PHOENIX – Most of the 13,110 fans inside Talking Stick Resort Arena on Sunday night were, understandably, oblivious to the significance of the moment.
Not as it pertained to the Phoenix Suns or the Charlotte Hornets, but for two men on opposing benches who share a hometown, an alma mater (Albuquerque Academy) and who both have become coaches in the NBA.
“It’s special,” said Charlotte head coach James Borrego, “when we get to look back, and think about where we both came from. Academy will always be a major part of my journey.”
Borrego, 41 and a 1996 Academy graduate, became the NBA’s first Hispanic full-time head coach after Charlotte owner Michael Jordan hired him last May.
The Hornets (19-20) beat the Suns 119-113 on Sunday, moving within one-half game of first-place Miami in the Southeast Division. Borrego and Cody Toppert shook hands and shared a brief hug when it was over.
“I looked up to James my whole career,” said Toppert. “I’ve just kind of followed the path that he laid out. It’s been a blessing to get into the coaching side of this, and he’s actually been a great mentor to me.”
Toppert, who turns 36 on Thursday and who graduated from the Academy in 2001, is the assistant coach for player development with the Suns. Phoenix promoted him last June from the G-League Northern Arizona Suns, where he was head coach.
Sunday wasn’t a Chargers reunion in the traditional sense, but there was nevertheless a sense of nostalgia for both men. And also for about 70 faculty, staff, students, alumni and former teammates of Borrego or Toppert. About half of the group were from the Phoenix area, the rest flocked here from Albuquerque.
That group occupied four suites Sunday night in one corner of the arena and said they were thrilled to share in this communal experience.
“Cody has always been an incredible basketball player, but he’s also such a caring person and has a vibrant personality,” said Valery McKeon, the Academy’s associate director of the Advancement for Alumni Relations, and who graduated with Toppert in 2001. “It’s exciting to see him succeed.”
Staying close to their Academy roots, said Toppert, who played collegiately at Cornell, is important.
“On the basketball side,” Toppert said, “that’s where we really learned to play the game, and that’s where we learned to think the game.”
Mike Brown, the Hall of Famer from Academy who coached Borrego and Toppert, drove in for the game. He wore a teal Hornets shirt.
“It’s a great thrill,” said Brown, who attended the game with his wife, daughter and grandson. “Cody said to me, ‘I want to be the next James.'”
After the arena had emptied, Borrego spoke for about 15 minutes to the group after he finished his media obligations. Before the game, Borrego and Toppert both sat down for 1-on-1 interviews with the Journal.
Borrego – slimmer and fitter now at 41 than he was even when he played for the Chargers and later for the University of San Diego – has enjoyed a 15-year NBA coaching career. That includes two valuable stints as an assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio (Borrego has two championship rings from his time with the Spurs) and a brief interim stretch in 2015 as the head coach in Orlando.
“I think as I left Academy and I got to college, I wanted to play. I wanted to go as far as the game of basketball could take me on the court,” Borrego said. “But somewhere along the line at USD, I knew my time on the court was up. I wasn’t playing much, and I had to transition and figure out what was next for me.
“As I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, who I wanted to be, how I wanted to influence others, it was clear that coaching was my best route.”
Growing up in a single-parent home with his devoted mother, Lydia, Borrego said the men at Academy, including Brown, were hugely instrumental in shaping him as a young man.
Still, Borrego said he never envisioned this path.
“I didn’t think it would get to this level, to be honest with you,” Borrego said. “I could have gone back to high school, which would have been great, and influence young men and women at that level. The second phase was, I wanted to be a college coach. A college, Division I assistant coach (which he was, at USD from 2001-03). I hunted down every job (opening) I could, drove all over southern California to convince someone to hire me as their third assistant. And every door closed on me. But all that led me to San Antonio.”
That proved to be the breakthrough moment for Borrego, who is a rarity: an NBA coach who didn’t play in the NBA.
“I am totally not surprised by his success. Great human,” said a former Academy teammate of Borrego, Josh Skarsgard, who remains very close to Borrego. “He does it the right way. He’s the absolute man.”
Toppert has coaching ambitions similar to that of Borrego, whose influence has been crucial in this process.
“While I was still playing, he worked me out several times at the Spurs facility,” Toppert said. “He’s helped me find opportunities in the game. Watching the trail that he’s paved, it’s been really gratifying and provides a measure of inspiration. It is possible to rise up and reach the pinnacle of your profession. He’s only gonna do great things with Charlotte.”
Toppert laughed as he recalled being a ballboy for the Chargers while Borrego played on the varsity squad, where he won a pair of state championships.
“I saw a hunger in him immediately,” Borrego said of Toppert. “As he started to get into coaching, he came to visit us in Orlando. He was a young coach trying to make it. I’ve been around a lot of young coaches who were trying to make it, but you’ve got to have a passion, and I saw that immediately in Cody.”
The two men communicate semi-regularly – “We share notes on basketball to this day,” Borrego said – and they posed with admirers on the floor from Academy long after the crowd had left.
It was photo heaven for the giddy visitors.
“It’s wonderful to see a couple of alums, and what they’ve done with their careers,” said John David, the president of the Academy’s alumni association. “It’s something we can celebrate tonight.”
Toppert and Borrego were also beaming as they reflected on this day and the school they love.
“I hope the Albuquerque Academy alums who are watching take pride in what they see tonight,” Borrego said about an hour before tipoff. “Not just because it’s us out there, but because they’ve been a piece of this journey with us. They should really embrace this. It’s a proud moment for all of us.”