How to Play for My Dad

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Doug McDermott, Small Forward / Chicago Bulls - The Players' Tribune

By the end of my four years at Creighton in 2014, my dad and I had been part of a record-setting run for the basketball program.

But our time in Omaha didn’t exactly start off with a bang. It started out … awkward.

When my dad, Greg McDermott, took the Creighton job in April 2010, following a tough few years as the coach at Iowa State, the school had a big introductory press conference. We had just moved to Omaha and my family was all there. It was cool seeing my dad up there at the podium, but it was strange, too, because I was sitting with my family while my new teammates were sitting elsewhere in the crowd. I was still a senior in high school, but I was on the team. (I had originally signed a letter of intent with Northern Iowa, but switched my commitment to Creighton when my dad took the job). So that was weird. I realized then that this was just the beginning.

Then, the Creighton AD, Bruce Rasmussen, stepped up to the podium and began speaking.

“And now I’d like to introduce the next coach of the Creighton Bluejays … Doug McDermott!” 

Yeah, that’s actually what happened. The AD flubbed it and I was suddenly coaching the Bluejays, apparently.

But my dad actually handles stuff like that pretty well — he’s got a sarcastic sense of humor, and he’s good at defusing those kinds of situation. In that moment, it didn’t faze him. He joked about it and everybody in the room laughed and that was that.

His sense of humor would come in handy a lot over the next four years.

In the middle of my career at Creighton, when I was starting to get more and more national attention, my dad would always get asked about me, as opposed to other guys on the team. In private he would tell me that he understood why that was, but that it was important that his players knew that the team came first. Luckily, he had crafted a go-to Dad Joke for this exact situation.

A reporter would ask him, “So how did you convince Doug to play at Creighton?”

“It was easy,” my dad would say, “I slept with his mom!”

Oh, man. My teammates let me hear it about that one.

But that didn’t mean that he stopped telling that particular Dad Joke, I’m afraid.

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My dad has been coaching basketball my whole life, so I was born into the game. I entered the world in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he was an assistant on the coaching staff of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, who were then playing in Division II. When I was two he got his first head coaching job at Wayne State College (also a D-II school) in Nebraska. North Dakota’s gym was where I remember playing ball for the first time. I also remember being the ball boy at Wayne State games when I was in second or third grade. The Wildcats played in this old-school gym called Rice Auditorium, and they’d get a couple of thousand fans at their games. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. My dad spent six years at Wayne State, then left to take over as the head coach at North Dakota State. We were happy there, but after one season he got the call to become the head coach at Northern Iowa. Coaching at his alma mater, leading the team that he had played for in the 1980s, was a dream come true for him.

Northern Iowa had a team camp in the summer, and that was where my dad coached me for the first time. I was in seventh or eighth grade. The camp was a week long and culminated with a tournament. I put together a team with a bunch of my friends — but we needed a coach. My dad was like, “S***, I’ll coach it.” He was drawing up all these plays and we just outexecuted everyone. All the other teams were just running a free-for-all offense. I had been really nervous to play for him — I was right in the middle of that cool-kid phase of junior high where I didn’t want my dad to be involved in my social life. But it turned out to be a great experience. When I saw that my peers looked up to my dad it was a big moment of pride for me. I would see a lot more of that when I got to Creighton.

Those years in Iowa really pulled us together as a family. Since my dad was on the road a lot for recruiting, my mom was the one driving me, my brother and my sister everywhere — to school, to road games, everywhere. She did not miss a single AAU or middle school game.

But while we were living in Cedar Falls, my mom developed breast cancer.

It was a really tough time. My dad was home whenever possible, but my family had to rely on the community to help us get through that period. I’ll never forget all the people in Cedar Falls and what they did to help. Mom was going through chemo and eventually had to start wearing a wig. (I ended up shaving my head too, in support, and we looked identical.) Neighborhood families gave us food. It was crazy, though — my mom is so strong. Cancer didn’t change her one bit. She was there for every one of my game, every one of my tournaments, every event. She was so committed to us. We had to hold on to each other close.

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I’m happy to be able to tell you that my mom got better and was well on the road to recovery by the time I was nearing the end of high school. (She’s now been cancer-free for over 10 years.) After a really successful run at Northern Iowa — including three straight NCAA tournament appearances — my dad was offered his first big conference job, at Iowa State. So we moved to Ames when I was 14.

