Following footsteps while blazing own path

Maccabi Tel Aviv swingman Lionel Hollins holds court on his rich basketball background.

 ONE OF Maccabi Tel Aviv’s new imports, Austin Hollins brings a lot of international experience and should help the yellow-and-blue in many facets. (photo credit: Dov Halickman)
ONE OF Maccabi Tel Aviv’s new imports, Austin Hollins brings a lot of international experience and should help the yellow-and-blue in many facets.
(photo credit: Dov Halickman)

Maccabi Tel Aviv opened up its Euroleague season last week with a win over Zalgiris Friday night in Turkey when it faced a new-look Fenerbahce that features former yellow-and-blue standout Scottie Wilbekin.

Oded Katash and Maccabi management worked all summer long to remake the roster, which includes eight new foreign players as the club decided to start from scratch and rebuild the entire squad.

The opportunity to bring in a new slate for the new bench boss was a chance to take a step back and look at the bigger picture while trying to find the missing ingredients that the team lacked last season, despite having advanced to the quarterfinals of the Euroleague where it was unceremoniously swept by Real Madrid.

Add to the fact that the club was knocked out of the Israeli league in the semifinals by cup winner Bnei Herzliya, and it was clear to all that a new page needed to be turned.

With that in mind, Maccabi looked for top-notch players both on and off the court and ones that would bring a high level of character to the table in order to be the best version that they can be.

 BNEI HERZLIYA CENTER Chinanu Onuaku (32) dunks over multiple Maccabi Tel Aviv defenders for two of his game-high 25 points in Herzliya’s series-clinching 96-74 victory over the host yellow-and-blue in Israel Winner League semifinal action. (credit: Kobi Eliyahu) BNEI HERZLIYA CENTER Chinanu Onuaku (32) dunks over multiple Maccabi Tel Aviv defenders for two of his game-high 25 points in Herzliya’s series-clinching 96-74 victory over the host yellow-and-blue in Israel Winner League semifinal action. (credit: Kobi Eliyahu)

One of those players is Austin Hollins.

To basketball aficionados, the last name Hollins may be a familiar one as Austin is the son of NBA Champion and former coach Lionel Hollins. While Austin is close with his father and helped his formative years, it was the 30-year-old American swingman who forged his own basketball path to dribble down throughout his European career that has led him to France, Finland, Germany, Russia, Serbia and now Israel.

The Jerusalem Post spoke to the thoughtful Hollins about his time in college, his first few years in Europe, what he sees from this version of the yellow-and-blue, his father’s impact and how he ended up signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv.It was an interesting summer,” the Hollins began. “The season ended and I was in talks with Red Star where I played last season and considered going back there. I knew there was also the possibility of going to Maccabi, me and my agent talked about it. When I was very close to signing back with Red Star, Maccabi gave us a call about an offer and I told my agent that this was a place that I had wanted to play for a long time and I felt it was the right opportunity and the right situation and that’s how it unfolded.”

With a brand-new team, there will be some growing pains as each player learns one another, which is completely normal. However, Hollins pointed out that one of the best things that he sees from his new teammates is that they are all great guys not only on the court but even more importantly off it.

“The one thing I can say, before I say anything about basketball, is that all the guys that are here are great guys. It was something that went into the decision from management to bring in high-character guys and from the first day of being here you can see that this is what they did. We immediately found that chemistry in the locker-room and we worked through it on the court. But it’s there, it’s a learning curve with being on a new team with new players and a new coach.”

This will be the first time Hollins will play under Katash, who returns to the yellow-and-blue for his second stint on the bench, and he is aware that the former guard has plenty to offer to his disciples.

“I didn’t know a ton about coach and I remember when he was with Panathinaikos and I had obviously heard about him as a player. I knew some guys that had played for him and they all had good things to say. He is a players’ coach and being here a month you can really see that. He’s just as competitive as any of us and he wants to win and you can see the chemistry between the players and the coach.”

Playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv means that there will be plenty of eyes on each player’s every single move and pressure from both fans and management to perform and produce at the highest level. The even-keeled Hollins doesn’t seem to be concerned one bit about having to deal with that aspect.

“I’ve heard that from a number of people about the pressure and it is a great pressure, but as a player you don’t necessarily think about the pressure. At some point you have to step on the floor and you have to play basketball, whether there is pressure or no pressure, you have to go out and perform.”

 Having the opportunity to grow up with a champion and head coach as your father is a privilege that very few professionals can say that they have experienced. However, that also can bring upon the challenge of what parenthood is all about. In Hollins’s case, his father, Lionel, knew exactly how to make that balance work to perfection.

“It was awesome. When I was younger, I went to practice with my dad and I wasn’t watching much of practice as I was probably in the locker-room running around and playing video games. But after and before practice I was always in there trying to shoot some shots and play. A lot of guys don’t get to experience that and my dad was a big factor as to where I am today. He took a back seat role in the sense that he didn’t push me to play, but I grew up and loved it on my own. He helped me develop my game, but he also didn’t force the issue. He wanted to try to maintain that relationship. When you get to that certain point, especially as a father, you get to make that decision if you’re a coach or father, and he was great at both and keeping that balance between the two.”

