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At the 2015 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas my sister shot me a text message, from the stands, asking who all the men were in dark shirts on the Denver Nuggets bench, noting that there were almost as many guys out of uniform than in uniform. Scanning across to the team’s bench from underneath one of the baskets in press row, I surveyed who she was referring to and wrote her back that the men in dark shirts were all a part of Michael Malone’s new coaching staff.
There’s a lot of new faces to get to know among the assistants when you consider: Ed Pinckney, Wes Unseld Jr., Micah Nori, Ryan Bowen, Dee Brown and holdovers from the Brian Shaw staff John Beckett and Noel Gillespie (who also was on George Karl’s staff). The one man who was not present in Vegas was assistant coach Chris Fleming. He was preparing the German National team, of which he’s the head coach, for 2015 EuroBasket play. In all, the Nuggets had three members of the program participating in EuroBasket in Joffrey Lauvergne (France), Danilo Gallinari (Italy) and Fleming.
“A lot of people think that Chris Fleming is German,” said Malone,” “he’s from Jersey. He’s from the Jersey Shore. Chris and I actually played together at the very famous Five-Star basketball camps when we were both in high school. I’ll say this about Chris: he’s never seen a shot he didn’t like. He didn’t pass the ball to anybody.”
“That’s probably true, I think there’s something to that,” said Fleming. “We didn’t really know each other back then. Tim Connelly introduced us, brought us together.”
Being an East Coast guy, Fleming had gotten to know one of Connelly’s brothers, who introduced the two when Tim was working for the Washington Wizards.
Fleming grew up on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, population of 8,556, but when he was 10-years-old his family moved to Forked River, New Jersey and he eventually attended Lacey Township High School. Lacey Township sits roughly 84 miles south of the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets.
“[Forked River] is kind of a small town, close to the beach – it was a big part of life,” said Fleming. “It wasn’t a great basketball school, which was probably good for me because I got to play early.”
Fleming credits his dad, Robert, for getting him into basketball. His father played college hoops and even coached a little bit. After high school, Fleming continued his basketball career in the college ranks, but he would have to leave the friendly confines of home.
“He was a good player, went to UCONN out of high school, wound up transferring to Richmond.” said Malone.
After Fleming’s four-year stint as a Richmond Spider, from 1989-93, he put his name in the NBA draft, but his name was never called. His playing career took him to Germany, where from 1994-2000 he played for a few different divisions for the QTSV Quakenbrück Dragons.
“It was kind of dumb luck. I played in college and wanted to continue to play afterwards. I thought I could, pretty much nobody had the same opinion of me that I did,” said Fleming with a laugh. “My college roommate was playing in Germany, he met a girl, she decided it was a little too lonely for him and unbeknownst to me she started calling clubs for me. She got me a job in the fourth division in Germany, which is the B-Fraternity league at any university in terms of level [of play], but that’s how I got in. I ended up playing for six years, worked my way up, played a little higher than that, but that’s how I got there.”
Pretty incredible, had Fleming not had that particular college roommate, and had his former roommate not been dating such a persistent girlfriend, who knows where he’d be today. Once in Germany on his B-Division team, Fleming ingrained himself in his surroundings.
“What was really special for me is that because I didn’t play at a high level — I was the only foreigner on the team, and I landed in a pretty small town — I really got to learn the language and the culture,” Fleming reminisced. “Maybe I didn’t learn a whole lot of basketball [in that first season], but I learned a whole lot about the culture and it just improved me as a person, in that respect.”
A current Nuggets player that can empathize with Fleming’s situation is Erick Green. After a draft day trade with the Utah Jazz for the No. 46th pick in 2013, Green spent his first season as a professional in Italy, learning about a new culture. And on the flip side, Fleming and Green can empathize with Danilo Gallinari, Jusuf Nurkic, Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic.
Fleming and Ryan Bowen working with Jokic on post play. Jameer still shooting threes. pic.twitter.com/qFUOg5Q8aC
— Nate Timmons (@NateTimmonsBSN) October 11, 2015
Fleming’s career came to an abrupt end, but not due to injury.
“Probably as lucky as it was that I played, my coaching career was just as lucky,” said Fleming. “The team that I played for, we had gotten to the second division and the goal was to go to the first division. I think they realized their foreign player just wasn’t good enough to help them do that. So, they fired me as a player, but offered me the coaching job. Again, just the right place at the right time to get started.
“When I started coaching they were really patient with me and understood, ‘Ok, he’s young and he’s going to make his mistakes.’ I just was really lucky in terms of where I started.” said Fleming.
Fleming had hopes to keep playing, but wanted to stay in the game and recognized the opportunity in front of him. He would go on to have major success as a head coach in Germany. His teams won four German Cups: 2008, 2010-12, four German league championships: 2010-13, three German Supercup championships: 2010-12 and he was named German Coach of the Year in 2011.
In Nov. of 2014, Fleming was named head coach of the German National Team. He worked with a couple NBA stars this summer at EuroBasket in Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks and Dennis Schröder of the Atlanta Hawks, and he’ll be on the sidelines for Germany at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I didn’t work last year, and they were looking for a guy who could [coach] during the season. I thought my reputation in Germany was pretty good, and I had worked with the Federation with the Under-20 team in 2005, so the connection was already there,” said Fleming. “The best experience I’ve ever had in basketball was this past summer with the National Team – I really, really enjoyed it. I’m thankful that I got that opportunity, and that the Nuggets allowed me to do both.”
The transition to the NBA has already begun for Fleming. He’s learning the terminology and the intricacies of the NBA game.
“What I like about Chris is — yes I have a relationship with him from years ago — when I got the job and I met with Tim [Connelly] and Arturas [Karnisovas], in trying to put the staff together,” Malone said. “I didn’t want to get just all NBA guys, I wanted somebody that could bring a different perspective. And Chris’ many years as a head coach in the German Pro League, as well as being the head coach of the National Team, brings that international perspective.
“They do things differently, it’s becoming a lot like the NBA in many regards, but the international game, their offensive patterns and how they defend… he brings something different,” continued Malone. “So, I’ll throw things off of him to get his reaction because: me, Ed, Wes, Micah, Ryan, we’ve all been NBA-ized. It’s kind of like a herd mentality, so it’s great to have a different, fresh perspective.”
As Malone has said of himself, he cares about relationships. The Nuggets organization has put an emphasis on building a team with high character guys that want to help build the program back up. In Fleming, the team found a man that had to learn a new language and become part of a new culture, and he thrived. A nice find by Connelly and Malone.
“I hope that I can give a little different perspective because I haven’t been in the NBA pool,” said Fleming, “maybe a guy that can think outside the box because I’ve simply been outside the box. So, I hope I can bring that to the table and as much enthusiasm as we need. This just fit time wise, it was a chance to work for a great coach like Mike and then have a chance to grow up in the NBA with a young team. It really fit well.”