At Ames High I walked into a really good situation. My teammate Harrison Barnes was the N0. 1 player in the country. We were pretty unstoppable. My dad’s situation, however, was way tougher. The Big 12 conference is always really competitive, and back then it was at the peak of its power. Blake Griffin was at Oklahoma and Kevin Durant was at Texas — what more do you even need to say? — and Kansas won the national title in 2008. When he took the job, Iowa State was working with two fewer scholarships than everyone else in the league. I could tell he was stressed, but he was putting the work in. He was watching more film than ever — even if it took a cocktail or two to get through all of it. It was a dark time, but he was learning a lot while also figuring out how to best deploy his style.

During my junior and senior year of high school, when I was getting recruited, my dad would ask me once in a while about walking on at Iowa State. I didn’t want to. I wanted to play at a mid-major school — someplace where I felt like I could have an impact from Day One. So when the time came to pick a college, I signed with Northern Iowa, a school I felt a connection to.

My dad may have been having a rough stretch at Iowa State, he still found time to watch me grow as a player. And even after I’d signed with the Panthers he’d jab me every so often with what he thought was subtle advice.

“Man, I dunno, I think you’re good enough to play at this level,” he’d say in an offhand way. “You could definitely play for me.”

It was then that I started to get a feeling that something was going to happen.

I remember the day Dana Altman left Creighton for Oregon. As usual, my dad wasn’t around the house, so I asked my mom where he was.

“I think he’s out recruiting or something,” she said.

I think she actually didn’t know what was going on, either. But maybe she did? I never got a good read on the situation.

As it turns out, he was meeting that day with Bruce Rasmussen in Des Moines. That night I was over at a buddy’s house, having a good time with my friends. It was toward the end of my senior year and most of us already knew where we were going to college. It was a typical Friday night.

And then I got this call from my dad.

“I need you to come home.”

I was like, Hell, no! I’m out with my friends. I thought I was in trouble or something.

But eventually, I relented because he sounded pretty serious. When I got home he was sitting on the couch and he told me, “I met with Bruce Rasmussen at Creighton. How would you feel about playing me two or three times a year?”

“If you’re going to be in the same conference,” I said, “I’d rather be playing for you.”

It’s history from there.

Providence v Creighton

As an incoming freshman, I knew that I was about to learn a lot about my dad firsthand, but that didn’t keep me from seeking some advice from people who had played for their fathers in college.

My dad put me in touch with Tony Bennett, who played for his dad, Dick Bennett, at the Wisconsin–Green Bay. He told me this: When your dad coaches you and there’s a tough practice, don’t go straight to the locker room with the rest of the guys. Go shoot for 30 minutes after practice with an assistant or a trainer and let the guys filter out of the locker room. That way, you don’t have to go in there and hear what they’re saying about your dad.

We had a team psychologist, Jack Stark, that we would meet with as a group regularly. Early on, after a tough practice, I was sure to set the tone. I told my teammates, “I know it’s a little awkward ’cause my dad’s the head coach, but I’m with you guys, I’m not with him. Don’t think that I’m on his side — I’m on your side. I promise I’m gonna probably hate him more than you guys do!” So they knew where I stood.

If any current Bluejays are reading this, I have some tips for you. To have success with my dad, you gotta be really locked into what he’s coaching you to do. He’s really specific — for me, he was always going on about “improving my shot arc” (which he still goes on about to this day).

When my dad was at Northern Iowa, he used to be more of a grind-it-out coach — he preferred to slow down the game. Once my Creighton team got some shooters and some guys who could really run the floor, he changed his style to a faster, up-tempo style. I think my group — with guys like Ethan Wragge and Grant Gibbs — were the ones who got him to change. So instead of getting on us for defensive mistakes, which he had done all the time at his previous jobs, it was more about, “Why aren’t you running to the floor? Why aren’t you getting to the rim? Why aren’t you getting to the corner?” He became an offensive-minded coach very quickly.

But my dad can be demanding, too. Remember how my team outexecuted everyone at that summer basketball camp? Well, that’s because my dad had about a million offensive and defensive sets. He gets really bothered if he coaches you through a set and you forget it a couple of plays later during a practice. He really wants you to be locked in. He’s known for his sets. I think he literally has almost 300 sets and he expects you to remember all of them — even though you’re a student and you have homework and need to memorize a ton of other stuff too. He’s chilled out about that some, but not a lot.

