Phoenix Suns coach Igor Kokoskov and Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder talk about their friendship that dates back 20 years ago.
Duane Rankin, Arizona Republic
SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Ingles greeted him after the game.
Then, Donovan Mitchell.
One by one, the Utah Jazz players and coaches hugged talked to the man who spent three years in Vivint Smart Home Arena helping the franchise get back to their traditional playoff residency: Igor Kokoskov.
“They wouldn’t have done that if we won the game,” Kokoskov joked. “Trying to be good guys. Tried to trick us. Sneaky.”
The Jazz still have much love for Kokoskov.
“He was a special guy when he was here,” Ingles said. “We loved having him here. He’s an unbelievable coach. Unbelievable person. So it was kind of weird seeing him on the other side tonight for the first time. He was with us a few years, but he’s a great guy, great coach.”
Kokoskov returned to the arena Wednesday filled with great memories and once again surrounded by those who knew him before he became the head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
“I appreciate it,” Kokoskov continued. “Very, very fortunate. The Jazz organization is very, very careful with what kind of character, what kind of people they’re bringing into the circle of this organization. Those guys, their locker room, it’s positive. Very positive. Nice guys. Nice people. Professionals and really dedicated to his team. Coachable.”
Although he’s no longer there, the Jazz still have Kokoskov’s back — and believe he’ll turn the Suns (11-44) around.
“Phoenix is lucky to have a guy like that who cares, who wants his team to win,” Ingles continued. “He’s a proven winner. He’s won pretty much wherever he’s been. I wish him all the best. He’s got a good young team over there once they get healthy. They’ll have options to do some stuff in the offseason, trades, whatever they’re going to do, but he’s an unbelievable coach and an unbelievable person.”
Jazz coach Quin Snyder gave Kokoskov his first college job at Missouri for the 1999-2000 season, making Kokoskov the first European-born assistant coach in NCAA history.
Before Wednesday’s game, Snyder took more than a moment to reminiscence about the first time he met Kokoskov, 47, when he took a visit to Duke in his second trip to the United States from Serbia.
“We really hit it off to the point where in my living room pivoting and trying to figure out how to teach certain things,” said Snyder, 52, who starred at Duke and coached under Mike Krzyzewski.
“He had this defense called Corsa. It’s a car. Kind of a car that has its issues. The idea of the defense was we were going to create so much havoc that no one would know what we were doing.”
Let Kokoskov explain.
“It’s a funny story,” he said. “It was basically a joke that whoever finds out what the coverage is defensively gets a reward, gets a new car. It was an internal joke as a staff. Whoever finds out what we’re in, we’ll get a prize.”
That initially meeting began led to Snyder hiring Kokoskov.
“At that point, we just hit it off to the extent that I was resolved at that point that if I got a chance to get a head job that I was going to try to call him and hire him,” Snyder said. “That kind of says it all right there after being with somebody for a couple of months.”
It also began a 20-year friendship that’s stronger than ever.
“It goes beyond basketball,” Kokoskov said. “I wouldn’t be here today. He brought me here to the United States. He gave me a job. He brought me to this country. Talk about an entrepreneur in this business, that’s Quin Snyder. He’s my life mentor. Not just basketball mentor. Changed my life.”
The two text frequently and spent time together before Wednesday’s game.
“I feel bad because since I took this job, I haven’t really had time to obviously see each other face to face and spend some quality time and talk to each other,” Kokoskov said. “I used the whole time basically apologize for not being a good friend. Should call him more often.”
Snyder has seen Kokoskov struggle in his first season, but knows he’s putting in the work to turn the Suns into a playoff team again. Kokoskov signed a three-year contract with the Suns in the offseason.
“When you’re building something, you don’t see progress always along the way,” Snyder said. “Things like habits. Just the character of the team in addition to all the fundamentals of the game that you believe in that you want to teach. Those things take time and to the extent that often times you don’t get the results that you want right away. I think it take persistence to continue to come in every day and work.
Snyder has seen that persistence in Kokoskov firsthand.
As he put it, “the lights were always off in the rest of the office and his light was on.”
“Eventually you start to see improvement in little things,” Snyder said. “Sometimes it’s not as much as you would’ve hoped. Sometimes it happens and then it goes backwards. You just can’t tell and then eventually you start to see the fruits of that labor and I think the players start to feel that. There’s no easy path. If there was, it wouldn’t be as rewarding.”
Snyder began that path as an NBA head coach with two losing seasons at Utah — 38-44 in 2014-15 and 40-42 in 2015-16. Kokoskov joined him that second season.
The third season with Snyder and Kokoskov proved to be the postseason charm for the Jazz.
Utah made the playoffs in 2016-17 with a 51-31 record and reached the Western Conference semifinals before losing to Golden State. The Jazz hadn’t won 50 games since 2009-10.
“He was huge for our group as a lead assistant, being that other guy with Coach Q,” Ingles said.
The Jazz made a second consecutive playoff appearance last season after going 48-34. They once again advanced to the conference semifinals where they lost to Houston.
“I was fortunate to be part of a winning organization,” Kokoskov said. “Being just fortunate to reunite with Quin Snyder and be back on his staff. Very structured. Very organized. Very solid organization overall. They know what they’re doing. The know what direction they’re going. I was just fortunate to be part of the group. This organization is very well oiled. They know what they’re doing. They know their path. I was fortunate to be part of it.”
Utah is on course to make it three consecutive postseason appearances. The Jazz are currently seventh in the West going into Friday’s games.
“They’re going to play their best basketball, and that’s proven, in the second half of the season,” Kokoskov said. “As the season goes on, they’re going to play better and better.”
Jazz backup point guard Raul Neto said Kokoskov should be given a great deal of credit for Utah reestablishing that winning formula.
“He’s a very intelligent, smart coach,” said Neto as Kokoskov worked with point guards while in Utah. “I think he was part of the process.”
After Wednesday’s game, the Jazz players and coaches, one by one, offered Kokoskov words of encouragement and showed their appreciation for the role he played in Utah’s resurgence.
And so, one by one, the Jazz players and coaches showed up to speak with Kokoskov after their game Wednesday.
“It shows the respect we got for him,” Neto said. “Like I said before, he’s a part of this team and a part of this process. I think everybody showed a lot of respect. Everybody respects him a lot as a coach and as a person.”