Dennis Hopson Interview: Hopson Discusses His Historic Ohio State Career. Dark Days in New Jersey, Winning A Championship With The Bulls, Playing With Jordan & Coaching Lessons
Jeffrey Kee: Talk about your upbringing and how you were first introduced to the game?
Dennis Hopson: I was raised in Toledo, Ohio by my mother and father who have been married for over sixty years. I’m the youngest of five children and was introduced to basketball by my older brothers who loved the sport. Growing up, we had a hoop in the backyard and I spent the majority of my time honing my game either there or at the park.
Kee: When did the NBA start becoming a dream of yours?
Hopson: It actually wasn’t ever a dream of mine. I just played basketball for the love of it. As time went on, around my junior year of college, I knew that I was talented enough to play in the NBA. Prior to that, I never really talked about the league too much. If you had asked me when I was 10 years old, I probably would have told you that I wanted to be a racecar driver instead. Racing has always been a passion of mine. I grew up riding motorcycles. I love going fast. That’s what I wanted to be; not an NBA player.
Kee: Is it true that as a high school freshman, instead of playing basketball, you decided to get a job at McDonalds?
Hopson: Yes, that’s true! I had gotten a car and wanted to add certain things to it to make it look cool, so I got a job at McDonald’s to help me pay for gas and a stereo system. That just shows you right there that I wasn’t very committed to the game early on. I had other priorities and other things that excited me.
Kee: What went into your decision to sign with Ohio State?
Hopson: A lot of people don’t know this, but originally I had committed to play at the University of Cincinnati. Ed Badger was their head coach at the time. I had taken a bunch of visits to Cincinnati and loved their program. They played in the Metro Conference with Louisville and Memphis, and I believed that my game fit perfectly there. But when Ed Badger was fired, I changed my mind and decided to go to Ohio State instead.
That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Playing at Ohio State was a once in a lifetime experience for me. Off the court, I was away from home and separated from my family for the first time in my life. I had the opportunity to experience life for myself. I partied a little bit, had a lot of fun and met a lot of great people. Basketball wise, I was playing in the Big Ten which is one of the toughest conferences in the nation. I was playing for one of the most prominent universities in the country. The whole thing was great for me.
Kee: You went from averaging five points per game as a freshman to nearly 30 points as a senior. Talk about the work you put in every year to improve your game.
Hopson: It was a very long process. As a freshman, I played a lot and even started a few games throughout the season, but to be completely honest with you, I had no idea what I was doing out there on the court. I really didn’t have a clue. I was talented, but my basketball IQ was low. I didn’t know how to put everything together. Just the fact that I was getting playing time was huge because I came into Ohio State with very few expectations.
Every year, I dedicated myself more and more to becoming a complete, all-around player. The harder I dedicated myself, the better I began understanding the game and, soon enough, the pieces began falling in place. You know how when you open a puzzle box, all the pieces are scrambled all over the place? That was my basketball knowledge when I first arrived at Ohio State; it was scrambled. As the years went on, my basketball IQ increased, which allowed me to maximize all of the skills and talents I had been blessed with. I went from averaging a little over five points per game as a freshman to 10 as a sophomore. I doubled that my junior year, and then my senior year I averaged almost 30 points per game and proved to everyone that I was one of the best players in the country.
Kee: You ended your Ohio State career as the all-time leading scorer, an All-American and as the Big 10 Player of the Year. Where does your senior season rank amongst the most memorable of your entire career?
Hopson: It’s very high on the list. My senior year is when I fell completely in love with the game. I began exerting all of my energy into becoming the best player possible. Even though [Head Coach] Eldon Miller had gotten fired, I really learned a lot under Gary Williams and enjoyed having him as my coach. To be honest, when I look back at my senior year, I haven’t seen too many guys since me who are capable of scoring 30 points a night against top tier competition. That’s very difficult to do.
Kee: How much does the all-time scoring title mean to you knowing that so many talented players have come in and out of Ohio State?
Hopson: It means a lot to me because even though I had a little bit of star status entering college, people didn’t expect me to evolve into the type of player I became. Like I said, I didn’t really have too many expectations for myself, so to end my career as the school’s all-time leading scorer is an accomplishment that is very dear to me. At the same time, I understand that records are meant to be broken. Just like I broke Herb Williams’ record, someone is going to come along and break my scoring record sooner or later.
Kee: There were a lot of talented guards in your 1987 draft class; guys like Reggie Miller, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson and Reggie Lewis. Talent wise, did you consider yourself to be superior to them?
