NBA talent in grade school: Coach James Borrego gets back to family — and roots - Albuquerque Journal

NBA talent in grade school: Coach James Borrego gets back to family — and roots

James Borrego oversees part of the pregame for the Albuquerque Academy sixth-grade team in a game last week against St. Mary’s School in Belen. Borrego, who played his high school ball at the Academy, has been serving as the head coach for this team in the Albuquerque Parochial Independent Athletic League. His son, Nick (44, right rear, wearing goggles) is one of the team members. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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By the map, it’s about 1,600 miles, the stretch of interstate that connects Albuquerque to Charlotte, North Carolina.

By any other metric, the contrast between those two cities, and those two distinct realms, is even greater for James Borrego.

Borrego, who forged a longtime coaching career in the NBA, returned last year to his New Mexico roots to reboot. It is a decompression that is serving both as a bridge in his career and as a welcome avenue to enhance family bonds.

“It’s great to have him home,” said Lydia Borrego, James’ mother. “I never thought I’d be able to be around my grandkids (at home).”

There are three of them. Grace, 16; Zac, 14; and Nick, who is 12. They are all enrolled at Albuquerque Academy, where Borrego once was a student and a standout basketball player.

Indeed, Borrego is traveling in a new life lane.

“I couldn’t ask for a more special year,” he said. “I’m having a blast. I didn’t think I would enjoy it this much.”

It has been nearly 20 years since Borrego spent a basketball season not employed by an NBA team. He was fired last spring after four seasons as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets.

“I think he is really trying to have a little bit of distance, a little bit of rest,” said Megan Borrego, James’ wife. “Evaluate things that went well, and evaluate things he can get better at.”

The silver lining to being out of the NBA is plainly this: Borrego – raised by a single mom himself – is energized to have been afforded this window to be a more active father, in a way that his career previously limited.

“It’s been a great year to re-engage, reconnect, and for me to get to know my kids at a much deeper level, which you don’t get a lot of in the NBA,” Borrego, 45, said. “One of the things I’ve learned is the value of time, the value of relationships, and really putting a premium on what’s important in life.”

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego talks with guard LaMelo Ball during a timeout in the third quarter of the team’s NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans on March 11, 2022. This basketball season marks the first in 20 years that Borrego has not been working actively in the NBA. He was fired last year, following his fourth season as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

While the relocation to Albuquerque has allowed him to dial back on the coaching stress – his former boss, the Hornets owner, was Michael Jordan – he has not detached from the sport completely.

He’s done some television work for NBA TV. He last month journeyed to Paris as something of a league ambassador to do some teaching in connection with a Pistons-Bulls regular-season game in France.

And, as odd as this may sound, he actually picked up a new coaching job. It’s the team he’s been leading that is the surprise:

Borrego is the head coach of Nick’s sixth-grade team at Academy in the Albuquerque Parochial Independent Athletic League.

“Having a full year just to step back and spend some time coaching Nick has been a real joy for me,” Borrego said. “I want him to enjoy the game and what it stands for.”

Low profile

A man at St. Mary’s School in Belen, where Academy played earlier this week, expressed surprise when he learned that the team St. Mary’s just beat was coached by a man who was in the NBA just 10 months ago.

This has certainly been a low-key enterprise, to be sure. The Parochial season only lasts a few weeks, and for Academy it ends Monday.

As for how this gig came about, well, it was a request.

“I thought it would be cool if my dad could coach me, because it is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Nick Borrego said. “They had no coaches for sixth grade. I was, like, ‘Dad, wouldn’t it be cool if you could coach me?’ He was, like, ‘That would be awesome.’ It’s really fun.”

It’s an unusual sight one couldn’t imagine witnessing in person, and surely not in a cramped Parochial League gym, what with its low roof – you’d never know from the outside there was a gym inside – and only five or so rows of bleachers snugged up against the condensed playing surface.

But Borrego appears both comfortable and engaged as he walks the sidelines. His folded arms and focused glance remain part of his signature, just as they were in all those NBA arenas.

James Borrego poses with his family — sons Nick, left, and Zac, plus daughter Grace, his mother Lydia, second from right, and wife, Megan, as Borrego was announced as an Academy Hall of Fame inductee last Tuesday. (Courtesy of Albuquerque Academy)

“There is no pressure with this,” he said. “I look at it as an opportunity to spend time with my son and the sixth-graders, give them what I can as a coach, and as a father enjoy the process, the time and step back and process why I love this game so much.”

Other Academy parents have taken notice of his impact.

“He watches the NBA games, just because of the excitement James has brought,” said Omid Hazini of his son Armeen. “Ego? Not this man. He puts time and effort into this, and he truly wants them to have fun.”

Another parent, Ryan Harrigan, played for coach Ray Rodriguez at Highland against Borrego in high school. Now his son Gage plays for Borrego. Notah Begay III’s nephew Quinton is also on this team.

“It’s super fun,” Ryan Harrigan said. “What I personally like about it is he definitely cares about coaching and teaching these kids. He’s teaching the game.”

