His ascension through the NBA coaching ranks has been nearly as impressive as his outstanding, gritty playing career at the Albuquerque Academy.
But for San Antonio Spurs top assistant coach James Borrego – who was the recent runner-up for head coaching vacancies with the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets – the past few days were a time for something more important than his bright future.
The past and present.
“I think back to where it all started,” he told the Journal on Thursday. “I go to my mom’s house and look at the hoop in the driveway, the neighborhood where it all started. I feel real fortunate that my mom put me in an environment to really succeed and to grow and get better.”
That success, Borrego said, started when his mother, Lydia Borrego, persuaded James and his sister Jessica (now Schaefer) to take academic tests to try to get into the Academy in the early 1990s. Both were accepted. Jessica decided to remain with her friends and later head to West Mesa. James went to Academy as a sixth-grader.
“It was a tougher decision for her, because she was in middle school,” James said. “We knew nothing about Academy. We had a mutual friend we played YAFL with who was going there. We couldn’t afford it, but we found out financial aid was available. It changed my whole life.”
Borrego, a three-time All-State basketball player with the Chargers – who played three games in the state tournament as a junior with a torn ligament in his ankle – helped the team reach the state title game four straight seasons. Academy won it all during his freshman and sophomore seasons in 1993 and 1994, and finished runner-up in 1995 and 1996.
He also won something else while at Academy.
Megan Kennedy’s heart.
“She was my high school sweetheart,” he said of his then classmate and now wife of nearly 15 years. “She has supported me 100 percent and been with me throughout all the moves. She is really a major piece of why I am where I’m at. It’s been tough for her, but she’s the one who makes the family go wherever we are.”
And this week, they are back home in Albuquerque with their three young children; Grace (10), Zachary (7) and Nicholas (5).
“Nothing beats home,” said Megan, who graduated from Santa Clara in 2000 and kept dating Borrego while he was in college at the University of San Diego. “It’s all been exciting. Every place we’ve lived offered something new and different. Even if we’re leaving, we look at a new place as adventure, an opportunity. James and I grew up basically in the same houses, so it’s interesting how this has been so different.”
Borrego was back in San Antonio this season as Gregg Popovich’s top assistant after serving as Orlando interim head coach in 2015. He had been an assistant with Orlando from 2012-15.
Prior to that, Borrego was an assistant with New Orleans after spending seven seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. He started as an assistant video coordinator in the summer of 2003 and finished his tenure as an assistant coach. During those seasons, Borrego was a part of NBA world championship teams in 2005 and 2007.
Borrego began coaching at the University of San Diego as an assistant from 2001-03. He played three seasons at the school, and during his senior season (2000-01) was named to the West Coast Conference All-Academic Team. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in leadership studies.
But after his time at San Diego, “I tried to look for any Division I job in Southern California, and nobody would hire me,” he said. “But it led me to the right door. It led me to San Antonio. Those sort of disappointments have always fueled my fire. There are always disappointments in any path.”
The latest for Borrego came last month when he was nosed out for the NBA head coaching positions. But at just 38 years old, Borrego said those experiences were priceless.
“I really learned a lot,” he said. “I interviewed in front of two GMs and sat face to face with two owners. It was a very valuable experience. I think I really learned what I stand for, what I believe in as a coach, my values and what I want to partner with as I look into the future.
“To me, what’s really important is to have a collaborative effort with the head coach, the ownership and the GM. When you have that, you give yourself a real chance. I’ve been part of, probably, the best example of that in all of sports under coach Pop in San Antonio.”
Borrego said he hopes to bring those philosophies to another NBA club in the near future, but right now, “This is the most motivated I have ever been as a coach, and I’m excited to go back to San Antonio to learn even more. If and when that opportunity comes to be an NBA head coach, I’ll be even better for it.”
And if a Division I college calls?
“College has always been intriguing for me,” he said. “The NBA has been my path, and that’s the path I’m on right now. But I’d never look at a college job and not at least consider it.
“I’ve really grown in NBA, and that’s where my heart and passion is. But if a college job ever came available and was the right fit for me and my family, I would absolutely look at it. But I’m not hunting it down right now.”
This week, the Borregos are right where they want to be – back home with parents/grandparents Lydia Borrego and Paul and Pam Kennedy.
“The kids have lived where Mickey Mouse lives,” Megan said with a laugh. “But their favorite place is Albuquerque. They love seeing their grandparents, going to Old Town and everything here.”
James, whose mom, Lydia, still lives in the same house by Unser and Central that he grew up in, said he will never forget his roots.
“Albuquerque will always be a real special place for me: the people, the family, the food, the air,” Borrego said. “I will always call Albuquerque home. It will always be that way. Whenever I’m home, it always gives some perspective about where I’ve come from and where I am today.
“I’m very blessed to have had so many people help me along the way, and for the start I had here.”