SALT LAKE CITY — Even after losing two of three games away from home to Eastern Conference playoff teams, the Utah Jazz held their heads up high upon their return.
It helped that, as usual, their head coach was helping to prop up their chins.
Rain or shine, Tyrone Corbin has a way of maintaining his sunny disposition.
After stormy losses — even in the dreary month of February — Corbin usually points out silver linings instead of clouds.
If the NBA adds a Positive Coach of the Year award, the Jazz's bench boss would be a front-runner.
Heck, Corbin might even receive consideration for the regular award considering what his team has been through over the past year and what the second-year coach has gotten his players to do since they nose-dived out of the playoff picture last spring.
"I vote that," Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. "He's done a great job of staying with it as a coach."
Though he obviously gets paid nicely to do that, staying with it hasn't been an easy task.
The Jazz were in shambles when Corbin took over last year. The team had imploded on multiple levels — from locker room turmoil spilling over to on-the-court woes, to Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan and his faithful sidekick Phil Johnson deciding they'd had enough midway through the season, to Jazz brass shipping off their star player, Deron Williams.
"Things happen the way they happen, and you've got to be ready," Corbin said. "I felt I was ready when I interviewed for the other jobs. Unfortunately and fortunately, Coach decided to do something different and the organization had enough confidence in me to promote me to this position."
This was a bonus for Jazz players.
Not only had they worked with Corbin before, during and after practices when he was the second assistant coach, but the team's new bench boss wasn't that far removed from his successful NBA playing career.
Corbin was young (then 48) but experienced, likeable and knowledgeable. The former Jazz player and seven-year assistant of Sloan's seemed the right fit to put a new-school twist on his mentor's old-school system and bridge the franchise's successful past to a hopeful future.
The beginning was bumpy, though. The Jazz dropped eight straight at one point, and Corbin's coaching record was 8-20 by the time the season mercifully ended.
"Last year was rough. He basically (got) thrown into that front seat," Jazz small forward C.J. Miles admitted. "It was tough, but at the same time, he did a good job last year once he got a little more comfortable as the year (went) on at just really stepping in that role, 'OK, I got it. This is mine now.'"
Corbin admits he's "a lot more confident, a lot more relaxed" now that more than a year has passed.
From an outsider's view, Celtics coach Doc Rivers admires what Corbin has accomplished.
The Jazz are in a playoff position in a year not many expected them to do much of anything but earn a high lottery pick. Corbin has blended a mix of young and old players, implemented a new defensive scheme, tweaked the offense and, oh yeah, done that without being able to contact his players for five months and with a shortened training camp.
"He's been terrific," said Rivers, who's known Corbin since their playing days.
Rivers especially appreciates how Corbin has coached his team to success with the unusual youth and veteran squad split.
"And," Rivers pointed out, "they're able to work together … that's what Ty has done an excellent job of."
Miles calls Corbin a players' coach, but Millsap confirms that Corbin is firm when needed. He's not a screamer, although Corbin will raise his soft and airy voice when necessary. Mostly, he coaches and teaches with a calm demeanor, instilling confidence, correcting mistakes, allowing players to play through hard times while holding guys accountable, remaining approachable, showing allegiance to veterans while giving chances to up-and-comers, and keeping an optimistic outlook that is appreciated by his impacted players.
"As a young team, you need positivity," Millsap said. "He's the leader of this team and positive is the way. He knows how to get to his players. He knows how to motivate them. Overall, he's getting better."
In interviews, Corbin will point out overall weaknesses but won't negatively call out individual players, which sometimes doesn't make for great quotes but reinforces the feeling in the locker room that the guy in charge has his players' backs.
When things went awry with Raja Bell a few weeks ago, Corbin didn't play it out in the media. He called it an "internal matter," and kept it that way. In fact, the grumpiest he's been all season — even more so than after bitter losses — was when he was peppered with questions about Bell. Not that the queries convinced him to open up about it.
Even when others doubt, Corbin expresses faith in his team's chances and his players' abilities. And he does it with conviction.
"He believed in us," veteran guard Jamaal Tinsley said. "As a group that's what you want from your coach — to believe in us."
During February's stretch of 11 losses in 15 games, when shots weren't falling, opponents weren't being stopped and the postseason seemed unattainable, Corbin talked about his team working hard, staying together, trying to improve, being on the verge of turning things around and learning.
"He just kept reminding us that we're still in it," Tinsley said. "(Told us), 'Just keep doing what you're doing and try to get better."
That's Corbin's edict for himself too.
Players notice that he is more comfortable and confident, and that he puts in enormous hours of strategizing and sweating to get this team to maximize its potential.
"He's working just as hard as we are trying to figure out how to fix things," Miles said. "He's the leader of the team."
That's why Millsap would cast a coach of the year ballot for him if he could.
"As a team, we all could've thrown in the towel a long time ago and said, 'Let's forfeit this season,' but he stayed with it, we stayed with it," Millsap said. "For him to continue to help us stay with it, stay on top of our game, yeah, he deserves it."
Even if he doesn't get that accolade — the one that eluded Sloan for 23 seasons in Utah — Corbin has two things he'd probably rather have — a strong faith in his team and respect from the players he believes in.
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