Nick Borrego seemed almost lit from within as he described what it’s like having his father coach him.

“I think the best part is my dad being there and being able to coach me and walk me through what he sees during the game and not just after,” he said. “It’s cool that he can coach my friends and have a relationship with them, too.”

Wish fulfillment

Borrego’s kids are athletes. Grace, a junior, played JV volleyball last fall and was a longtime basketball player. Zac, an eighth-grader, competes on the Chargers’ younger of two high school squads. The norm, James Borrego said, is for him to shop for top-flight youth coaches in whatever NBA city the family is living, with him staying in the background.

“They all love the game,” Borrego said. “They all love watching it. (And) they critique me as a coach, and that’s all right. They give me tips, whether we win or lose. I love their insight. We have a lot of fun with the game.”

During this Parochial season, games move quickly. There are 20-minute halves with running clocks, and just a couple of minutes for halftime.

Nick, with his mop of red hair, is a solid player, and having his father on his hip during this ride has been highly satisfying, he said. As it has been for Dad.

“I get as excited as a coach watching these kids share the ball, move the ball, and find a great shot, as I did as an NBA coach,” Borrego said. “That thrills me maybe more than watching NBA guys do it.”

Borrego is a 1996 Albuquerque Academy graduate – and, now an Albuquerque Academy Hall of Famer, as that was announced last week ahead of a formal fall induction. He played collegiately at the University of San Diego (1998-2001) and coached two years with the Toreros. His NBA start traces back to 2003, when the San Antonio Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich hired him as the team’s assistant video coordinator. He won two championship rings in San Antonio (2005, 2007).

And a return someday to the Association seems a mere formality.

“I miss the competition. I’m a competitor,” Borrego said. “I love the game, I love leading, I love growing, I love developing. I miss that. But I understand that this is a long journey. This is one year. I’ve been at this 20 years, and I’ve got more years in this league to coach.

“I will be back,” he added. “Until then, I’ll stay present and when the right opportunity presents itself, we’ll know. And I’m excited for that.”

Borrego, the first Latino to be a head coach in the NBA, was 138-163 in four seasons in Charlotte, and he also was the interim head coach of the Orlando Magic for the final 30 games of the 2014-15 season.

He was fired by Charlotte last April, despite the Hornets having made 10-win improvements in each of his last two seasons. The team still owes Borrego for his salary this season and next after signing a contract extension in the summer of 2021.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity that Charlotte gave me, that Michael gave me, and now it’s about looking forward to what’s ahead,” he said. “I would never have imagined being there, growing up on the West Side of Albuquerque. What a dream for me. But I stay focused. I control what I control, and those were decisions that were out of my hands. I’m very proud of what we did with the time we had.”

Now and next

For Borrego, the simple pleasures of being a day-to-day dad, like taking his kids to school and teaching them to drive, have been rewarding. It’s a rhythm 180 degrees from the nomadic and frantic lifestyle that defines an average NBA year.

As for coaching at this level, he said, “It has taken me back to the purity of the game, which is playing together, playing as a unit, having fun. To watch the joy of these kids, their reaction to a good play that resulted in a good shot, whether we made it or missed it, to me, this is what this is about. I want these kids to find joy in playing the game. That’s the beauty of sport to me.”

Borrego, of course, also has been a regular dad in the stands watching Grace and Zac.

James Borrego directs his team during a sixth-grade Albuquerque Academy game at Belen last Monday night. His son Nick is crouched behind him. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“I think when I was coaching in the NBA, I was a more quiet dad, sitting on the top row, don’t say anything. Maybe it’s having this year off, that (now) I’ve got more to say, so I’ve been a little more active. … I’m used to having an impact on the game.”

There has been, he said, the occasional whistle or yell from the stands in support of his kids. Some mild ribbing of officials, perhaps?

He smiled.

“I’ve done a little mumbling … ” he said. “But I recognize it’s a tough spot. Sometimes, human nature gets the best of me.”

That might be so, but his wife said it’s been nice for the family to be free of the grind – both directly and peripherally – that comes with the NBA’s relentless calendar.

Not that basketball doesn’t still quicken Borrego’s pulse. He often strays outside the coaching box on game nights, for example, and has been warned about this by officials, Megan said, smiling.

“About every game,” she said.

Borrego attends some of the Albuquerque Academy varsity games. Some Lobo men’s games, too. He has been asked many times since moving back home to speak to local high school and middle school teams, where he talks about the particulars of his journey from the West Side to the NBA.

“One thing I’ve learned the last four years, as I reflect on what I have learned, is keeping things as simple as possible in life,” Borrego said. “Never taking a day for granted, and being fully present.”

As for this unique coaching venture, there is one final game, on Monday at Sandia Prep. Beyond that, plenty more quality time with his children, and giving back to them in any way he can.

“This is the most in-depth conversation I’ve ever had with my kids,” Borrego said with a wide smile. “And this is a valuable time for them. This year has really been a gift to me and my family.”

As he sat down at the Academy gym, which comprises a small chunk of his origin story, Borrego was full of cheer.

“Life is good right now,” he said. “I don’t have many worries.”

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