Hopson: Yes, I absolutely did. I had outperformed those guys in college, and my resume at Ohio State had validated me as the 3rd pick in the draft that year. The difference between me and them is that even though I was drafted higher, they were drafted into better situations. I’m a firm believer that an athlete’s success is highly dependent on which team they’re playing for and what system they’re playing in. Everything is about timing.
Kee: Speaking of timing, at the time you were drafted, the Nets had just come off a terrible season. There was also a lot of dysfunction within the organization. How did you feel about being drafted there?
Hopson: It was very tough. For one, as a laid back guy from the Mid-West, having to move to New Jersey where the environment is much faster paced was a tough adjustment. Like you said, the Nets management had a lot of issues. Even though they put together a team of great guys, their dysfunction was hard to ignore. On top of that, I was playing for Coach Dave Wohl who didn’t even want me anyways. He was one of three coaches I had my rookie year; Bob MacKinnon and Willis Reed were the other two. Being a young and immature guy, the Nets didn’t have the type of stable culture that a young player needs to develop and thrive in. Now, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate everything the Nets did for me. I’m thankful for the opportunity they gave me to play in the NBA; I just don’t think we were a good match for each other.
Kee: You actually put up pretty good scoring numbers in New Jersey. In your third season, you led the Nets in points, but the team was consistently at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. How much of a toll did all the losing take on you?
Hopson: It took a huge toll on me. Losing was demoralizing. Then on top of that, because we weren’t winning, we couldn’t attract fans to our games, so we were basically playing our home games in front of a half empty arena. I was only there for three years, so I can’t imagine how guys like Buck Williams and Otis Birdsong felt; guys who had been with the organization forever.
Kee: During those dog days, were there any veterans on the team who helped guide you through those tough times?
Hopson: Absolutely. Buck Williams was a huge mentor of mine. Otis Birdsong was a great guy as well and played a huge factor in my development. Having those two guys around made my whole experience much more enjoyable.
Kee: As a rookie, you ran the backcourt with the late [Syracuse legend] Peal Washington. What was your relationship like with him?
Hopson: Pearl was my guy! Bless his soul. Pearl was a fantastic person. He was the typical, hardworking New Yorker who would give you the shirt off his back. Similar to me, he was another highly celebrated guy in college who never maximized his potential in the pros because of the situation in New Jersey. Aside from that, Pearl had always been a winner. He was a winner at the Boys & Girls High School. He was a winner at Syracuse. That’s what I’ll always remember his as.
Kee: After your third year with the Nets were you actively seeking to be traded?
Hopson: I wasn’t, but [Head Coach] Bill Fitch and I weren’t getting along. The thing that bothered me about Bill was that he wouldn’t stop talking about his days with the Boston Celtics. Mentally, he was still coaching the Celtics even though he was hired to coach the Nets. That’s all he talked about. Everything was about Larry Bird or Kevin McHale. I didn’t want to hear about all of that, and because we weren’t seeing eye to eye, the team decided to trade me.
Kee: Looking back on your Nets career, would you have done anything different?
Hopson: Yes, if I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I would have just kept my mouth closed and played through the situation. Also, if I could go back, I would have been a lot more selfish on the court. I don’t mean that in a bad way though. I just mean that I would have deferred less and would have put more of the offensive load on myself. I could have averaged 20 points per game no problem.
Kee: Leaving the Nets was like a double edged sword because on one end, you’re no longer playing for a losing franchise, but on the other end, you’re playing behind Michael Jordan. How’d you react to being traded?
Hopson: That was tough. I averaged about nine points my rookie year, 12 in my second year and then almost 16 points per game in my third season. My game had developed each year and I was starting to come into my own as an NBA player. Being traded to Chicago was a huge blow because I had been climbing the NBA ladder and all of a sudden I’m traded to the best team in the league and am forced to play behind the best player in the world in Michael Jordan.
When I was traded, I was having my basketball camp in Toledo, Ohio and people kept coming up to me, congratulating me and saying how exited I should be about playing for the Bulls. I was like, “Excited about what?” Yeah, I’m going to the Bulls, but Jordan is going to get all of the minutes. That really hurt my personal growth as a player. If I was an older veteran at the tail end of my career, I would have been ecstatic about playing for the Bulls. But as a young guy who was coming off his best season as a pro, it was a tough pill to swallow.
Kee: Everyone raves about Jordan’s obsession with winning. Talk about how demanding he was as a teammate.
Hopson: Mike was great at challenging his teammates. That’s something I always respected about him. He was always trying to get the best out of you. On and off the court, it doesn’t do you any good to be around people who don’t have high expectations. Michael had the highest of expectations and really expected a lot out of his teammates. He wanted to be the best ever. He wanted to win, and every day he put in the work to back that up.
