Elliott Etherington's Swift Ascent

Niagara River Lions coaching staff from left to right (Grâce Lokole, Elliott Etherington, head coach Keith Vassell) discussing tactics during a time-out against the Orangeville A’s. (Photo by Santiago Maynard.)

Could you imagine clinching your dream job at the age of 23? Could you imagine coaching a professional basketball team with players older than you on it? Being exposed to a level of basketball most people only dream of?

Elliott Etherington, 23-year-old assistant coach for the Niagara River Lions of the National Basketball League of Canada (NBLC), can say, with pride, that this is his reality. Etherington’s work ethic and basketball knowledge got him in a place in the basketball world that deserves a tremendous amount of respect. Even still, he remains humble when speaking about his career.

Although many may get caught up in the early success of a career oozing with potential, Etherington seems relaxed, confident, almost as if this is what he expected of himself. Nothing really seems to shock or surprise the even-tempered young coach – a demeanour you’d expect from a veteran.

I sat down with coach Etherington, prior to a home game against the Orangeville A’s, to talk about what started his coaching career, his rise to prominence and what the experience of coaching professional basketball has been like for him, mid-way through his second season on the River Lions coaching staff.

UP: What got you started in coaching?

Etherington: I was playing basketball, probably around the time I was 13 or 14, and there were opportunities to help out with minor organisations with 8 and 9-year-olds, like a house league. When you’re in high school in Canada, you need to do community service anyways, so helping out with house leagues is a good way of getting those hours.

I really like basketball, and after helping those kids, I kind of realised coaching is something I really like to do. There were more opportunities as I got older to help out with younger groups of kids, and it got to the point where I was always helping out with camps and leagues and different things like that.

Then I went away to college and kind of put that on the back burner. I thought when I was older and had  a real career I’d be able to find time to coach. But then there was an opportunity that came up my second year of college, and since then I’ve been an assistant coach at either the OCAA or NBLC level for the last three years.

I saw that you got started as a broadcaster. What was that transition like, going from broadcasting to the bench?

The transition was good; I think the one thing that helped was that I stayed at Niagara College. I went from doing that my second year to coaching in my third year there. The good thing was I got to watch the college game the whole time, when you’re a broadcaster you have to watch the game, obviously they’re live, so I got comfortable with the style of play and the league and just what the OCAA is like.

That really helped with coaching it because I had to watch a whole season of it to understand and broadcast and talk about it so that really helped me out and if I hadn’t gone the broadcasting route, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I might have gone to a different college and maybe taken a different program and maybe I would’ve played basketball at a different college. Then I would never have gotten the coaching opportunity, so the broadcasting thing was definitely the stepping stone I needed, once I got out of high school, to pursue coaching.

You were looking at possibly playing at a different college?

Yeah, the thing with Niagara college is it has the most extensive and the best broadcasting course in the country, college-wise, and it’s one of the top three programs along with Ryerson and Western [Universities]. When you look at the Niagara college broadcasting program there’s so many opportunities, but the thing is because it’s so extensive, and so good, you have to devote your time to that program.

Going into college, I talked to one of the assistant coaches that I knew really well in the area – he had coached me before in a minor summer rep team, and I told him I was coming to Niagara, and he said: “Are you going to try-out?” I said yeah, he said: “Great, what program are you taking?” I told him broadcasting, and he immediately goes: “Okay, don’t tryout,” I was like “What do you mean don’t tryout?” he was like: “You’re not going to have enough time, if you like broadcasting, and that’s what you want to do, you’re not going to have time to play sports.”

A little known fact there was another varsity athlete at the same time as me in the broadcasting program and they weren’t really sure that broadcasting was going to be their thing anyways, but they did have to drop the program because they chose their sport over broadcasting. They went on to get a really good job in the paramedics program, that’s what they wanted to do instead, so it didn’t really turn out bad for them, but that’s just an example of what that program is like.

Varsity athletes really can’t go through that program and be able to balance both, so I would’ve played at another school for sure, there were several OCAA schools that I was talking to play with, and if I went to any one of those four places I would’ve played, but instead I chose Niagara, and it worked out in the end.

What is it like to coach players older than you?

One thing that you think would be tough is them not wanting to listen to anything you have to say, but if you put in the work and the effort and make sure they understand how much work you’ve put in, they’re going to listen to you. Now what they see on the court is more than what I’ve ever seen on the court, they have more experience playing than I do, so I have to approach from an objective view, like: “Okay, I watched this film, maybe you should try this, or I’ve been watching you shoot, try to tuck this in, or tighten this up.” That sort of thing, not so much “Oh you should be doing this!” It’s about giving hints.