Greg McDermott, Doug McDermott

But my dad also cares about his players so much. My senior year, the NCAA granted my friend and teammate Grant Gibbs a sixth year of eligibility. The problem was that the move put us over the scholarship cap. So my dad made me a walk-on — that way, we could accommodate Grant as a scholarship player — and paid my tuition out of pocket. (I still haven’t paid him back.) It was a really cool deal. Plus I got to live off-campus because I was no longer a scholarship athlete.

(Something I want to tell the current Creighton team, now that Maurice Watson, Jr. has suffered a season-ending injury: Rally around Maurice. When I was at Creighton, I went through a similar situation when Grant got hurt. He was our leader — like Maurice is for you — and he was still your leader even if he couldn’t be on the floor. We rallied behind Grant, and I know you’ll rally behind Maurice. I’m really excited about Maurice’s future. He’s a first-team All-America in my book.)

My dad balanced the dad-son stuff pretty well, but it still led to some pretty funny situations. Sometimes I’d send my laundry home with him so my mom could do it. I remember one time when my dad yelled at the team after a practice, but then walked up to me and said quietly, “Hey, I’ve got your laundry down in my office. Come get it.” A few times, when I wanted to avoid him, I wouldn’t get my laundry for days. Other times, I had to go into his office and be like, “Hey, can I get $20 for a movie?”

Fred Hoiberg, my current coach in the NBA, and I have a funny connection. Not only did Coach Hoiberg replace my dad on the Iowa State bench after he left for Creighton, but Fred is also my high school’s most legendary graduate — he always tells me that his Ames High team would have wiped the floor with the one that Harrison and I played for. (He’s obsessed with getting me to accept this.)

Through Coach Hoiberg, I’ve learned what makes my dad such a great college coach. My dad loves the process of college basketball — having a system, recruiting, having players return year after year. Coach Hoiberg, on the other hand, disliked some aspects of recruiting. He always says, “Man, I don’t miss Facebook-messaging recruits at midnight just to get ahold of them.” But I think my dad really has a temperament for that kind of thing. In the NBA, you’re playing more than you’re practicing — but my dad loves practice.

Like any dad, my dad can be annoying; he can be a pest. But he’s doing it for all the right reasons.

Even if he’s sliding into your Facebook messages.

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The guys at Creighton this year are in such good hands. My dad is a great coach, but he’s also just a great human being. He really cares about each individual guy. He’s got a kid on his team this season named Justin Patton, a 19-year-old freshman who has a chance to be in the NBA soon. For Justin to have my dad as a coach is great. Justin is a big man, and my dad really knows how to coach the post. He’s going to give Justin the best advice. And he’s not going to push him to stay or to leave. He’s going to give him the best information and help him make the right decision.

Even during my own NBA-draft decision process, he kept a clear head.

We had had a great first three years together at Creighton. I started to get more NBA attention after my sophomore year. My junior year, before the season, I told myself that if I had a good year I was going to try the draft out. My last home game, against Wichita State, I scored 41 points in a 91–79 win. The victory locked up the MVC regular-season title. And then we went on to beat the Shockers in the final of the conference tournament, too.

I thought it was time.

When it came time for me to make a decision, it was definitely weird that my dad was the guy giving me scouting feedback and draft intel. He did a great job keeping it objective, even though I could tell that the coach in him wanted me to stay — Creighton was entering the Big East the following year. The dad in him, however, was actually pushing me to go.

The decision went down to the wire. For me, leaving just didn’t feel right — Creighton was entering a bigger, tougher league and I didn’t want to leave the Bluejays behind the eight ball. My dad told me that I was likely a mid-first-round pick, and that if I had another good year I’d probably be in the same exact position.

Once I heard that, I knew. “I’m staying,” I told him.

“You sure?” he asked. You could tell he was in a rush to get me into Bruce’s office before I changed my mind.

I said, “Yep. Let’s do it.” So then we walked next door to the athletic director’s office and made it official.

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Providence

I think about that day a lot. Later that season, I scored my 3,000th career point on Senior Day against Providence. My dad called timeout to celebrate the moment. He didn’t have a speech planned, we just hugged it out. My whole family was there. It was a moment we all still really cherish. Afterward, I got the game ball, and I threw it to my brother, Nick, in the stands — but he was about 10 beers deep, so my sister, Sydney, ended up catching it instead.

I can’t believe I almost left after my junior year.

I would have been such an idiot.

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