Lionel Hollins was a key member of the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers that saw one of the league’s upstart teams, with incredible talent in Bill Walton and veteran coach Jack Ramsey, win their first and only championship.“A little bit, every now and then he will talk about his Portland days and just how talented that team was. They were so young, I  think they were the youngest team to win an NBA championship, if I’m not mistaken. He used to talk about the grit that they had and Bill Walton as well as other guys on that team, how much fun they had. The NBA was so much different than it is now.”

 Austin was born in 1991 and missed out on his father’s entire playing career, which has brought about some mixed feelings for the swingman.

“Yes, it has crossed my mind before, but not in the sense that I missed out. I would have loved to have seen my dad play live. I think that being born when I was born got me here. So I am always looking at it from all angles. It’s a give and take. If I want to see him play, maybe I am not where I am today. I am thankful for the chance that I had to see him coach. I saw him coach the Grizzlies into the Western Conference Finals. There are different levels of experience. Some I got to see and some I didn’t, but I am thankful for the ones I did get to see.”

While Austin may have not seen his father’s playing career, he certainly was a part of his coaching one both as an assistant and as a head coach.

“The years that I was old enough for the guys to pull me aside I was in high school and college and didn’t have time to hang around the team. But there are a couple of guys that I have a memory about playing around when I was child, with Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jason Williams. Guys like Wesley Person and, if I go even back, even being around Charles Barkley when my dad was with the Suns, but I was very young back then almost beyond my memory."

Hollins attended the University of Minnesota, where he had plenty of success as a player but also experienced success in the classroom, which was why he looked for a school that would be able to provide top-notch education outside of basketball.

“For a high school student, hindsight is always 20/20. I look back and the only thing that I wish that I would have taken was all of my official visits to universities. I don’t necessarily think that it would have changed my decision. Tubby Smith was the coach at the time and Minnesota was a place that I had never been so I didn’t know what except until I got on campus, which was beautiful. It was a great academic school, which was important to me, and the combination of all those things was really what sent me there. But I didn’t take into account the freezing cold winters!”

Hollins experienced success in college having not only made both the NCAA Tournament but also the NIT tournament twice while winning it in his senior year and being named the competition’s most valuable player to end his college career on a high note. “In my senior year we went to the NIT again. A lot of the younger guys feel disappointed at first because you want to get into the big dance and it’s like ‘I don’t want to play in the NIT, it’s the NIT.’ For me, I’m a senior and I know the feeling that the young guys have, but then you win a game and as a competitor you don’t want to lose and for me in my senior year I definitely didn’t want to lose. I’ve been here before, I’m on my way out the door and I want to end my career with a win.

“It may not be where we wanted to be, but college basketball has presented us this opportunity to play more games. I ended up hitting a three on the opposite wing that put us up and we went to go on to win the game. It was an amazing feeling. You can’t dream it up. My mom and dad were in the stands and I am very thankful for that moment. The MVP was just the cherry on top.”

Second-division France was the first stop in Hollins’s European career and that season was almost his last one as the experience wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

“That’s a funny story. I had a tough time my first year overseas and it was so different from school. College athletes don’t realize how spoiled they are until you go overseas. Sometimes I go back in the summer to talk to the guys and I say ‘be thankful for where you are, as you have everything you need to get it done.’ It was tough and there was a lot of adversity. This was a tough year and our team went to the finals in Pro B and lost to Antibes and that was still a tough year for me.”

“Winning didn’t make me happy to be there, I liked my teammates and I liked my coach and it was just tough being abroad. I seriously considered quitting basketball at that point. I called my parents and I said ‘I’m done, I’m coming home and getting a job.’ I slept on it and I called them back and told them I was going to play one more year and if I like it then I will keep going, I wanted to give it a chance. It was like going to college, I am sure a a lot of freshmen are looking to transfer or go back home. That adversity can change you.”

At Zenit St. Petersburg, Hollins played with a number of terrific players, including big man Alex Poythress who signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv just before Hollins himself.

“Having played with Alex and him being a good friend it would be nice to play together, but we want the best for each other and we were fortunate that it worked out that we can be on the same team again.”

Although his father’s career has been in and around the NBA, Austin never had that opportunity. He feels that he could have played in the world’s greatest league, however he’s very content with how his basketball journey has gone.

“I 100% feel that I am capable or was capable of playing in the NBA, but that’s not necessarily a dream for me anymore. Everyone wants to play at the highest level of basketball and if you want to be a professional of anything you want to be among the best. But somewhere along the road, you find a place that fits for you. It wouldn’t be out of this world to want to play in the NBA, but when you come to a situation that is working for you, your life and your career, you have to be realistic. I could chase an NBA dream but I don’t think that it would be best for my life and my career.

The best thing for me is to build off of the European career that I built up. I started in Pro B France and here I am now at Maccabi in Tel Aviv and that journey was not an easy one. It would have to be a pretty good opportunity in the NBA for me to leave what I have built over here.”

As for the upcoming season, Hollins spoke about what the fans and his teammates can expect from him on the hardwood.

“Some hard-nosed, old school, get after diving on the floor for loose balls, playing hard defense and doing whatever it takes to win. I’ll let the other guys on the team take care of the flashy one-on-ones. We got some good talent on the team. That’s what you can expect from me. I’ll be out there with a smile on my face cheering on the guys on the side or being out there on the floor playing the hardest defense that I possibly can. And hopefully knock down a couple of threes as well.”