PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. – Nick Friedman loves basketball, more than anyone else you’ll meet. Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was the biggest Boston Celtics fan around. So why, when he finally fulfilled his dream of working in the Celtics organization, did he leave mere weeks after?
Some seemingly unrelated incidents thousands of miles away would end up forcing his hand.
Friedman is now a Northern Arizona Suns assistant coach, the head of the offense. That offense was second in the NBA G League in scoring this season, shooting (and making) threes at a record pace. Across the board, Northern Arizona improved on that end of the floor dramatically, so it’s clear Friedman knows what he’s doing.
Years ago, Cody Toppert, now the head coach of the NAZ Suns, could see Friedman knew what he was doing too.
“Cody was in Florida running his prep school and doing some pre-draft stuff with the likes of Cleanthony Early and Johnny O’Bryant, who played for us here. So I heard about him,” Friedman said. “His operation was about an hour away from Miami in Delray Beach. I just one day drove up there and kind of stepped foot in the gym and the minute I stepped in I introduced myself. He said, ‘You want to work?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I started working and helping him out.”
Friedman had moved on from playing Division III basketball at Bates College to working with the University of Miami’s basketball team, and more specifically, working with Hurricanes head coach Jim Larrañaga.
After working a short stint together, Friedman and Toppert lost contact until another offseason in Miami, when Friedman was a graduate assistant for the Hurricanes basketball team. Then the two continued pre-draft workouts together, working with the likes of a Terry Rozier.
Toppert left for an assistant coaching position with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. A year passed before Toppert came calling, asking Friedman to come down to RGV and be the director of player development.
“I took a leap of faith and left my job as a grad assistant at the University of Miami and worked for the Vipers. We had a great season. He and I developed a great chemistry, me helping him more on the offensive side as an assistant offensive coordinator. It kind of just took off from there,” Friedman said.
The Vipers made it to the G League Finals that season before losing in the deciding game to the Raptors 905. Such a tough loss wouldn’t compare to the tough decision Friedman was going to have to face in a few months.
The 27-year-old left his job as video coordinator and director of player development at the Vipers and landed a job with his favorite team, the Celtics. A goal above all goals had been achieved. What could be better?
Friedman had been hired as an assistant coach for the Maine Red Claws, the G League affiliate of the Celtics. He worked through training camp with both the Celtics and Red Claws, preparing for the 2017-18 season. Meanwhile, three members of the NAZ Suns coaching staff had been called up to the Phoenix Suns. Of course, that meant little to Friedman, until his old colleague Toppert was named head coach of the NAZ Suns.
“All of a sudden he calls me, ‘Hey I got the job. Come with.’ Then all of a sudden I get a call from the Houston Rockets offering me his old spot and the Boston Celtics wanted me to stay. It was a crazy experience,” Friedman said. “It was something that I’ve never been a part of and it was a heavy learning experience. I think I made the right decision by coming here and joining Cody and helping create a culture within the Phoenix Suns organization.”
From getting a job in the Celtics organization to suddenly facing a decision between three teams wanting him, it couldn’t have been an easy time. But Friedman was left thinking, ‘What’s next?’
“It was tough, it was tough. I’m from Boston and a lifelong Celtics fan. Celtics die-hard fan my whole life, it was definitely difficult,” Friedman said. “Danny Ainge being an idol of mine and finally having the opportunity working year after year, summer after summer trying to put myself in a position to be with that organization — I did it, and all of a sudden I’m faced with the decision to taking on a little more responsibility and the opportunity to run an offense.
“I couldn’t pass it up.”
Friedman had to essentially start from scratch. He arrived in Prescott Valley two hours before tip-off of the season opener not knowing a soul besides Toppert. Luckily he had experiences like that before, as he made moves to both Miami and Rio Grande Valley without any real connections.
A familiar face would eventually come to Prescott Valley. Davon Reed had been with Friedman at the University of Miami before he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns. A leg injury sidelined him from games until January. That meant an assignment to the NAZ Suns.
“I got to Miami when he was an incoming freshman and we kind of came up together. We were in the gym every single day. Our offseasons were crazy, such a grind and to see him get to this point, it was amazing,” Friedman said. “The fact that he gets drafted by the Suns and all of a sudden I’m in Phoenix, it was like, ‘Wow, this is really going to happen.’
“He and I sat back after (the first game) in Reno and were like, ‘Wow, this is crazy that this happened, after all these years I’m on the same sideline with him coaching in a professional basketball game.’”
The future is bright for the “hip-hop enthusiast” with so many connections and the work ethic to make it to the top. He didn’t originally see himself as a coach until he got to Miami, when he walked in the gym and, “realized this is what I want to do. From there I never stopped.”
He really doesn’t stop. While working at Miami he also coached an AAU team. Now, he fulfills his Suns duties while also working as an assistant coach for the Haitian national team. In the current offseason, he continues pre-draft workouts in Miami and is preparing to coach Haiti in Group B play of the Caribbean Cup in Suriname.
“It’s a cause that’s far bigger than the game of basketball,” Friedman said. “Any time you can get involved with something that can add that type of impact to the game, it’s a hell of an opportunity.”
Once you understand Friedman the person, you quickly understand Friedman the professional — a guy who likes nothing more than to help people.
“I think any time you have the opportunity to help a guy with their career directly, really hands on in terms of every single day — we’re helping them work on habits that are going to take themselves to the next level both mentally and physically — that’s what I want to do,” Friedman said. “Hopefully one day it can help me become a head coach, but if not, I’m going to keep working.
“I think this is what I want to do. Help teams win championships and help them develop players and help them create an offense that is capable of taking their team to the highest level.”