Playing to Win
From Montclair State to the NBA and the Ukraine, ’69 graduate Mike Fratello’s record speaks for itself.
Before he became the “Czar of the Telestrator” on national basketball broadcasts, before he became an NBA head coach with 667 career victories, before he even started as a college assistant making a mere $2,100 a year, Mike Fratello was a skinny freshman at Montclair State with a decision to make.
It was the spring of 1966. Fratello had been a three-sport starter at Hackensack High, and he tried to do the same his first year in college. But the demands were just too much. He had to give something up. His first love was basketball, but at 5-foot-7, he knew his upside was limited.
“The one sport I felt that I had the least chance at being good was basketball at the time,” Fratello says. So he gave up his favorite sport, a difficult decision — and one, it turned out, that would set him on his way to becoming a prominent figure in the sport for decades.
As soon as he stopped playing, his old high school coach at Hackensack made him an offer: “You can always come back and help me coach,” Fratello was told, and he started doing the advance scouting and practice reports that are the foundation of any good team.
It was the first step of a long and prosperous journey — one that started at Montclair State and took him to the top of the profession as both a coach and a broadcaster.
“Montclair State made so much sense at the time, because it had a great physical education program and my mom and dad could see my games,” Fratello says. “It was the perfect place. All of the experiences and everything that took place over the four years was perfect for me.”
An IQ for sports
So how did the scrawny son of an Army boxer, whose diminutive stature left him a full foot and a half below some of the men he would lead, become so successful in basketball?
The answer starts on the playgrounds in Bergen County, where Fratello showed that, while he might lack the physical gifts of the other kids in the neighborhood, he’d make up for that with his brain.
“I remember we were going up against each other and he was going to guard me in a pickup game,” says Tony Karcich, a recently retired high school football coach who grew up with Fratello. “Now I was the New Jersey athlete of the year at the time, an all-state football player with two pro contract offers in baseball.
“But Mike — every time I went up for a shot, he always had this way of putting his fingers together and jabbing me in the stomach,” Karcich says. “I couldn’t make a shot the entire day! I have a little sign in my office that says, ‘Find A Way.’ That was Mike. Find a way!”
Fratello’s way, early in his career, involved a lot of low-paying jobs as he climbed the coaching ladder. He started as an assistant coach and a driver’s education teacher at Hackensack High, then took a job making just $2,100 as a graduate assistant at the University of Rhode Island, then at James Madison University as a full-time assistant, then at Villanova under legendary coach Rollie Massimino.
“Next to my mother and father, the people who always had the most influence in my life were my coaches… That’s the impact I wanted to have.”
— Mike Fratello
Each step along the way, he took on more responsibility. Each step, he fell in love with the profession a little bit more. Fratello always knew that this life, even when it involved the long hours watching grainy game tape or conducting practices in tiny gymnasiums, was the life he wanted.
“I knew that from when I was real young, because next to my mother and father, the people who always had the most influence in my life were my coaches,” Fratello says. “And that’s what I wanted to do. That’s the impact I wanted to have.”
His big break came in 1978. His friend and mentor Hubie Brown, who had coached against him when Fratello was in high school and once hired him as a lifeguard at a pool club, called with an offer to become one of his assistant coaches with the Atlanta Hawks.
Brown saw something in Fratello at a young age, and he knew it would translate into a successful coach — at any level.
“He had it then. He had it at Montclair State. He had leadership, an IQ for sports,” Brown says. “If you go and look at his coaching resume, he had a presence and then he could back up that presence with easy communication and the ability to instruct. He is an outstanding floor clinician.”
And, thanks to Brown, he had a chance to prove that in the NBA.
A great coach
It wasn’t long before Brown moved to New York to coach the Knicks and Fratello had his dream job as the Hawks’ head coach. It was a moment that was equal parts thrilling and frightening.
“Nervous. Scared,” he says. “I was 36 years old at the time. I was concerned if I could do it or not. Up to that point, I had never been a head coach on any level — not in college, not in high school.”
The team was good enough to reach the playoffs in 1984 but lost in the first round. Fratello met with his bosses at the end of the season and gave his honest assessment: The Hawks should blow up their roster and start over with a younger, more athletic team.
