach family values. You can be a basketball family at this level.'

Adopting rules to play by

UP Athletic Director Joe Etzel says Holton has attracted better players, such as Donald Wilson, Eugene Jeter, Dreshawn Vance and Marcus Lewis, Wednesday's signee. Holton hasn't raised expectations, though, because Etzel's expectations were not very high when he signed the coach to a five-year deal 'to get the job done.'

Get the job done, meaning what?

'Being competitive in the top half of the conference, and either winning it or being right there,' Etzel says. 'Gonzaga's set the mark awfully high. It's a national program. But I think we have the ingredients Ñ great facility, fine academic institution, campus Ñ to get the job done.'

In the first year, Holton wanted to establish an uptempo playing style and camaraderie. The second year, he wanted the Pilots to improve. The third year, 'I'd like to think we're poised to take a significant step forward,' he says.

The Pilots have a good set of guards with Wilson, Jeter, Adam Quick and senior Casey Frandsen and some role-playing frontcourt players in Dustin Geddis, Patrick Galos and Andreas Gahlmann. Holton went to Australia and landed 6-9 Chris Jackson and touted the addition of Vance, an electric 6-8 player, and added depth with three more perimeter recruits.

Brown, who has more than 1,200 career victories as a college and pro coach, has been Holton's greatest influence, even beyond UCLA legend John Wooden. Brown has 'anointed me as part of his family tree,' Holton says, and the two get together with about 20 other coaches and executives every year for a coaches' retreat.

Holton espouses Wooden's and Brown's longtime mantras of tough defense, unselfish play, playing hard and having fun. If you don't follow the rules, you don't play.

'Coach Brown challenged me,' Holton says. 'He says, 'What are you doing to move this game forward? It almost brought tears to my eyes.' '

Holton also attends the NBA's pre-draft camp and the Sacramento Kings' training camp. He keeps his network active.

Brown and his brother, former Blazer assistant Herb Brown, have attended Holton's practices. So has Porter. Holton once brought Baron Davis, the former UCLA player he recruited who now plays for the New Orleans Hornets, to a team dinner.

Starters start winning over coach

Holton says the UP administration has rarely said no to his requests for money, although Etzel says the budget has only gone up through inflation. The Pilots went to the Bahamas for an offseason set of five games in mid-October. The trip also allowed them to practice 10 times before other teams did, an expensive and time-consuming commitment, Holton says.

Holton still plays basketball with the Pilots, sometimes in the 'Championship Series,' a best-of-seven series with the backups as his teammates. He always schools his players, although his starters now get the best of his team.

Holton makes his point about sharing the basketball with teammates. 'Depending on how much I get the ball, playing time has been won or lost in The Championship Series,' he muses.

Holton played in the NBA, a feat the Pilot players admire. 'He's done 'it,' ' assistant coach Rich Wold says. 'It gives you a lot of credibility with kids. I know we sell the head coach to recruits.'

The credentials even impress Larry Brown Ñ still.

'Michael can be successful anywhere,' Brown says. 'Players like him, he works hard, has great rapport and great knowledge.

'He can always come back and work for me. But I think he deserves an opportunity to build something there. He realizes he has to prove himself at Portland.'

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..