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Former Trail Blazers assistant coach talks about playing in Europe, lifting trophies, and managing players

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John McCullough spoke to Franchise Sports as part of the ongoing Coaches Online project. McCullough was most recently the assistant coach at the Portland Trail Blazers and talked about the differences between the NBA and the European leagues as well as his strategies in coaching.

Leaving the US is Hard, but Rewarding

While John McCullough didn’t have a long playing career in the NBA, he picked up accolades during his time playing with Orthez in the French league during the 1980s. European players continue to grow in number in the NBA, but he bucked the trend going the other way arguably in his prime.

“I wanted to absorb the culture”, McCullough said.

He did so after several years living near the Pyrenees in the Southwest of French. He took a train to Madrid during the offseason to meet his long-time friend and colleague, Terry Porter. Upon disembarking, he noted Terry, yet didn’t receive a nod or smile in reply. Moments later Porter exclaimed, ‘wow you look so French!’ which only added to his successes of a league title and Koracs Cup.

When asking whether he’d recommend youngsters or players look for more starting minutes, McCullough noted the G League and NBA restrictions have changed since his tenure overseas. He states that players who want a new challenge would certainly benefit from a step away from the NBA system – but appreciates some players still needs the support the league offers and leaving home can be hard for players.


Yet when pushed for an answer on whether he’d take the same route if he had his time again; he unreservedly stated he’d go overseas every time.

Winning the Koracs Cup was the best experience

Unlike the NBA system, its European counterparts have continental competition which sees the best of Europe collide. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the FIBA Koracs Cup was the premier competition for European basketball teams.

The 1983/84 season saw Orthez not only reach the final but defeat Red Star Belgrade. Despite all his successes working with the Portland Trail Blazers as a scout and later as an assistant coach, McCullough still holds this Koracs Cup and being named the tournament MVP as the best experience in his career.

Later he added that this style of competition is alien to the NBA as there’s nothing remotely like a multi-nation tournament (playing the Canadian teams seldom counts), but this tournament allowed him to play in different countries as well as having two distinct competitions to play in.

Coaching is about mutual respect and care

During his coaching career, John McCullough credits having mutual respect with players as an imperative attribute to finding success and getting the best of out the players he worked with.


“Anyone can get players to do drills”, McCullough explained. That’s the bare minimum of a coach’s responsibilities. What he made a priority to do was to make the players want to do the drills themselves.

That meant showing an interest in the player off the court as well as their development. He makes sure they’re set up properly if they’ve just moved to the team. The former Blazers assistant ensures they’re adapting to the culture well and making positive relationships with teammates after which comes respect and results.

Later stating that in some ways he sees the players as his children, wanting them to grow and develop.

The former Portland Trail Blazers and college coach detailed that when working with Terry Stotts they liked to keep a smaller coaching team; as opposed to some contemporary NBA sides which can have up to 12 coaches each with a specialty – like the American football staff members.

Instead, McCullough is willing to share a multitude of responsibilities and create a community around a franchise, citing that’s how he’s found success.

The Jr. NBA Coaches – Online program presented by Gatorade® is hosted on OWQLO and features 12 live virtual coaching clinics from February to September for app users 16 years and older in the UK. The first clinic with former NBA head coach Ryan Saunders takes place on Sunday, Feb. 13. For more info, visit and @NBAUK on Facebook and Twitter and @NBAEurope on Instagram.

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