Two-Time Champ Beno Udrih Travels Across NBA in Search of Coaching Advice
MIAMI -- Beno Udrih is used to a hectic schedule. The 36-year-old has been playing professional basketball (and traveling accordingly) since he was 15. He spent 13 years in the NBA—including two titles in three years with the San Antonio Spurs in 2005 and 2007—before winning the Lithuanian Basketball League championship with Zalgiris Kaunas this past spring.
Though he hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2016-17 season, when he suited up for the Detroit Pistons, Beno has been plenty busy. He works out regularly, hitting the weights, and clearing his mind through yoga and perfecting his midrange jumper in hopes of another opportunity to help a team.
But despite feeling that he has “another year or two” left in him on the court, Beno isn’t waiting around for a phone call to figure out where his career might take him next. Instead, he’s looking ahead, doing something that few other NBA players (if any) have ever done: touring the U.S., on his own dime, to learn from the brightest coaching minds in basketball.
“I remember when I was a little boy, I was very determined that I'm going to be a basketball player and a successful one,” Beno tells CloseUp360 in Miami. “And this is now the second time in my life that I feel that I'm going to be good at something—and that's coaching.”
Beno’s life has been all about basketball since he first played professionally at the age of 15 in Slovenia. Over the years, his long-time profession has opened doors for him. At 36, he’s determined to forge a new path through the sport he loves.
About four years ago, Beno started to develop the itch to be on the sidelines. He felt he could bring some better approaches to coaching as he started thinking about life after basketball. Like a hacker cracking a code, he would spend practices obsessively deciphering how and why his coaches communicated the way they did. He remembers how some of his teammates would tune out long-winded rants.
“[The coaches] got an hour behind and it was kind of, like, ‘Why are they talking to us and like screaming at us and stuff?’” Beno says. “I was, like, ‘Okay, why is he screaming? Why?’ I'm trying to see what is he seeing, what is he trying actually to say, you know. I put myself in his position.”
During that time, his teammates began to see him as an extension of his coaches on the floor—even calling him “Coach Beno.”
“My position was a point guard. So basically everybody says that's a natural leader and I need to know all the plays,” he says. “Because teammates, sometimes they have tendencies to forget plays and I have to remind them where to go.”
The move into coaching for Beno isn’t a half-court heave to stay close to the game, but rather a natural progression amidst an uncertain future on the floor. He has leveraged his resources and his relationships to sharpen his coaching acumen.
Beno has participated in the NBPA Top 100 Camp at the University of Virginia in three of the last five years, and attended the NBPA’s Leadership Development Program in Las Vegas four times. Those events helped get Beno to where he is now, visiting teams and picking the brains of head coaches and assistants.
“Everybody's telling me in this Leadership Program, use your relationships that you built during the years when you were playing,” he says.
Over the course of his career, Beno played for eight NBA teams, all the while fostering strong connections around the league. Now, he’s circling back to familiar faces to learn about the coaching profession. So far, he has spent time in San Antonio, Utah, Golden State, Charlotte, Miami and Milwaukee (in that order). This week, he's in Denver. If a team doesn’t come calling for his on-court services, he will extend his tour to the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, where he also played.
“I love the fact that he’s doing that,” says Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who hosted Beno at team practices in Miami in late November. “That he’s willing and open-minded to learn, and to see a bunch of different ways of doing things.”
The team visits allow Beno to understand what works and, maybe more importantly, what doesn’t. He's not blinded by the championship jewelry of the coaches he's shadowed, including Spoelstra, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich. Instead, Beno seeks to understand their coaching styles as he shapes what will eventually be his own.
“I still have a lot to learn,” he says, “and I think the more you see of different styles, the more I think it helps you figure out who you really are, what do you like and what systems do you believe in.”
Beno understands that these current coaches are where he wants to be. Some of them, though, aren’t quite sure why he wants to be there.
“Beno’s crazy. I told him that,” Spo quips. “I gave him the same advice my dad gave me: Do not get into coaching.”
The blueprint for the job is a working document that anybody with the chops for its ever-changing script can add to and borrow from. Beno takes notes like a top student citing the teachings of the game’s sharpest sideline philosophers. From what he’s seen, Pop is great at expressing his point without the use of many words, Spo encourages players to get one percent better each day and Quin Snyder never stops teaching—even when his team is up by 40 points in a preseason game.
During his visit to Miami, Beno reconnected with Juwan Howard, who’s been an assistant with the Heat since retiring in 2013. Like Juwan, Beno has seen and been through it all—from starting and coming off the bench to sitting in street clothes, from championship teams in San Antonio to rebuilds in Sacramento, from trades and waivers to empty entries into free agency.
“I think I can relate to every player on the team,” he says. “I felt everything they have been feeling.”
Even the best coaches are not without their flaws. Beno has encountered some styles he doesn't subscribe to, but has taken something from everything he's seen, good or bad.
“The bad stuff that I don't believe in, I just don't believe in and every coach has that,” he says. “But the thing is, every team that I went to, I learned something new—even if I learned how not to do something.”
At each stop, he makes it clear that his purpose is to soak up as much knowledge as he can while in town. Just saying hello and humbling himself to hear people’s stories has done so much for him in this phase of his life.
While teams have welcomed him in—and have helped him book hotel rooms at reduced rates—these trips are all at Beno’s own expense.
“I like to think of it as like an investment. It's like an investment for my future,” he says. “I do want to be a coach, so that will help.”
Still, with each team visit, Beno can't ignore the urge to show off his basketball IQ and test his assist-to-turnover ratio on the court. His time out of the league has made for a sobering experience. Without an agent, he's had a hard time finding opportunities to compete professionally. And as he sees it, the near-elimination of midrange shots—at which he's excelled—and the addition of the two-way contract to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement have squeezed players, like him, out of the game.
“It created more jobs obviously, but I guess it hurt veterans like me,” Beno explains. “Because, you know, if you look at it, a team can get two players for a third of the price for a player like me.”
Beno has always known the depths of talents. By diving into coaching when he did, he might have shallowed the waters for his playing career.
“The last four years I've been thinking, like kind of a 50/50, like a player and a coach,” he says. “Could that have hurt my playing career? Maybe. I don’t know.”
“I was just trying to do the right thing all the time,” he adds.
Beno is exploring new waters in a familiar stream, but job hunting doesn’t come easy, even for someone with his connections. The two-time NBA champion can’t just put his resume on Indeed and hope for someone to come calling. When he saw that former New York City legend and NBA veteran Rod Strickland had been appointed the head of the G League's new professional path program, Beno reached out to see if he could help.
That’s who Beno is—someone who is always willing to help. Assisting in basketball has been his calling since his teenage years, and figures to be, in a different way, even after he’s done playing.
“He could choose front office work if he wanted to,” Spo says. “But Beno, he’s a basketball junkie. You’ve got to love that, got to respect it. He loves being around the game. He loves teaching. He was like that as a player, certainly when we had him.
“So he’ll find his way to be in this profession and make an impact, despite my advice.”
And despite—or because of—the wisdom he’s soaked in from all the other coaches whose class he hopes to join someday.
Warren Shaw is a veteran NBA writer based in Miami. Follow him on Twitter.
Beno's Coaching Circuit (in order)
1) San Antonio
Beno with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili and team studio analyst Matt Bonner.
Beno with Utah Jazz assistant coach Raul Lopez.
3) Golden State
Beno took this photo when he visited the Warriors' practice center.
Beno with Hornets All-Star Kemba Walker.
Beno with fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic.
Beno with Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
(Photos courtesy of Beno Udrih)