COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — It’s one thing to witness history. It’s another to be a part of it. 72-year-old Jim Cleamons, a 1966 grad of Linden-McKinley, has been a part of some of the most iconic moments, and teams, in NBA history.
Phil Jackson is considered one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time. By his side during most of his coaching career was Cleamons, a 1971 graduate of Ohio State who won 10 NBA championships — one as a player and nine as an assistant coach under Jackson.
Cleamons is the head coach of the Ohio All-Stars who will be competing against the HBCU All-Stars at the Classic for Columbus on Saturday night. Cleamons is accustomed to being among the stars.
Among the stars
Cleamons was drafted 13th overall by the Lakers in 1971, joining one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Half of that championship Lakers’ squad is in the NBA Hall of Fame: Wilt Chamberlin, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and Pat Riley.
He spent only one year in Los Angeles, but Cleamons said it laid the foundation for a successful 10-year playing career.
“I had to learn very quickly because I wasn’t one of the best players on the court,” Cleamons said. “What did you need that I could provide? I had to accept roles. I did not like to lose, so what did I have to do to help win? That’s the secret. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
He applied that same mindset to coaching when he joined Jackson’s Chicago Bulls’ staff in 1989. Led by Michael Jordan, the Bulls won six titles in eight years, including four with Cleamons.
He left after the 1996 championship season to become the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, a brief stint that ended 16 games into his second season. But Cleamons’ coaching career was far from over. He returned to the assistant ranks in 1999 to reunite with Jackson, this time in Los Angeles where the Lakers were on the precipice of a dynasty led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
At 50 years old, Cleamons began another remarkable run with the Lakers who won three-straight championships from 200-02. Cleamons won one last title with the Lakers in 2009 and left with Jackson in 2011.
“I was so blessed to have an impact on who they are as personalities. It’s just endless because they’re also good people,” Cleamons said. “When you look back and reflect, this is what . . . gives you value on what you’re doing. It kind of validates that there’s something positive with the work that you’re doing.”
He spent three more years as an assistant coach, including the 2013-14 season in Milwaukee where he helped mentor a rookie by the hard-to-pronounce name of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Life after basketball
The pandemic forced Cleamons to stay home for nearly two years due to his age, but now he’s ready to get back out into his Columbus community and make a difference once more in the lives of young men who are playing the game he loves.