Frank Vogel used his time wisely after a low point in his career and rebounded to become an NBA champion.
A 1991 Wildwood High graduate and former point guard, Vogel, 47, was fired by the Orlando Magic after the 2017-18 season, his second with the team.
Vogel had one more season on his contract, and he used the time as a coaching refresher, visiting several NBA and college teams, sharpening his X’s and O’s while also keeping up with all his coaching contacts.
After the one-season hiatus, he was hired as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, whom he guided to the franchise’s 17th NBA title this year. The Lakers returned from the NBA’s March shutdown to win the championship after missing the playoffs the previous six years.
In his year out of coaching, Vogel visited Brett Brown and his staff with the Sixers. In his visit to Philadelphia, Vogel got to reunite with longtime mentor Jim O’Brien, who was a senior adviser to the since-fired Sixers coach and says he has had talks with new coach Doc Rivers about having a role with the team.
Besides visiting the Sixers during his hiatus, Vogel also made visits to the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Utah Jazz. There were also college trips to the University of Texas and his alma mater, Kentucky.
“I spent a lot of time that year studying the game from different perspectives and really picked up a lot of tidbits that helped me this year,” Vogel said in a recent phone interview with The Inquirer.
Vogel played collegiately at Juniata before transferring to Kentucky and serving as a student manager for Rick Pitino’s program. That was where he started making his coaching connections. He got started in the NBA as a video coordinator for Pitino with the Celtics and worked his way up to ssistant coach. At Kentucky and Boston, O’Brien was an assistant coach on both staffs. O’Brien was also the Celtics' head coach for 3 1/2 seasons.
When O’Brien was named the Sixers' head coach in 2004, he hired Vogel as an assistant. After one year, the Sixers replaced O’Brien and his staff. Vogel spent two seasons as an advance scout, first for the Lakers, then the Washington Wizards, before being hired as an assistant to O’Brien with the Pacers in 2007.
It’s been such a solid friendship that it even survived the time Vogel replaced O’Brien as the Pacers' coach in January 2011, first on an interim basis and then permanently. O’Brien, a former player at Roman Catholic and St. Joseph’s University, said he didn’t want to let that get in the way of his friendship.
In a phone interview, O’Brien said: "[Pacers president] Larry Bird called me and said he was going to make a coaching change and he was impressed with Frank, 'but I know how loyal he is and don’t know if he will do it.’ ”
O’Brien told Bird to get Vogel on the phone and he would immediately settle the situation.
“I said, ‘Frank, before you say a word, Larry is making a change and wants you to take over and I think it would be great,' ” O’Brien said. " ‘Don’t worry about loyalty, you are the most loyal guy. Do this and don’t even think about it.’ He said ‘OK,’ and I left for the airport.”
Vogel spent 5 1/2 seasons as the Pacers' coach. His teams went 250-181 and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals twice.
Getting the job in Indiana opened up everything for Vogel, who credits O’Brien for taking him under his wing.
“OB is my mentor in every sense of the word,” Vogel said. “He has been, dating all the way back to my time at Kentucky. He is the best I’ve ever seen at breaking down film and using it to improve a basketball team. He not only taught me the game, but he taught me what work ethic is all about. He continuously opened doors for me to grow as a young coach and positioned me in all ways to be a successful head coach in this league.”
The Orlando experience didn’t work out for Vogel, who was 54-110 in two seasons. Determined to learn from the experience, he used what he calls a “sabbatical” year to visit the NBA and college teams.
“It was a great opportunity to grow rather than sit on my butt,” Vogel said.
Vogel was then hired by the Lakers after they went 37-45 in LeBron James' first season in Los Angeles. Boosted by an offseason trade for Anthony Davis, the Lakers went 52-19 to earn the top seed in the Western Conference before beating the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals.
“I was proud of him as can be,” O’Brien said of Vogel’s championship. “He is a great young man.”
The Lakers spent more than three months in the NBA’s bubble in Kissimmee, Fla., showing not only physical skill but mental toughness to keeping grinding.
“It is so surreal,” Vogel said of the championship. “You start off on this journey and hope to have an opportunity to coach basketball at a high level, Division I or the NBA, and you just dream for the opportunities to come.”
Vogel put his stamp on the team quickly when he decided that James would be the point guard. Over the years, James was always a de facto point guard, but this time he strategically ran the show and ended up leading the NBA in assists, averaging 10.2 per game.
“It is something I proposed to LeBron early and we didn’t want to make a big media story about it,” he said. “He is the best decision-maker in the game, and we wanted to give him the ball even more than he had it in the past.”
Even though Davis stated early in the season that he didn’t want to play center, Vogel got him to spend some time there and it paid off. Davis averaged 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 21 playoff games this year.
“Anthony was always comfortable playing some five [center],” Vogel said. “He didn’t want to play full-time at the five and I didn’t want him to play full-time there, either.”
Besides Vogel, the Lakers had two other Philadelphia area products, Dion Waiters and Markieff Morris. Waiters didn’t play much of a role, but Morris, who led Prep Charter to the state AA championship in 2007, was a factor in the Lakers' title run. The Lakers had signed him on Feb. 23, after he was waived by Detroit.
Morris averaged 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 21.3 minutes during the NBA Finals against Miami.
“If there is ever a Frank Vogel, smashmouth basketball type of player, it is Markieff Morris,” Vogel said. “This guy just oozes toughness and physicality and he gave us a huge lift. We were a different team after we picked him up.”
Vogel said playing in the bubble was difficult because of being away from his family so long, although his wife and two teenage daughters were able to attend the NBA Finals.
There were Lakers fans in New Jersey, especially the Jersey shore. One of Vogel’s biggest fans is his 49-year-brother Justin, who lives in Howell, Monmouth County.
“I knew he was a good coach, but to really see how he was able to connect with LeBron and AD [Davis] and how those guys bought what he was selling just from the defensive end of the floor was great," Justin Vogel said in a phone interview. “That part of it reaffirmed for the entire league, if LeBron is buying in, he must be doing a good job.”
As somebody who is an insatiable watcher of videotape, Vogel said the best part of being in the bubble was being around basketball 24/7.
“I liked the sort of around-the-clock basketball, almost like being away at basketball camp, which you loved as a kid,” he said. “While I missed my family, the basketball aspect was great.”
Vogel is back in Los Angeles and getting used to life outside of the bubble. Some things haven’t changed.
“I take the trash out, drive the kids to soccer practice,” he said, laughing. “I get recognized a little more, but I have been taking some downtime.”
Still, with the NBA hoping for a return before Christmas for the 2020-21 season, there won’t be much more downtime.
One thing that Vogel is enjoying is following the Eagles. He is a die-hard fan.
“I think that they are starting to turn their season around,” Vogel said.
For now, Vogel is savoring his first championship before trying to win a second one.
“I have been blessed with these opportunities and really feel fortunate to have landed in a great spot, with a great team, with superstar-talented players,” he said. “From that standpoint, talented teams don’t always win championships and I am really proud of our group for what we were able to accomplish.”