The other thing is these guys are professionals, this is their job, so at the end of the day they have to make sure they do a good enough job to get a job next year. The easiest thing to do is to just come in and explain “Look, I’m trying to make sure that you can keep your career, I’m trying to help you keep your career. I’m not doing this for my own ego, I’m trying to do this so that we both have a job next year. It’s a common goal, so let’s work toward it together.”

The biggest thing is these guys are incredibly professional and very mature and they’re understanding of every situation of coaching. I mean yeah, you look at the NBA level of coaching where these guys have been doing it for 30 years. They’re the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and at this level you have various experiences, some very experienced, very polished head coaches and, on the other side, you have some assistant coaches who are really trying to get better. There is a lot of young, talented coaches in this league just trying to get better, and the pros understand that.

They’re really easy to work with, they’ve helped me a lot. There’s a lot of the veteran guys on this team that have been play pro for six, seven, eight, nine years who help me every day. I just try to make sure that I help them as much as I can, as much as they help me. As long as we’re both trying, and working toward the same goal, then we’re going to see each other in a light of mutual respect as we go.

What was your “Wow, I’m a professional coach!” moment? 

A pretty cool one was during our very first game. It was a road game, so we went into London. All I heard about London in the league is that they’ve got the best organisation, their facilities are very nice, they have the biggest fan base.

I walked in there early, the arena was empty, I went and sat at the scorer’s table and just looked around. That was kind of cool, but at the same time I’m not going to lie, when I sat down I was like “Okay, this is it.” I wasn’t like “Oh my god, this is it!” I was like “Okay, this is what it looks like.”

I really haven’t had an “Oh my gosh,” moment yet, but I know it’ll come, I think right now I’m just so young and naïve, and it’s just happening so quickly, that I don’t really have time to sit back and admire it. I just kind of do what I have to do each day. But I’m quite confident that that “Oh my gosh,” moment is coming sometime soon.

What’s the toughest part of the job, for you?

The toughest part, for me, is just putting in hours, you have to be really committed. Not going to lie, I am someone who likes his sleep, and there are nights where I don’t really get much of it.

Time management is pretty much the toughest part of the job, and if you can get through that then you’ll be successful, but it’s very, very, very tough. That’s something that I’m really trying to work through and get better at, that really is just it, just time management. They’ll be days like today, which is a perfect example, where we have a game day. We start with a shoot around at 11 that wraps up around 12. Normally we’ll get back to the office about a quarter after 12, but today there was a blizzard, so now we’re getting back to the office at about 1, and we have a bunch if things to do, and tomorrow is the transaction deadline, so we have to make sure our roster is what it needs to be ... and then all of a sudden it’s 4 and you got to be back at the arena, and it’s like “Where did the hours go?”

Moments like that are tough, but as long as you can time manage, it’s really not too bad. You just have to make sure you love basketball and you know what time of day it is.

Who is the most talented player you’ve ever coached? 

The most talented player I’ve ever coached would have to be either B.J. Monteiro – straight talent, or this year, Richard Amardi.

Richard Amardi closing out on his man, Etherington went as far as calling him one of the most talented players he’s ever coached. (Photo by Santiago Maynard.)

Those two guys are a little bit different from one another, one’s a 6-foot-6 combo guard who can rebound, and Richard is a 6-foot-9 guy who can play the three on offence, that can guard a five on defence, can block shots, take changes, shoot the 3 ... I mean, Richard is one of the most versatile, and he’s super athletic. Last year, B.J. Monteiro was an amazing guard, and this year in the forward spot Richard is very talented. They’re both very talented players.

Best player you’ve ever played with?

I didn’t really play with too many players, I mean one of my best friends, Jack Daneyko, in high school he was one of the best players I played with.

I played against some pretty good players. I played against Dyshawn Pierre who went to Dayton, they were in the [NCAA] tournament last year, he’s one of the better players. I played against Kevin Pangos, I played against Grant Mullins who’s at California right now, so I’ve played against a few NCAA guys. I played against Naz Long who’s with Iowa State in the NCAA tournament, so I mean I’ve played against some legit guys, but to be honest my playing experience wasn’t long enough to rack up too many great players.

Niagara River Lions coaching staff, from left to right (Vito DiMartino, Grâce Lokole, Elliott Etherington, Keith Vassell) analysing their team’s play. (Photo by Santiago Maynard.)

Where do you see your career going from here?

I really don’t like to think about that too much, because I didn’t think I’d ever get this opportunity this quick and I’m already here.

Personally, all I know is that I have to progress. I know I’ve got to write some certification to move forward so I can coach a higher level in both Canada and the States. I know that I’ve got to get around and do more coaching clinics, and I’ve got to watch top level coaches and listen to them and be around them more. I know what I have to do to get to the next spot, but where do I see my career going from here? I don’t want to think about that.

The one thing the broadcasting world taught me is never say no to an opportunity, so if I get a good one, there’s no chance I’m going to say no to it. I’ve got to make sure I’m prepared and ready for everything.