The year was 1969, and the Washington Caps of the American Basketball Association had come to town. The one-year window in which the Caps called the District home is also when Ed Tapscott‘s bridge to professional basketball began in earnest.
With no practice facility of their own, the Caps used the gymnasium of Sidwell Friends School in Northwest. And with legendary players like Rick Barry, Fatty Taylor, Warren Jabali and Ira Harge swooping among the rafters of his high school gym, Tapscott - then a sophomore guard - wanted to get as close a look as possible and volunteered to be a ball boy.
But the story of the D.C. native’s ascension to coach of the Washington Wizards doesn’t take the storybook path: emulating the spectacular skills he witnessed during those late-night practices, starring in college and the NBA, returning home to a hero’s welcome to coach his hometown team.
Tapscott’s bridge to basketball, as he likes to call it, is one of the most unconventional in the NBA. He has a law degree and has served as the coach of American University, a front office official with the New York Knicks, an architect of the Charlotte Bobcats and a director of player development with the Wizards. All that happened before he landed his first coaching job in the NBA last week, when Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld fired Eddie Jordan after a 1-10 start.
Tapscott, 55, makes no apologies for his path because it’s not like he hasn’t paid his dues. He certainly has - in a diverse way and as part of a plan to ensure he always would be able to use his skills in some form in the NBA.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities,” Tapscott said. “It’s a small league: 30 teams, only 30 coaches. There are fewer of us than U.S. senators. … I never wanted to be pigeonholed where I could only do one thing. I wanted to learn about this league in a global sense so I could do multiple things.
“As I was in high school looking at those fabulous athletes, I didn’t think I was going to be one of those guys, but I found another bridge to cross into professional basketball. I didn’t get here using my jump shot, but I got here using my brain.”
After playing guard for Sidwell, Tapscott went on to play at Tufts University. Just 5-foot-10 and a defensive-minded guard, he knew he wouldn’t make it to the NBA. So he came up with his first contingency plan: serving as an assistant coach at Tufts while pursuing his master’s degree.
Two years later, he enrolled in law school at AU. After a year, he got the itch to coach again and ended up joining Gary Williams’ staff while completing his studies. In 1982, Williams left AU for Boston College; Tapscott, then 27, took over for Williams. During his tenure, which lasted until 1990, he won 109 games and became the winningest coach in program history.
It wasn’t until he left AU that Tapscott put his law degree to use and became an agent. In 1991, he met Grunfeld through a mutual friend. Tapscott was scouting Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson in hopes of signing him; Grunfeld was scouting Anderson in hopes of drafting him for the Knicks. Roughly five months later, Grunfeld, who had been promoted to New York’s general manager, offered Tapscott a job.
“I was looking for someone who had college experience … and he was well connected,” Grunfeld said. “I asked him one day if he’d be interested in being our director of player personnel because he had all the qualifications I was looking for: a great ability to communicate, his knowledge of the game and his leadership skills.”
Nine years later, Grunfeld was out in New York, and Tapscott became interim team president and general manager. Later, he was reunited with Grunfeld as a consultant in Milwaukee before undertaking the toughest challenge of his career in 2004.
When BET founder Bob Johnson bought what ended up being the Charlotte Bobcats, his first hire was Tapscott as CEO and president, charging him with the daunting task of building the expansion franchise from the ground up. He would oversee the business side of the franchise, basketball operations, the regional television network and construction of the team’s new arena.
Tapscott tackled the job with confidence even though, until that point, his biggest claim to fame was drafting an NBA bust, French center Frederic Weis. But Tapscott learned from the experience.
“Have you ever heard of anyone who worked a job and didn’t make a mistake?” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be confident? It turned out being a mistake because we didn’t do it right. … But that’s OK. You’re going to make mistakes here and there, and if you don’t, you’re not trying.”
With Charlotte, Tapscott discovered running an entire organization wasn’t much different from coaching.
“I needed to communicate with people. I needed to set up a plan. I needed to get people to execute a plan, need to motivate people to do it well,” said Tapscott, who declined an offer from Johnson to stay on once Michael Jordan joined the organization in 2006. “Weren’t those skills I learned on the basketball side on the practice court way back and college and in the NBA?”
As he accepted another challenging project - finding a way to turn around the Wizards’ rough start - Tapscott has drawn from the same skills.
“He is a big-time communicator, and as a head coach that’s something you can’t take for granted,” guard Antonio Daniels said. “There’s no confusion of what he wants our role to be.”
Tapscott - who has struggled with the promotion because he was close with Eddie Jordan but didn’t want to pass up what he called an opportunity of a lifetime - has ramped up the team’s defensive focus, simplified the offense and streamlined the rotation. Before each game, he sits down with each player he doesn’t expect to use and explains why they will spend the night on the bench.
Entering Tuesday’s game at New Jersey, the Wizards are 1-2 with Tapscott at the helm. He said it will take time to get the Wizards back on track and noted that he’s not even looking to next year - next week or the day after next. But as his bridge to and through professional basketball extends further, Tapscott is on his way to putting his mark on the Wizards.
“The thing I like about ‘Tap’ is we watch a lot of film. We look at our mistakes. We look at things we need to improve on,” team captain Antawn Jamison said. “We’re learning what makes him tick. He yelled at us a little bit for the first time the other day, and I think guys are starting to [understand] the rotation as well.
“He’s starting to get his identity as a coach, and we’re starting to understand what he wants our identity to be. We’re headed in the right direction.”