The Role of the Assistant Coach and Other Thoughts

I spoke with North Reading assistant coach John Fortunato recently over zoom. Coach Fortunato has made the transition to assistant coach after spending a few decades as a head coach. The passion for the game has not changed one bit in his new role. North Reading won the Division 2 North championship this past season, so I was excited to hear his perspective on the journey. I have picked Coach Fortunato’s brain in the past on forcing weak hand and scouting. I asked him this time about the role of an assistant coach and why he always chose to play man to man defense.

Role of an Assistant Coach

When he was a young assistant coach at Salem High School, Coach Fortunato was appreciative of the head coach. Tim Shea was the coach at that time. In his first year, Coach Fortunato asked Coach Shea what he wanted him to run. Coach Shea asked what he was comfortable with. Coach Fortunato listed off the things he felt were his greatest strengths which includes teaching man to man defense. And Coach Shea said that is what he should do.

The experience of being an assistant first helped him as he eventually went on to be Salem’s head coach a few seasons later. Coach Fortunato never wanted the assistant coaches he had to be “yes men.” Diverse perspectives and debate sparked better decision-making and made the team better. There were coaches he hired over the years despite having no real prior connection. These coaches offered a unique perspective though which was why he brought them on board.

Coaches stress the importance of the bench and the player that gets the least amount of playing time. Coach Fortunato was quick to point amount that getting everyone to thrive in their role did not end at just the players. The head coach needs to give the assistant coaches room to demonstrate their value to the team. He would often look at a great X’s and O’s coach on his staff in the spur of the moment and say, “You got something for this situation?” And sure enough, he would hand the marker board over and the players would listen as the assistant coach drew up a play.

Transitioning from Head Coach Back to Assistant Coach

A few years ago, Coach Fortunato walked away from being the head coach at Salem High School. His passion for the game was still as strong as ever, so he decided to coach with a good friend Bob Romeo. Similar to the set-up which was so familiar to him in Salem, Coach Fortunato had the green light to voice his opinion.

The process of disagreement with him and Coach Romeo is very healthy. Coach Romeo will have one idea, Coach Fortunato another idea, and from that a third option will emerge that neither ever considered without the disagreement.

The best part of the arrangement for Coach Fortunato as he put it is, “I get to be in the gym working with the kids.” Planning the banquet, scheduling the busses, and all the tasks that a head coach needs to manage fall on the head coach. For Coach Fortunato he gets to devote more energy to the basketball side of the equation as the assistant coach, which is where his passion rests.

Belive in What You Can Teach

John Calipari recently said that one of the things which made Larry Brown the best coach is his ability to adapt. Each season brings on new players which means that what worked for one group will not be optimal for the next. For as long as I have known him, Coach Fortunato’s teams have played man to man defense. I asked Coach Fortunato why he stuck with man to man each season in the context of what Coach Calipari is advocating.

The core of his answer came from hearing another well-respected former NBA coach. Coach Fortunato heard Hubie Brown speak at a clinic and recalls his message very well. Hubie Brown stated that coaches are always consumed with the flavor of the month. A team might have just won a big game or a championship with a 1-3-1 defense. Now everyone feels the need to play 1-3-1. Or maybe it is a half-court trap, a 2-3 zone, or man to man. It does not matter. What Hubie Brown thought was most important is that coaches need to teach whatever it is that they believe in. Not what is hot in the game at the time. Thus, Coach Fortunato always plays man to man.

Man to Man Is Not One Defense

Coach Fortunato did agree with Coach Calipari that every year is different. And he makes tweaks to a higher degree on the offensive side of the ball than on defense. It does not matter if one senior graduated or ten, the chemistry of the entire group shifts. Ultimately, it falls on the coach to determine the gifts that each player brings to the table, not their weaknesses.

As Coach Fortunato pointed out, man to man defense comes in all shapes and sizes. Coaches need to be honest about the types of players that they have. If the team has some quick athletes, then you can attack passing lanes and disrupt the rhythm of the ball-handler. Other years, you might be slower and need to sag off more. He has had seasons in which players are very tall, but not very agile. In that case, that player almost plays a one-person zone with the other four getting aggressive on the perimeter and knowing they should have help. And of course, there are always adjustments to be had based on the opponent’s strengths. If one player is taking 50 percent of their shots, then it is possible all a team will need is one elite athletic defender and the rest just need to have a strong I.Q.

Bonus Thoughts from Coach Fortunato

For about as long as we have been in quarantine, Coach Fortunato has been finding ways like so many others to make the most of his time. He told me that he runs on his treadmill every day for a few miles. He also has taken up a new hobby in painting. This is the very definition of a lifelong learner. Trying something new is helping him gain empathy toward the kids. It does not matter what hobby you are doing. Everything is improved with practice, repetitions, and discipline.

Learning Styles

Players have different learning styles and if a player is interested in visual learning or art, he wants to help these players. Some players learn basketball by going through the motions of a set in practice, but others might prefer it on a whiteboard. Coach Fortunato also made a point that has always been obvious to me, but not used with nearly as much frequency as I like – let the players show the other players on the whiteboard.

Demonstrate Value in Depth and Versatility

Ask any coach in a bubble if they want a deep and versatile team, and 99 percent will say yes. If you ask any coach if every player on the team has the green light to shoot an open shot, 85 percent will say yes. And then if you ask the players of the coaches that allow their kids to have the green light if they have the green light probably something closer to 50 percent will say yes. You cannot be deep, if you do not practice what you preach.

Everyone is a shooter. Coach Fortunato could not emphasize this point enough. I saw Coach Fortunato and Coach Romeo’s team fire up fifty (50!) three-pointers in a game this season. They made seven. Coach Fortunato told me that he will live with ten percent or fifteen percent shooting if they are good shots. When he scouts games, he wants to see what player is not even willing to look at the rim. Any coach that scouts wants to know this. And once they find that weakness, that player and team will be exploited.

Equally important to Coach Fortunato is versatility. He wants players that do three sports. It is more difficult when a player that joins an all-star team out of season walks into tryouts and thinks they know it all. Part of what is fun to him about coaching high school sports in getting players that are open-minded to embrace the values of persistence and discipline that he tries to instill. Ultimately, when the players graduate from teams he coaches, he wants them to take those values into college and beyond.

The Cup of Sand

Right before we hung up the phone, coach used a great analogy for lifelong learning philosophy. He told me to imagine the view across an entire beach. And then imagine holding a cup of sand. The cup of sand represents what you know, the beach is the information that is available. I really appreciated the perspective from a coach who has far more experience and accolades on his résumé than most coaches will ever enjoy.


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