By: David Barr special to The Sports Rabbi
On a typical day in March, Ryan Pannone is getting his Erie BayHawks in the G-League (NBA development league) ready for another game as the season heads down the stretch. Today though, for basketball and life in general – nothing is typical. Instead of scouting an opponent or drawing up sets, Pannone and his family are all headed to his home state of Florida to visit for a while. Everything is in limbo.
“That’s exactly where we are in limbo,” said the former two-time Hapoel Jerusalem assistant coach. “All of our players and staff have gone back home. We can’t make them go to the gym and work out so of course we hope they are staying in shape if the season does resume at some point.”
For some, this break has been a reminder of what basketball means to them. For Pannone, he can do basketball 365/24/7. His basketball career has seen him live in China, Germany, Israel, Slovenia and South Korea. Israel though holds a special place in his and his family’s hearts.
“Fortunately, both of my stints in Israel were with Hapoel Jerusalem. I got to work for a high-level organization, and I got to work for two really high-level coaches. Simone Pianigiani took teams to Euroleague Final Fours and was the head coach of Fenerbahce, the Italian national team and is the all-time winningest coach in the history of Italian basketball. Then working for Oded Katash who is a legendary Israeli player, won the Euroleague while playing for Panathinaikos and then obviously had a career transition to being a coach and I think what he’s been able to win consistently while not having the biggest budget. As a coach he has been amazing.”
As with every coach – you take a little bit from everyone you’ve been influenced by as an assistant or player and make that your own, “I was able to learn two totally different styles of play between the two coaches. Simone’s philosophies are more four out – one in spacing and Oded’s philosophies more three out – two in. So, I was able to learn two very different styles of play, which helped prepare me for being a head coach in Europe (BC Prievidza in Slovenia in between his Hapoel stints) and a head coach in the G League.”
That was before Pannone made the trip with his family back to the States to become the head coach of the expansion Erie BayHawks in the G League (NBA developmental league) for the New Orleans Pelicans. The parent club has much more influence on style of play and what they want to get accomplished. At the end of the day – it is all about development.
“Losing is tough and something that you never want to get used to but now, we are in the development business. You have two-way players who are under contract with the Pelicans and then you have players that fill out the roster who New Orleans and we believe can help at some point in the future. If we lose but are getting better – I can live with that. You know your goal is to just compete as hard as you can improve throughout the year and do the best job that you can, and not finish last and fortunately we didn’t finish last week finished third from last. The goal this year with so many first-year players was to do as good as we can, try to establish a culture, develop the foundation and then improve next year. And so, I feel like we were able to accomplish some of that, maybe not at the level that we hope. But we were able to accomplish it.”
The biggest transition for Pannone has been style of play, player mentality and how he is able to teach the valuable lessons learned around the world combining that with what his parent club in New Orleans wants to do to prepare players to play on the NBA’s big stage.
“Our main style of play is the Pelican sets used by Alvin Gentry (New Orleans head coach) so we run their main offense, their main system. They want to play very fast, very high pace shooting a lot of threes. It’s tough though because there are times throughout the G League season where what you are trying to run doesn’t always fit with the players you have from top to bottom of the roster. But you’re working on building the synergy between us and the parent club whereas in Europe, sets have to suit your specific team otherwise you won’t win games and you’ll get fired.
So, I use a combination of everything that I have learned along with what coach Gentry is doing at the NBA level. We have times where we have two bigs on the floor that aren’t really stretch bigs so I can introduce some of the concepts that Oded had. Then we play off them with a stretch four and the pick and roll spacing that Simone wanted. He was an excellent teacher of space and the movement and the pick and roll which is the main system and balance that the Pelicans want and then I try to put my own flavor and twist on them. I’m fortunate that New Orleans has encouraged me to run my own sets and philosophies along with their own. The G League style of play is totally different from the European style of play. In Europe, you’ll see longer sets with continuous movement to where it’s not just ball movement it’s player movement to shift the defense, and to create the advantage. In the G League, you’re running quicker sets, you know it’s a little bit quicker pace.”
It has been an advantage for Pannone with all that he learned in Israel and other European/Asian stops that New Orleans has a very Euro flavor with Gentry and general manager Trajan Langdon whose playing career with CSKA Moscow and others was one of the best in Euro history.
“David Griffin (Pelicans team president) hired David Blatt when he was in Cleveland and then Alvin Gentry in New Orleans. Gentry is one of the big believers in the European style of play as coaches in the NBA. I am very fortunate that they hired me they took a chance on me. They were searching out for an American International coach that has European experience and that’s definitely the goal now in order to have that style of play in the G League you’ve got to have specific kinds of players that fit that style of play. This year was a little bit harder for us. We didn’t get to play the exact style that I was hoping we’d be able to play this season but hopefully next year we’ll be able to.
Outside of basketball, Pannone, his wife Sarah and their two children have Israel and their time there ever present in their hearts and thoughts. Those experiences have helped shape Pannone as a man, father and husband.
“Growing up, my family never traveled much. I was ignorant and arrogant about the rest of the world. There are things that I’ve taken away from Israeli culture and their society that I believe would make America a better place. I’m a Christian and obviously the religious and biblical backgrounds of Jerusalem in Israel are amazing but then their culture, you know, growing up in America, Sunday dinners were a big thing. I grew up in a divorced family, but Sunday dinners were a big thing and I think nowadays that’s kind of gone away for whatever the reason. One of the things I loved the most in Israel was the Shabbat dinner. You know, every Friday people drive two, three even four hours to be with their family for Shabbat dinner and the emphasis on family. The love of their country is another huge takeaway for us. There are multiple times throughout the year where everyone has got the Israeli flag on their car and their house and the way that they sing the national anthem for their sporting events will just give you goosebumps and I think the pride that they have in their country the pride that they have in their family and even the Orthodox Jews, can’t help but respect their commitment to the lifestyle that they’re living. I think obviously Israel there’s no place like it in the world, and specifically Jerusalem. There is no other Jerusalem in the world.”
The other very unique aspect of life in Israel is its love of sport…primarily basketball. “It was awesome! The first season there we won the Winner League title; we won the preseason cup and we went to the EuroCup semifinals averaging like 9000 fans. It was amazing. I mean how loud the fans get how engaged they are. It’s like college sports on steroids. Duke – North Carolina or Kentucky – Louisville yeah those are crazy, but you know we would play Maccabi Tel Aviv and there would be fights in the stands and straight brawls, and it was such an amazing experience to be able to witness that. That year we had multiple games where we were down. 12 or 15 points we’re in the fourth quarter and then the fans would begin singing. They have a song for when you’re down to bring you energy and we were able to come back and win. There were so many times throughout the seasons there. It’s just the way that the fans are. The songs they sing how engaged they are it just gives you chills even now just talking about it gives me goosebumps so you’re just sitting and you’re like is this real now, and the passion and love obviously for being such a small country I mean the league is great – support is great. The fans are great, and the rivalries are crazy!”