It was a risky plan, especially for a coach without a proven track record, and the Hawks won just 34 games the next season. But in 1985-86, they soared to 50 wins behind a young and talented nucleus, and Fratello was named the NBA Coach of the Year as a result.
“Mike was a great coach,” his star player, Dominique Wilkins, was quoted as saying in a 2005 interview. “He knew that everyone brought a piece of the puzzle to the team. He got everyone to work together. We were all on the same page. Every night, everyone laid it on the line for him.”
The team would win 50 or more games in three straight seasons. But it had the misfortune of playing in the same conference as a Boston Celtics dynasty team with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. The Hawks would take the Celtics to the brink of elimination in 1988, losing the decisive Game 7, 118-116. One basket.
“You go back and think about that game, so many different things you could have done,” Fratello says. His run in Atlanta ended in 1990, when the team missed the playoffs for the first time in five years. One door had closed, but another — to a new career — had opened.
Cutting to the chase
Fratello had done some TV work for his former boss in Atlanta, cable TV mogul Ted Turner, during the Goodwill Games. Still, he figured he was a long shot to land a coveted gig in the broadcast booth when NBC took over national coverage of the NBA from CBS.
Then, he caught a break. Two higher-profile candidates — championship coaches Pat Riley and Chuck Daly — took other jobs. Fratello found himself next to a broadcasting icon, Marv Albert, as a color commentator, breaking down plays for millions of fans nationwide.
Plenty of coaches try to make the transition to broadcasting. Few succeed. But Fratello was a natural, and the artful way he diagrammed plays for the audience led Albert to dub him “the Czar of the Telestrator.”
“Mike has the ability to cut through the coach-speak and make his analysis digestible for the viewer,” says Ian Eagle, his current partner during Brooklyn Nets telecasts on the YES Network. “He also has a playful side, which allows the audience to see that he’s not only strong with the Xs and Os but that there’s a real person behind the microphone.”
While Fratello was good at his second career, he missed coaching, and being only in his mid-40s, he was too young to give up on his dream. His 324-250 record in seven seasons with the Hawks made it a no-brainer that he’d get a second chance, and he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This was 1993, and the Cavaliers had dreams of supplanting the mighty Chicago Bulls as world champions. “I knew I was hired to win a championship,” Fratello says. But it was one bad break after another for the Cavs, and while they made the playoffs in four of his six seasons, they never got past the first round.
Fratello was back in the broadcast booth in 2000, but the coaching itch still needed to be scratched. This time, it was the Memphis Grizzlies, where his mentor, Brown, had retired. He twice led the franchise to the postseason, but after a 6-24 start in 2006, he was let go.
He figured he might be a broadcaster for good — when, unexpectedly, he had another chance to coach.
Winning is the reward
“Mike has the ability to cut through the coach-speak and make his analysis digestible for the viewer.”
— Ian Eagle
The call came from Sasha Volkov, who had played for Fratello in Atlanta. Volkov was now president of the Ukraine basketball federation and looking for somebody to build a team.
Fratello was intrigued. It was five years since his last coaching job in Memphis, and while he had decades’ worth of experience in basketball, he had never coached at the international level.
A journey that started in Montclair and took him through Atlanta, Cleveland and Memphis would now take him overseas for the first time. The “Czar” was going to an old Soviet bloc country.
“It’s like getting your three-month fix of it,” Fratello says. The Ukrainians were picked 24th out of 24 teams headed into the European championships but finished a surprising sixth, qualifying them for the 2014 world championships in Spain. “For them to finish up the year the way they did was just sensational,” he says.
Brown goes one step further: “This could be his greatest contribution to basketball. It’s absolutely incredible.”
At 66, Fratello still juggles an extremely busy schedule, trading jokes with Charles Barkley on the TNT national broadcasts in Atlanta one day, then breaking down Nets games for the YES Network in Brooklyn the next. He has no plans to slow down any time soon. He loves the work, he says, and being around a sport that has given him so much. But what drives this Montclair State graduate the most?
“Winning. That’s my favorite part,” he says. “For everything you go through, for all the time you put into making it right, the reward is winning.”