Earlier this month I had the chance to sit down with Tom Hegre, the Athletic Director and Head Basketball Coach of the Knight High School Hawks in Palmdale, California. Coach Hegre was the head coach during Paul George’s four years at Knight, including three on the school’s varsity team.
Check out my Q&A session with Coach Hegre below.
WP: First off, you’ve been here at Knight High School since…
TH: Since we opened in 2003.
WP: Have you been the head basketball coach the entire time? You’re Athletic Director now, right?
TH: Yeah, when I started here I was the basketball coach and a few years later I became the Athletic Director.
WP: To jump straight into it, when was the first time you met Paul?
TH: It was the summer before his freshman year. We had try-outs for incoming freshman, and we didn’t even have our gym built at that time, so we had them at the junior high down the street. And I still remember, you know Paul’s sister was playing at Pepperdine at the time, and I remember we had about 100 kids in the gym trying out that year. I saw her walk in and I knew who she was, she was wearing a Pepperdine sweat suit. And I uh… I’m not going to lie, it was a little intimidating. We better be good coaching today because… when I knew who he was, and who his sister was, I knew there was going to be some serious potential there. He was about 6’1” at the time, she was 6’3” or 6’4” or something, so I knew he was going to grow and I knew he was coming from a very athletic and talented family.
WP: How much do you think his sisters played into his success as an athlete?
TH: You know there are so many things that play into what got these guys to where they got, and definitely his sister, his family — I think for most guys that reach the pinnacles of where he is, and become elite athletes… You always see specials where they talk about all these guys and how they got where they are. For him, his sisters, his family, and his parents definitely played I think a very large role in just who he is. He is an unbelievable athlete, but he also is just an unbelievable person. You get that from family and growing up. They are a very classy family. He has always known to do the right thing and how to act. So his family is definitely a big part of who he is.
WP: What stands out about the kind of kid that Paul was, especially when he was an incoming freshman or early. You spoke about his character…
TH: He’s always been very conscientious of his teammates. His freshman year, he played on the freshman team that year, and I would sit right behind the bench. There were a few times when he’d come off the court, and sit down on the bench I would get up in his ear and tell him “Hey, don’t pass up that shot next time” or “You should drive it next time you catch it.” He always passed the ball, passed the ball, passed the ball. He would always say “yes sir!” get back out there, and throw it to his teammate. Finally one time I told him — I told him “Tomorrow after the game you are going to run twenty suicides.” He just looked at me. Then I said, “But I’ll take one off for every point you score in this game today.”
Paul’s so smart, he smiled and he got it right away. Like “coach is messing with me.” Then I said “But you are going to run if you don’t score twenty points today.” He got the message.
WP: When was the first time you thought “This kid might play in the NBA”?
TH: I think it’s really hard to see that, and Paul was such a late bloomer too. Like I said he was 6’1” when he got here, and he was probably just under 6’8” when he graduated. Then he actually still grew which was very odd — there’s not many of those guys… every now and then. Usually when they get there, they are what they’re going to be. But I even told a lot of the NBA scouts that were calling when he was in college, “He has huge upside and this guy is still developing as a player and he’s going to be a lot better than he is right now.” Obviously he is.
He developed a lot even after he graduated from here. I knew he was going to be a really good Division I basketball player. And really it’s like after that, there’s potential for him to be an NBA player. It’s hard to tell — with anybody it’s tough, unless you see LeBron James in high school.
WP: What is something that you learned coaching Paul?
TH: I learned that there’s different kinds of leaders, because I had a couple of them on that team. Paul was a quiet leader, lead by example. He’s not generally the most vocal guy, but he is the guy that is going to put in the most time and the most work, and then he is going to work hard in practice. Like I’ve said, a lot of guys could probably play defense the way Paul can, but a lot of guys don’t. I learned the importance of defense from that team. We were just so good defensively. It kind of changed my coaching philosophy to being more defense first.
Paul had to kind of develop even after he got into the NBA as a scorer, maybe I’m not the biggest scoring coach, but I really learned how you can win games through hard work on the defensive end, and the value of that extra work. Guys are not going to develop just when they are in the gym with me because I understood how much time he put in outside of our practices.
WP: What advice would you give Billy Donovan about coaching him?
TH: Oh wow, me give Billy Donovan advice? (laughs) That’s funny.