Kee: Because you played a limited role in Chicago, did winning the championship in 91’ still mean a lot to you?
Hopson: Oh yeah, definitely. That was one of the greatest moments of my career. There are so many superstars who played in the league and never won a championship. For me to win a ring at the highest level in the world was the best feeling ever. Whether I played or not, that experience of winning a championship will be an accomplishment that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
Kee: That year you won the championship was the same year your Bulls dethroned the Detroit Pistons as the kings of the Eastern Conference. I know you weren’t on the team during the previous years of their rivalry, but did you take on the Bulls’ hatred for the Pistons?
Hopson: I wouldn’t say I hated them. I’m from Toledo, Ohio. Detroit is only 40 minutes away from my hometown, so I grew up watching the Pistons. Like you said, I wasn’t on the Bulls during most of that rivalry. Of course I wanted to beat them, but I didn’t hate them the way Michael and some of my other teammates did.
Hopson: I thought it was classless, but I understand why they did it. For so long, they were the bullies of the Eastern Conference. They were so used to beating up on people and when they lost to us in 91’ it was the first time they tasted their own medicine.
Kee: How often do you wear your championship ring?
Hopson: Every once in a while. When I go speak in front of kids at camps and clinics I’ll wear my ring, but not on an everyday basis.
Kee: After winning a ring in Chicago, you played for the Sacramento Kings the next season and experienced a bit of a career rejuvenation. You played around 20 minutes a game and averaged a little over 10 points. Did that year in Sacramento bring back your love for the game?
Hopson: Yes, it absolutely did. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a lot of love for Chicago. I loved my teammates. I loved the fans. I just thought the timing was bad. Going to Sacramento and having the opportunity to play a lot of minutes again was something I really wanted. That year, everything became fun again; even practices were fun. I was playing with guys like Mitch Richmond, Spud Webb, Lionel Simmons and Wayman Tisdale. We weren’t winning a lot of games, but just to be out there on the court was an awesome feeling.
Kee: After that season you had the contract dispute with the Kings front office. What was that about?
Hopson: That was my immaturity allowing an agent to dictate my future. My agent worked for me; not the other way around. I lost sight of that. [Kings Head Coach] Gary St. Jean would call me every day. He kept saying, “Dennis, take the money.” I had the Kings in one ear and my agent in the other. Unfortunately, I listened to my agent and held out, expecting the Kings would offer me more money and it ended up backfiring. As time went on, the Kings management saw that I wasn’t budging and gave my contract to Vincent Askew. So I had no other choice but to play overseas after that.
Kee: How did you like your overseas experience?
Hopson: It was great because I played in beautiful places. I played in very Americanized countries like Spain and France. The scenery was amazing. The fans there were excellent. In fact, they’re a little crazier than NBA fans. The basketball there is high class too, but nothing beats playing in the NBA.
Kee: You played internationally for seven seasons. In those seven years, did you have NBA teams trying to lure you back into the league?
Hopson: Yes, I got a lot of calls from NBA teams inviting me to training camp to compete for a spot on their roster. The problem was that the European leagues began playing before the NBA season starts, so I was stuck in the middle of a tough situation. Do I take the guaranteed money in Europe or sign a training camp deal in the NBA with the risk of not making the final roster? I took the guaranteed money.
Kee: After your playing days ended, you went into coaching. You were an assistant coach over at Bowling Green University. What type of lessons did you try and teach your players that you wish you would have known when you were younger?
Hopson: I made sure they realized the importance of opportunities. When you’re young, you don’t realize how many opportunities you take for granted. It’s important that they seize the moment while they can because when they get older those same opportunities might not be available to them. That’s something I always preached.
Kee: In 2011, the Bulls organization held a halftime ceremony honoring the 91’ championship team. What was it like reuniting and reminiscing with all your old teammates?
Hopson: That was an amazing moment. I hadn’t seen guys like Michael Jordan in a very long time. We were all joking around and having fun. The guys were teasing each other about their weight. Scottie Pippen and I were some of the only guys who hadn’t packed on much weight since our playing days. We were all laughing about that. It was just a very cherishable moment.
Kee: On and off the court, what do you want your legacy to be?
Hopson: On the court, I want to be remembered as someone who gave 100% every time I stepped on the floor. More importantly than that, as a person, I want to be remembered as a high character, caring and respectful guy. Being a good human being is more important to me than anything I could ever do on the basketball court.