ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Since his coaching career began, James Borrego has made connections and quickly climbed the ladder.
Now Borrego has just one more rung to climb before becoming an NBA head coach.
Borrego, who was born and raised in Albuquerque, is about to began his second year as the top assistant under head coach Jacque Vaughn with the Orlando Magic.
“Hopefully I get to be a head coach some day, but right now my goal is being the best assistant coach I can be,” Borrego said. “I’d love to be a head coach some day, but that’s not my focus right now. My focus is helping this team and helping coach Vaughn and this organization get better. I try not to look at the ultimate goal and just stay focused on doing my job the best I can.”
Borrego won two state titles as a player at Albuquerque Academy under coach Mike Brown but also got a taste for coaching.
“At Academy, I saw the impact that coach Brown had on the players and students, so it gave me interest in coaching and teaching,” Borrego said. “When I went to the University of San Diego, where I played, I continued that pursuit of coaching and teaching.”
After his time at Academy, Borrego played three seasons at the University of San Diego, where he was named to the West Coast Conference All-Academic team his senior year and earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in leadership studies. After graduation, he also earned a spot on then-head coach Brad Holland’s staff.
“I thought I’d probably coach high school or potentially junior college,” Borrego said. “But I had the opportunity to do the college ranks with Brad Holland. I joined his staff and got to learn more about coaching under his wing.”
After two seasons as an assistant with the Toreros, Borrego was able to parlay a contact he made at a summer camp into a job in the NBA in 2003.
“While I was coaching at San Diego there was a position in the San Antonio Spurs’ video room, where they break down games and scout games in preparation for opponents,” Borrego said. “I was able to make a connection through the video coordinator at the time, Kyle Cummins. I got to know him through a camp in the summer at San Diego. I got a break then and joined San Antonio. I was really pursuing a lot of college opportunities at the time but every door closed. But that was a big break for me in the coaching world. There was a door that opened in San Antonio, and it changed my life forever.”
Borrego eventually worked his way out of the video room and onto the bench, where he was an assistant to Gregg Popovich. Borrego spent seven years with San Antonio and was part of two championship teams before using the connections he made with the Spurs to earn a job on ex-Spurs player Monty Williams’ staff in New Orleans in 2010.
“I was there seven years with the Spurs, and I kind of climbed up the ranks to assistant coach,” Borrego said. “Then I moved on to New Orleans for two years with Monty Williams. I got to know Monty Williams through what we called his internship year. After his playing days, he joined coach Pop and kind of interned and helped out the coaching staff. That’s when he and I formed a relationship.
“We maintained a very good relationship after he left San Antonio. When he got the job in New Orleans, he called and offered me one of his bench assistant jobs. It was hard to leave San Antonio, but I knew it was the right thing for me, moving forward, and to grow and to expand was the right move for me and my family. It was a great opportunity.”
Another opportunity arose last year, when another former Spurs player, Vaughn, was hired as head coach of the Orlando Magic.
“I learned so much in San Antonio, from coach Popovich and the entire coaching staff,” Borrego said. “That prepared me to go and take that step with Monty. Then Jacque Vaughn called about two years later offering me the lead assistant job in Orlando. Again, it was hard to leave New Orleans and Monty Williams, but it was a great opportunity that coach Vaughn presented me and my family with.”
Now Borrego is the No. 2 man in Orlando. He even got a chance to run the Magic for a half last season when Vaughn was ejected in the third quarter of an eventual loss to the Indian Pacers on March 19.
“I got my first action as a head coach for almost a full half last year,” Borrego said. “But I’m trying to convince (Vaughn) not to get tossed out anymore, because it’s a lot of pressure.”
While Borrego is focused on his assistant coaching duties in Orlando, he said he’d someday love to have that pressure of being an NBA head coach. Borrego has yet to make it to the top of his profession, but the 35-year-old Albuquerque native is proud of what he’s accomplished so far.
“I feel very fortunate,” Borrego said. “A lot of people work very hard in this profession, a lot people have very basketball minds but never get an opportunity, like I have, to do it. Sometimes I step back and look at this young kid from Albuquerque, New Mexico, from the West Side of Albuquerque and going up to Albuquerque Academy every day with hopes of making it, not sure what, but making it. And here I am now in the NBA doing something that I absolutely love at the highest level.”