Life undoubtedly will change for the Staples-Motley High School graduate but I don’t expect being promoted to head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association (NBA) is going to change the type of person that DJ is.
I’ve known him since he was a standout for S-M boys basketball and tennis teams in the early 1990s. Despite the success he experienced at S-M, as well as at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM), and in the minor leagues as a coach and general manager, there is one memory of DJ that I will never forget.
It’s a memory that indicates the class of the individual that the Grizzlies have hired.
While David was in high school, my wife and I went to a performance at Centennial Auditorium in Staples. As we walked into the lobby, DJ saw us and immediately walked over to greet us and chatted with us for about five minutes. I was floored that a high school student, whose athletic endeavors I had covered, would make the first move to talk to an adult, let alone a sports writer.
That’s the DJ that was evident when he and the Grizzlies afforded me an opportunity to conduct a phone interview with him July 1, one of seven media interviews he was scheduled to do that day. Jason Wallace of the Grizzlies’ Communications Department called and said DJ wanted to take care of the media people who had followed him somewhere along his journey to the top. Wallace also said DJ wanted to talk to me because DJ had told him, “We go way back.”
Following one of the most successful coaching tenures in minor league basketball history, Joerger finished his sixth season as a Grizzlies assistant in 2012-13, which was his second as lead assistant to former head coach Lionel Hollins.
Under Joerger’s tutelage, the Grizzlies became one of the NBA’s most tenacious defenses. Memphis led the league in fewest points allowed and ranked second in overall defensive rating. Memphis improved its defensive rating every season with Joerger on the sideline.
The Grizzlies have generated 180 more steals than any other NBA team in the last three seasons. They paced the NBA in steals per game and in forced turnovers during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
In addition, Memphis was represented on the 2012-13 NBA All-Defensive Team by three starters - Tony Allen (first team), 2012-13 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol (second team) and Mike Conley (second team).
Before earning his first assistant coaching job with the Grizzlies, Joerger gained renown as head coach of the 2007 NBA Development League champion Dakota Wizards.
Dakota’s 2007 championship was Joerger’s fifth as a head coach. He won one International Basketball Association (IBA) title and three Continental Basketball Association (CBA) titles. He was CBA Coach of the Year twice and compiled a head coaching record of 232-117 (.665).
After finishing his playing career at MSUM, Joerger became general manager of the Dakota Wizards when they were in the IBA. He received his first opportunity as an assistant coach during the 1997-98 season.
After three years as an assistant, Joerger became the Wizards’ head coach and led them to their first championship in 2000-01. Before the 2001-02 season, the Wizards moved to the CBA where Joerger led them to another title. He captured his third title in four years when the Wizards won the 2004 CBA championship.
In the summer of 2004, Joerger moved to Sioux Falls to become head coach of the Skyforce. He proceeded to win his fourth CBA championship, giving him more minor league championships than the combined totals of minor-league-turned-NBA head coaches Phil Jackson, George Karl, Flip Saunders and Eric Musselman.
■ Q: How has this, or will this position change your life?
DJ: “I will stay very grounded. I have a tremendous family back home. I had a tremendous upbringing. My wife and kids won’t let me mess around. People who’ve known me know I’m the same person when I got into the NBA as I was when I was in the minor leagues.
“I certainly hope I’m the same person now that I was then and that I will be the same person six years from now. The people around me won’t let me change.”
■ Q: How will your relationship with Grizzlies players change from when you were an assistant coach?
DJ: “I can’t be someone I’m not. That would be my biggest mistake. Now that I’m the head coach, players know it will be different but I won’t be a different person. I will be who I am.
“I really believe my time and experience in the minor leagues gives me confidence in my voice and in my style, and in how I interact in any fashion.”
■ Q: How did coaching in the minors prepare you for an NBA head job?
DJ: “Being it was 350-some games and seven seasons of training camps - winning streaks, losing streaks, the joy of having to tell a player that his dream has been fulfilled and he’s been called up - and certainly there were down parts - injuries, players leaving the team or having to release a player - I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to sit here not having had those experiences as a head coach.”
■ Q: Is this a dream come true or just something that happened to transpire?
DJ: “I always wanted to be part of the game. Perhaps I was going to be a high school teacher and coach or I thought maybe I would try to get into college basketball. I got involved with pro basketball. When I got the pro bug - and it’s a different game - I really loved it. That doesn’t mean any other kind of basketball is bad. When I got the pro bug, I knew I wanted to be part of this. That’s when I realized this is what I wanted to do.
“I was very fortunate to be part of the IBA, not just as an assistant coach, but in all aspects of the business. Being a head coach, having your own team, is the best feeling in the world. It doesn’t matter where you are, or at what level. The chance to run your own program is a really cool deal in basketball.”
■ Q: The Grizzlies went to the Western Conference finals this season. How do you get Memphis to take the next step?
DJ: “We will try to get out and compete as hard as we can. That’s really all you can do. You get better during the summer. It’s all about hard work. That’s what helped us be successful at Staples. Summer is when players are built.
“We’ve already got our draft picks in. We’re pushing those guys as hard as we can, trying to get them to understand our culture. And, before you know it, we’ll be rolling with summer league.”
■ Q: Obviously, there will be more demands from media for your time. How will you handle that?
DJ: “When I was in Bismarck, I don’t know how many radio shows I appeared on and I was on a weekly TV show, not just because that was part of the job, but it also was kind of ingrained in me as a general manager that I was doing it to promote my team. Any time I had a chance to get the word out, it was like free advertising, so to speak, to get people to come to the games. I learned a lot from those experiences and from the media as well.”
■ Q: What are your hopes for the Grizzlies in Year One of the Joerger Era?
“DJ: I’m just trying to get through the next two weeks. I have to build a staff here, we’ve got summer league coming up, and we’ve entered into free agency so we’ll see what our team looks like.
“I just want to get to work. Our players will be back in August and September. Right now’s the opportunity for individual improvement. From there, it’s about team improvement.”
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.