CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Dunlap of Fairbanks has taken the long road. He's taken the road less traveled. He's been a trailblazer. And he's taken detours.
And when the Charlotte Bobcats announce Dunlap as their new coach Wednesday, he might face his most difficult road yet: Putting a team whose 7-59 record last season under former coach Paul Silas was the worst, percentage-wise, in NBA history back on the right path.
And although Dunlap, 54, doesn't have lots of league experience or a lengthy NCAA Division I head- coaching career, those who know him don't think that matters.
"I know there are a lot of naysayers out there," said Denver coach George Karl, who hired Dunlap as a Nuggets assistant in 2006. "But this is a guy who understands what it takes to coach in the NBA. He understands that coaching in the NBA is a game of ego and attitude. But it's also about fundamentals and discipline. Mike is going to blend all that."
A 1976 Lathrop High graduate, Dunlap grew up around basketball. He was a fan of Clair Markey's up-tempo teams at Lathrop and he was the son of the team doctor for the UAF basketball team.
A 5-foot-10 point guard, Dunlap left Alaska to play two seasons at a junior college in California. He was good enough to transfer and play two seasons at Loyola Marymount.
His tenure in Denver lasted two seasons and represents his only time in the NBA in a 32-year career. His other jobs have been either head positions in lower NCAA classifications or overseas, or as an assistant at Division I programs.
But there's little doubt Dunlap has spent those 32 years on the path to this moment. An unrelenting disciplinarian, Dunlap is also known throughout the coaching business -- college and pro -- as a collaborator who loves to teach and develops players.
"He's able do what it takes to work with his players," said Patrick Mutombo, the Nuggets' player development coordinator who played for Dunlap at NCAA Division II Metropolitan (Colo.) State. "Whether he's dealing with D-II players, or McDonald's All-Americans at St. John's or Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson in the NBA, he makes it work."
Dunlap's most recent season as a college assistant was perhaps his most challenging.
Hired by Steve Lavin as an assistant in 2010, Dunlap filled in as acting head coach last season while Lavin recovered from prostate cancer surgery. But Dunlap quickly brought his own coaching style to the Red Storm, beginning with his trademark early morning practices.
How hard were those practices? Former St. John's forward Moe Harkless (who is entering the NBA draft after his freshman season) joked on his Twitter account Dunlap would make players run wind sprints if they so much as yawned at the 5:45 a.m. practices.
"He's two completely different people," Harkless said to New York Newsday. "In practice, he's hard, a perfectionist. We need that. Off the court, he's a nice guy. If you ever need anything, he'll help you out."
That extends to his colleagues. Dunlap's reputation led Davidson's Bob McKillop to seek him out at last season's Final Four in New Orleans. In a five-minute conversation, they made plans for McKillop to come to St. John's this summer to go over some of Dunlap's defensive principles.
"It's a tremendous step he's about to take," said McKillop of Dunlap's move to the Bobcats. "And there is a tremendous question mark about how he'll make this transition. But he's a guy who has a bounce in his step and has had terrific success. He's obviously demonstrated a great ability to assimilate himself in other situations and to be able to create a sense of team within an organization."
His longest and most successful tenure as a head coach, however, was from 1997-2006 at Metro State, a commuter school located in downtown Denver. In nine seasons under Dunlap, the Roadrunners won two NCAA Division II championships and played in another title game.
Dunlap had a 248-50 record at Metro State.
By DAVID SCOTT
Charlotte (N.C.) Observer