Kenny Natt leans forward in his chair, narrows his eyes and takes a deep breath. He has mentally taken himself thousands of miles away and nearly 15 years prior to his current life as IMG Academy's Director of Basketball.
âI can see Michael making that move even today,â Natt says, staring through his office window as youth campers practice free throws directly in his line of vision, but he is firmly entrenched in memory. In his head, he's back in his role as assistant coach for the Utah Jazz. Salt Lake City. Game six of the 1998 NBA Finals. Jordan versus Bryon Russell.
âI'm sitting on the bench at about this exact angle - right in line with the foul line. Michael drove right, went up and just held that pose. And there went that championship ring off my finger.â
He may never have gotten that elusive NBA title, but Natt has already accomplished more in the game than he ever could have imagined. From Alberta to Albany, India to Indianapolis, Natt has played and coached with and against some of basketball's greatest legends.
On Julius Erving: âMy first NBA exhibition game we were playing the 76ers. There was a steal, and I was the only guy back on defense. Here comes Dr. J, and I think I have good position. He just swooped right around me, like âThank you very much.' I'll never forget it.
On Larry Bird: âThe most impressive player I've ever played against. I was blown away by the cerebral aspect of his game. Not quick, but he could get anywhere he wanted whenever he wanted just by using his head. I really learned that's how you play the game. It's not all about the physicality. He talked as much trash as people say he did, but he could back it up.â
On LeBron James: âPhysically, he's a freak of nature.â
On Phil Jackson: âHe was very structured and incredibly knowledgeable of his players and what he expected of them.â
On Stockton and Malone: âIt was amazing to see how they were as leaders. That's when I learned how big of a gap there is between great players and everyone else. It's about being humble, being hungry and setting an example every day. Some people will say they want to be a leader, but they have no idea what it takes to do it all day, every day.â
But it was another basketball icon who would most impact Natt's life as a basketball coach.
One of six brothers and sisters born to two church-going parents in a small Louisiana town, Natt and his older brother Calvin flourished at basketball. While both became NBA Draft picks, Kenny struggled under the weight of expectations set by being Calvin's younger brother. Kenny played for multiple NBA and minor league teams, including an Albany team coached by Phil Jackson well before his time with the Bulls and Lakers.
Put in a leadership role on the team, it finally clicked for Natt: I want to coach.
After stints in player personnel and coaching at the minor league and collegiate levels, Natt earned a job as an assistant coach to Jerry Sloan for the Utah Jazz.
âEveryone thinks that Jerry Sloan is the meanest guy that ever lived because he projects that persona, but he's one of the most passionate people you ever want to be around,â Natt says. âThere's no bull with him. He's straight and direct at all times. He is a mentor for me.â
After several years with the Jazz, which included back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Jordan and the Bulls in the NBA Finals, Natt took a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron James was just entering his 2nd year in the league. Natt helped LeBron deal with the sweltering daily requirements of being a superstar with the world dissecting his every move.
Natt says: âHow does a 19- or 20-year-old guy deal with that? But I witnessed him going from being quiet and shying away from leadership to just taking charge of the team. Witnessing it, for me, was great to see.â
After briefly serving as head coach of the Sacramento Kings, Natt took on another challenge - head coach of the India National Team. An initial visit found a facility with torn nets and wet floors, while being used by players with torn shoes and ragged jerseys. Natt also found untapped potential that simply needed more structure. Natt has worked to provide a more specialized training environment in place, while also instituting a more regimented feeder system that starts at age 14.
âTalent-wise, the national team would probably be at the level of a D-I mid-major,â Natt says. âThey deserve an opportunity to be better because they have such heart and determination, but they have so little in infrastructure and facilities.â
Still the India coach, Natt will serve in a dual role that is dear to his heart - teaching the game at the youth level. As basketball director at IMG Academy, Natt sees an opportunity to help others reach the heights that he's experienced.
âMy job is to not only teach them about basketball, but teach them about life. Be on time. Be respectful. If they work hard here and learn how to really grind, it's going to be beneficial to them in other aspects of their life.
Who knows what life will bring? Nobody could ever have told me a small kid from Bastrop, Louisiana could have a chance to go to the NBA. In life, if you're positive, if you're a good person, if you work hard, anything can happen.â