New Bulls assistant coach Chris Fleming took road less traveled


To be successful, sometimes you have to fail.

Chris Fleming might not have delved into coaching unless the owner of his team in Germany hadn’t told him he wasn’t cutting it as a player anymore.

And the Bulls’ new lead assistant coach might not be in the NBA if he hadn’t been fired following a very successful run in Germany.

“I played in Germany for six years,” said Fleming, a college teammate of Nets coach Kenny Atkinson at Richmond. “Our team couldn’t get from the German second to first division. I had torn my ACL. The owner basically said, ‘I don’t think you have it anymore. But I think you’d be all right as a coach.’ Germans are honest, right?

“I still wanted to play. But the owner basically said you can play somewhere else or coach here. It was kind of a blessing.”

At the tender age of 30, with only youth coaching on his resume, Fleming dived into his new profession. One player he coached was older than him.

Some moments he got stuck, he’d call coaches he respected for advice. Others, he’d wing it, learning on the fly.

“It was a really small town,” Fleming said of Quakenbrück. “It felt like coaching a high school team in some ways. I knew what I didn’t want to do as a coach. I had to figure out what I did want to do.”

With his team playing in the second division, he’d attend practices of teams playing in the first division. Fleming wanted to soak up as much information as he could because he quickly discovered he loved the job.

“I thought I could be a coach at a higher level than I could be a player at. I liked the competition of it,” he said. “One of the tough things about as your career is winding down is missing being part of a team. I love being in that atmosphere and being part of a group of guys who move forward and develop together.”

Fleming began developing a reputation as a strong communicator and teacher with offensive acumen. His success led to getting hired by Brose Bamberg, which he led to four German League championships and with whom he earned a Coach of the Year honor. He met his wife and started a family, embracing his adopted country.

In fact, Fleming turned down an offer to join the Nuggets’ staff in 2012. With his family content and his staff filled with not only coaches he respected but friends, the future seemed promising.

Until it wasn’t.

“We had won four championships in a row. And when we didn’t win it, we got canned,” Fleming said of the 2014 move. “There was an ownership change, and I knew something might happen.

“It was a really good experience retrospectively for me to go through that stress and think about how I managed it with the team. I had a chance to step back and assess everything. I traveled and saw a lot of different coaches working, both in the NBA and EuroLeague.”

One of those coaches was Jim Boylen.

Before getting hired by the Nuggets in 2015, Fleming spent time with the Spurs at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

“They were coming off a championship. Everybody was gassed — except that guy,” Fleming said of Boylen. “He was there every day wired and ready to go. He couldn’t wait to coach summer league guys. It was impressive.”

Fleming spent one season with the Nuggets and also landed the German national team job. He coached Dirk Nowitzki at the 2015 European championships and Dennis Schroder and Chris Kaman at the 2017 European championships.

“I’m still very proud of it. I have the jersey hanging in my office here,” Fleming said. “I grew up basketball-wise in Germany. They gave me the chance to work. I knew the process and what the strengths of the country are. I had a pretty clear vision of what needed to happen.

“I’m still very connected to the program. It’s a tough experience to explain to somebody who hasn’t been a part of that. But it really is a family. People are there for completely different reasons than they might be in a professional setting, even though they’re professionals. It’s maybe my most fun experience I’ve had in basketball.”

It’s also where Tomas Satoransky, playing for his Czech Republic national team, first came across Fleming.

“He’s very passionate. He’s very into details. I like that,” Satoransky said. “He has great patience. And I think it’s helpful that he was in Europe so he understands what he wants from me. He’s been helping me with my offense. He’s a good teacher. You could see that from his time in Brooklyn.”

Indeed, in 2016, Fleming joined Atkinson’s Nets staff to help teach a young team and build culture. Other than the promotion to lead assistant, it’s a big reason why the Bulls’ job opportunity resonated.

“One of the first things (executive vice president) John (Paxson) said to me was, ‘I believe in fundamental basketball.’ And that’s really what I believe in. We’re very aligned on that,” Fleming said. “Jim and I spent great time together on my initial visit. And the roster is one I believed in when I looked at video and did my research.”

Asked what his offensive philosophy is, Fleming offered a ready answer.

“I want the players to play confidently. I want them to play from a solid, fundamental foundation. I think it’s as easy as that,” he said. “Different teams need a little bit different things. But spacing fundamentals are simple.

“Whose habits are the best? Can you do it a second time, third time? Can you do it in the fourth quarter like you did in the first quarter? That’s the challenge. It’s less so about reinventing the wheel. It’s more about: Are their habits good enough to play with confidence?”

The Bulls are confident they’ve added a bright coach in Fleming.

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