Uh, Billy Donovan is… he’s coached a lot of really great players. Man, he’s a great coach. I’m sure Paul is going to really enjoy playing for Billy Donovan. He knows how to get the most out of his players. But if I had the ability to give Billy Donovan advice, I would just say, “push him as hard as you can push anybody else, and lean on him, you can lean on Paul.” I remember telling Paul, “I am going to coach you harder, and be on you harder than anybody else on this team because you can handle it and I need the other guys to see it.”
That’s really what you want from your leader. You want to be able to coach him really hard and for them to respond. Paul will never shy away from coaching or hard work.
WP: What are some things that Paul loves, or loves to do?
TH: I do know there was a time or two that he and his dad were going to go fishing on a Saturday. I know that he really enjoys fishing. I know there’s some lakes in Oklahoma and I’m sure he’s probably going to miss a particular fishing spot in Indiana, but I also know he likes to get out on the lake when he has the opportunity. And then, he likes hanging out with his teammates. When we would be here for 4-5 hours on a Saturday ‘cause I couldn’t get them to leave the gym after we were done shooting or practicing, and when I finally would start turning out the lights he would tell the guys, “Hey, let’s go down to Denny’s or Primo Burger…let’s stay together, let’s do something.” So he liked hanging out with his teammates, or did back then. One of the only things that could get him away from his teammates or basketball was fishing.
WP: It’s funny, Lee Jenkins mentioned that in the profile he did on Paul a couple of weeks ago. I wondered if fishing was going to come up. It seems like fishing is not one of the things you hear mentioned among the hobbies of NBA players a lot of the time.
TH: But man, you think about it, the pressures that guys like him take. I don’t know if he still fishes, I think he still does, but man, what a great escape. What a great way to unwind. It’s hard for people to ask for your autograph when you are out in the middle of a lake.
WP: Earlier you talked about how competitive Paul is. When you watched him these last couple of years in Indianapolis, did you see any signs of frustration…as someone that knows him, did he seem unhappy with the team or unhappy with the situation?
TH: I didn’t talk to him a lot during the season, but I know the playoffs is really when I think you could see it. Obviously some of the comments that he made — I think you could start to see the frustration. I know he commented that he was tired of losing to LeBron, and yeah it does get frustrating. I thought he played as the guy on that team, I thought he fulfilled his role to the point where if you do that, your team should have a chance to win in the playoffs.
One of the things I don’t think a lot of people understand is while he is going out and scoring 25 points a game, he is also doing that while guarding the other team’s best player. “We need you to score 25, we also need you to keep him from scoring 25.” I thought he defended really well. I think that the more that you do and the harder you play, the more frustration you can feel. I know Paul has always been a team player. Larry Bird called his team a bunch of sissies when they lost to the Lakers in the championship series, so I think Larry probably understood. Paul never did come out and call his teammates names or anything, but sometimes I think you need to elevate and we all need to step up.
I could tell, I think everybody could tell, he was frustrated in the playoffs. But I don’t really know the specifics.
WP: In the parking lot I just saw a clip of Lee Jenkins on with Colin Cowherd and he said something like if they [OKC] make the conference finals, it’s going to be really hard for him to leave.
TH: He’s a competitor. Being competitive is probably his first priority. He wants to win.
WP: Any other good stories about Paul that you want to share?
TH: There were so many good ones…that playoff run was special. I even asked him after his rookie year what was the most fun he ever had in one game — and I know he’s gotten a lot more now — but at that point, the semifinal game that pushed us into the championship at AV college is still one of the greatest memories. I remember three times in that playoff run, in timeouts at the end of games, Paul or Lamonte would look at me and say, “Coach, put us in man. We’ll win this game” or “Coach, don’t worry, just leave it in our hands, and we’ll take care of it.” It was unbelievable the confidence that those guys gave me. They’d walk out of the huddle, I would turn and look at one of the other coaches and say “This thing’s over.” And I believed them — they just dug in and looked at each other. That’s one of the things that is so special about Paul, he does count on his team.
He brings all those things — trust, accountability, and I know accountability in your teammates is really important for him. If they can establish that kind of a team where they can be that close that you know the guy next to you will take care of his responsibility, that’s what he is built on, it’s a team, he’s a great teammate. It was an enjoyable four years while we had him. The teachers here are the same way, the ones that had him, there are still a few here, will tell you he was one their favorite students.