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Blazers Ociepka has a mob of lessons

Assistant coach makes some readers an offer they can't refuse
by:  Bob Ociepka

Bob Ociepka knows basketball. The man has been a coach for more than four decades, since graduation from Quincy (Ill.) College in 1970. He has made 11 stops with 10 teams (Detroit twice) during a 22-year voyage as an NBA assistant coach, joining on with the Trail Blazers this season.

Ociepka, 62, knows mobster movies, too. He has seen virtually all of them, beginning with James Cagney flicks of the '30s to the present.

In 2008, Ociepka and his cousin, Bruno Ociepka, co-authored a book, 'Minestrone for the Mobster's Soul: Life Lessons from the Movie Mafia.'

'It's a book you can't refuse,' Ociepka says on a commercial for the book produced by the Timberwolves when he was coaching in Minnesota, one that can be seen now on You Tube. (The book is available on amazon.com.)

Ociepka is a native of Chicago who grew up on the city's West Side in the 1950s and '60s, not far from old Chicago Stadium. He wrote the book with the intention of being motivational, with teachings of morality, friendship, loyalty, justice and all the good things that protagonists of the gangster movies have to offer.

The story line is of a boy and his cousin growing up in Chicago in the '50s and '60s. Autobiographical?

'I can't admit to that,' Ociepka says. 'I don't know if the statute of limitations has run out.

'Some of it I was involved in. Some of it my friends experienced. Some of it we embellished. There's truth in every story, but we took poetic license to fit the lesson we were teaching.'

Did Ociepka ever get in trouble as a kid?

'A little bit,' he admits. 'Growing up in the city, you had to hold your own. Had to battle for what was yours.'

In the book, Ociepka is Bobby Madura, his cousin is Joey DiBruno. Other names are fictionalized, too.

'We changed the names to protect the innocent and, in many cases, the guilty,' Ociepka says with a chuckle. 'We didn't want to get clipped.

'We used the stories to get our point across and used quotes from the movies to back up the lessons.'

The project took about seven years to come to fruition. The idea started when Ociepka was coaching in Cleveland about a decade ago.

He found out that Cavalier center Zydrunas Ilgauskas learned how to speak English by watching mobster movies.

'I was a fan, too, and so was the strength coach (Stan Kellers), so we were going into the weight room throwing out quotes from movies back and forth,' Ociepka says. 'At some point, I talked with my cousin about how there are a lot of lessons in those movies that people should use in their daily lives. Finally, it was, 'Let's write a book on it.' '

Ex-Blazer Jerome Kersey - an assistant with Ociepka in Milwaukee - introduced him to a Hollywood writer.

'That meeting helped us immensely,' Ociepka says. 'We were using quotes and lessons and so on, but he said, 'You have to personalize it, tell some stories of your lives to get people to understand the point you're trying to make.'

'When he said that, it threw us in totally different direction. That turned the book into a fun read.'

Royko didn't use a glove

Chicago is a tough town, and there's some tough-guy talk in the book, including a scene where they play softball with '16-inch Clinchers.'

'In Chicago, they play with a bigger softball, 16-inch instead of 12-inch,' Ociepka explains. 'And they don't use gloves. (Former Chicago newspaper columnist) Mike Royko's famous line was, 'If you're going to wear gloves, you might as well let them wear bras, too.'

'So there were a lot of broken fingers and so on. Not many places like Chicago.'

After the book was written, Timberwolves Broadcasting helped him put together the near-five-minute commercial, with Ociepka, sporting a trimmed mustache and natty gangster attire, reprising Marlon Brandon's role in 'The Godfather' to a T.

'They put it on the big screen between quarters of a game in Minnesota,' Ociepka recalls. 'When (The Godfather) music started, I knew it was coming.

'(Head coach) Randy Wittman was in the huddle, talking during the timeout, but the eyes of all the players were up on the screen. I guess you could say we were distracted.'

Included in the book is the Ociepkas' list of the top 100 mobster movies of all-time. ('Watched every movie on the list,' he says. 'Drove my wife crazy, but it was fun.')

Ociepka has given copies to a couple of fellow Portland assistants, but to none of the Portland players or head coach Nate McMillan.

'I haven't read the book, but I'm sure I know every line in it,' McMillan says, laughing. 'That stuff is all he talks about. He can give you every line from every mob movie. If you didn't know him and sat down and listened to him talk, you'd know he was from Chicago. He's amazing.'

Ociepka was 40 and already 18 years into a successful career coaching high school ball in the Chicago area when he was hired to Dick Versace's staff with the Indiana Pacers in 1989. Ociepka's first job had been as an assistant under Versace at Gordon Tech High in Chicago. The other assistant was Tony Barone, player personnel director and former head coach in Memphis.

'I was blessed in having an opportunity to be with two guys who were really going places,' Ociepka says.

When Versace became an assistant to Chuck Daly in Detroit, he hooked up Ociepka up to serve as a volunteer scout. A couple of years later, when Versace was named coach of the Pacers, he hired Ociepka as a full-time assistant.

Twenty-two years later, Ociepka may have a record for most stops by an NBA assistant. Besides Portland and Detroit, he has coached with Indiana, the L.A. Clippers, Philadelphia, Orlando, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minnesota and Chicago.

The best job?

'This one,' he says quickly. 'The second-best would be Chicago. After all those years, I finally got to go back home to the Bulls (with Vinny Del Negro).'

Del Negro was fired at the end of last season after a pair of 41-41 campaigns and two first-round playoff eliminations.

'I was disappointed in the way it finished,' Ociepka says, 'but I'm lucky to be in Portland. I love the atmosphere here, the support of the administration, the coaching staff and the way everybody works together without egos.

'And working for Nate. Of the 16 coaches I've worked for, he's the best. I'm not just saying that. He always knows what to say, how to say it and when to say it.

'Coaches have told me in the past you can't have 82 pep talks a season, that the players have to get themselves ready sometimes at this level. Well, Nate has had 82-plus - one for every game, one for every one of the playoffs and numerous ones in between. It's been a tremendous learning experience for me, watching him do his thing.'

'Labor of love'

McMillan hired Ociepka in part because he reminded him of an assistant coach during his playing days in Seattle, Bob Kloppenburg.

'In our interview, I just liked Bob's intensity,' McMillan says. 'He was a guy who paid attention and wanted to work at the defensive end of the floor, and what I was running, he was running, it seemed.'

Ociepka downplays his role with the Blazer defense.

'Nate knows what he wants,' he says. 'I can have input; the rest of the staff can have input. That's why I say this is my favorite stop. It's our defense, not my defense.'

For now, Ociepka is 100 percent focused on helping the Blazers advance in the playoffs. After the season, he'll get back to what he calls 'my labor of love.' Ociepka and his cousin - retired and living in Asheville, N.C. - are trying to write a screenplay off their book.

'Jerome's guy said he thought there was movie potential,' Ociepka says. 'During the season, I don't have any time to deal with it. In the summer, we'll put some thought to it.

'It's something we're going to tackle, I think. But to get it from book to screenplay to movie is a long process. You have to get somebody to buy in and have interest.'