Assistant coach Dan Panaggio joined the Phoenix Suns’ coaching staff when Lindsey Hunter took over as head coach during the midpoint of the season. Panaggio, who grew up in upstate New York, has enjoyed a variety of roles during his lengthy career in basketball. Not only was he Coach of the Year in the CBA, but he also coached in college and acted as an NBA scout. Most recently, he was the head coach of the Shanghai Sharks in China, a team which is owned by former NBA All-Star Yao Ming.
Suns.com: How was coaching in China?
Dan Panaggio: A lot of the owners in China are extremely volatile. In fact, there was a popular book that was written about Bob Weiss coaching the Shanxi Dragons over there.
It’s called Brave Dragons and is written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jim Yardley. It tells you about life in China.
While most of the owners were extremely volatile, with Yao (Ming) you have a guy that understands basketball, where the others don’t. He understands the NBA and how professional things are done in the NBA. Plus he’s a fun guy.
Suns.com: When you first started with the Suns during the 2010-11 season you were a scout. After leaving to coach in China, you returned as an assistant. How did all of that come about?
Panaggio: I left because they pursued me aggressively for a pretty good sum. It was a chance to be a head coach, so I went ahead and did it. We had done really well the first year I was there.
We went from 13th in the league to sixth in the league and we made the playoffs. The main website there named me Coach of the Year, so everything was very good.
My Americans were Mike Harris and Ryan Forehan-Kelly. When Ryan got hurt, we filled in with Marcus Landry.
And then in the second year, we didn’t bring any of those guys back. That year we signed Gilbert Arenas and six minutes into the first game of the season, he went down with an injury and pretty much never played for the rest of my time there.
So we only played with one American and that’s impossible in that country because there is such a discrepancy between the American players and the Chinese players. You couldn’t win with one, so I ended up getting fired.
Coincidentally, I was in severe depression (laughs), when the Suns called.
Suns.com: So what do they call Chinese food in China?
Panaggio: Food (laughs).
Suns.com: Is it different than what we eat here?
Panaggio: It’s completely different. It’s not even close to what you have here. Most of the Chinese people wouldn’t touch what you have here with all of that sweet stuff.
Suns.com: Is it cleaner eating over there?
Panaggio: Well, they use a lot of oil in their food. And they eat every part of every animal, every plant and fruits you’ve never heard of. So it’s entirely different kind of diet altogether.
They’re a very thin people.
Suns.com: What are you hoping to bring to this team as an assistant coach?
Panaggio: I’m looking to fill in the gaps. I’m just looking to use my experience as one of the senior coaches. I’ve been around and involved in so many different positions over the years and so many different situations that I think I have perspective.
Suns.com: How long were you an assistant with the Trail Blazers?
Panaggio: For four years; from 2001 to 2005.
Suns.com: Excluding the present Suns, who was your favorite player that you ever coached?
Panaggio: Probably Scottie Pippen. I enjoyed how much I learned from coaching him, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
At the time, it was his last stop and he was one of the older guys on the team, but he practiced harder than everybody and took practice more serious than everybody. He was a Top 50 basketball player of all-time and he deserved that recognition with his approach.
Suns.com: Having grown up in upstate New York, did you ever imagine coaching in the NBA some day?
Panaggio: I didn’t. I had no idea where it was going to take me. But I thought I’d be a high school gym teacher and basketball coach for the duration because I was a physical education major.
And that was kind of the model I had growing up. My father was a high school physical education teacher and basketball coach in inner-city Rochester.
He became my college coach later in his career. He also ended up coaching in the CBA after that. I kind of saw myself as a high school coach and teacher.
Suns.com: What was the break that got you into the NBA?
Panaggio: When I started coaching in the minor leagues, in the Continental Basketball Association, you’re always eyeing the NBA at that point because it’s a more logical step than college.
But I did go to college. I went to Indiana for a year.
One of my former assistant coaches in the CBA, Maurice Cheeks, was named the head coach in Portland. So that’s what did it (brought me to the NBA).