Bobcats Coach Mike Dunlap directs his players during a game against the… (Chuck Burton / Associated…)
It is a day after the Charlotte Bobcats lost to the Clippers, 106-84, and the Bobcats have practice at an El Segundo health club where the Clippers used to practice before they got their own facility.
Mike Dunlap, 55, is standing in a corner as his players straggle in. No one makes eye contact with Dunlap, who says, in a matter-of-fact voice, "Stretch." And, with some more quickly than others, stretching happens.
If it doesn't feel like a happy place to be — the Bobcats have the worst record in the NBA, and less than a month ago their star Ben Gordon defied his coach by refusing to stop bouncing a basketball and listen — Dunlap refuses to be negative.
He once was an assistant coach at USC, under George Raveling, and last year he coached St. John's, stepping in for Steve Lavin, who was recovering from prostate cancer. He also once was the head coach at Cal Lutheran and was an assistant at Oregon and Arizona. He won two NCAA Division II titles coaching at Metro State in Denver.
Dunlap grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, which doesn't produce many basketball lifers, and what with his current situation, it seemed a natural question.
Would Dunlap be interested in returning to USC as head coach?
Dunlap's eyes got big and you could see the word "No" forming inside his head before it hit his mouth. "No," Dunlap said. "Not at all."
After all, it was Michael Jordan who recruited Dunlap for this job. Comparatively, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden doesn't have quite that cache.
As for Gordon's little defiance, Dunlap says he's not upset.
"In the scheme of things, those things happen to every NBA coach," Dunlap said. "It's a hiccup. Actually, it's been pretty calm considering we've had a culture of losing the past eight or nine seasons and an influx of youth. It's a slow road to improvement if you go the route of draft picks and trades unless you want to go over the salary cap.
"I'm a teacher and I think Michael Jordan appreciated that. That's how I interviewed. I told him quite frankly it could be three to five years for me to fix this. It's a challenging situation.
"But it was a challenging situation for me at St. John's last year. I don't back away from challenging situations."
It wasn't only the Gordon incident that tested Dunlap's patience. The Bobcats had an 18-game losing streak this season.
But Dunlap said he's known since he was in the second grade in Alaska that he wanted to be a coach. Why?
"I liked all my gym teachers," he said, "and all the gym teachers were coaches."
Dunlap said he learned several lessons last year while filling in for Lavin. At first he was only going to coach a few games, but when Lavin's recovery took longer than expected, Dunlap coached for the entire year.
"I was pleased that I held the program together," said Dunlap who was friends with Lavin's late father, Cap. "We stayed the course at a time that was difficult. And then to get a call from Michael Jordan? I'm the most appreciative person in the world."