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Connections and an uplifting spirit: Moses Ehambe on last season with the Pacers and working with USA Basketball 3x3
He played for Nate Bjorkgren in the D League, then joined his staff in Indiana as a coach and was grateful for the call-up at last.
Moses Ehambe isn’t just a former professional basketball player, coach or dad, he’s a people person. It’s the way he treats you, makes eye contact and earnestly asks how you are doing. It’s his smile and optimism, both important during the highs and lows of the most recent Pacers season.
He has an infectious personality, a thirst for constant personal growth and a desire to share it with all who will listen. Basketball or otherwise.
During this past year, conversations with the new coaching staff were limited to head coach Nate Bjorkgren and all player interviews were over Zoom. Very informal.
That’s why on a recent summer day, it was truly appreciated when Ehambe was willing to meet. Bjorkgren, who spent just eight months as Pacers head coach, had hired him in November to be one of three to assist with player development and in the video room.
The two had known each other for almost a decade, going back to winning a D League championship together with the Iowa Energy. Nick Nurse, who now directs the Toronto Raptors, was the head coach and Bjorkgren was his assistant. Ehambe, 35, played on that team years after playing college basketball at Oral Roberts University from 2004-08.
“Relationships are so huge,” Ehambe explained over lunch at a popular spot in downtown Indianapolis. It’s the first interview with any of the assistant coaches from last season, which included fan favorite Calbert Cheaney. They were all off limits, which is unusual for this franchise. Being in a pandemic didn’t help.
“I had not spoken to coach Nate Bjorkgren in maybe four years. The fact that he would reach out to me just shows that it’s important not to burn bridges. It’s important that you stay professional, cultivate relationships. And it’s important to be yourself.”
They were together for two seasons, first during that championship run and then again two years later, after Bjorkgren left to become the head coach of the Santa Cruz Warriors — and then returned.
Earlier this season, Ehambe got another call out of nowhere. It was from Sean Ford, USA Basketball’s men’s national team director. The two had stayed in touch over the years and Ford asked if Ehambe wanted to get involved with USA Basketball.
“I’m like, ‘Absolutely. My country!’ So he gave me the opportunity to assist in selecting the team for 3x3,” said Ehambe. “It’s such a honor, it’s so great.”
He had played for Team USA in the Pan American games held in Guadalajara, Mexico back in 2011. The roster was comprised of D League guys, like former Pacers guard Donald Sloan, along with Blake Ahearn, Lance Thomas, Leo Lyons and others.
“Fantastic experience being able to wear USA on your chest and representing your country is so different,” Ehambe said proudly. “Within that whole experience, I got connected with Sean … and we kept in contact. He was having twins while I was having twins and all that. And then just out of nowhere, I think we were in New York this year, I get a random call.”
Then in June, after the season, Ehambe flew out to Springfield, Mass., home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The 2021 Red Bull 3X Nationals, comprised of 35 teams — men and women — were being held and he served as one of the three judges on the men’s side evaluating players.
For those he was watching, versatility was paramount; offense and defense mattered. Chemistry among the group was valuable, though it took time to establish. There were different rules to learn, like having just 12 seconds to make a bucket. The winner is the first team to 21 or the team with the higher score after 10 minutes of play.
“It’s so different,” he said, “and the physicality of 3-on-3 basketball is like ‘My goodness!’ You’re pushing, you’re shoving, you got to be able to move on. You make a bucket, there’s no celebrations.”
It was a unique niche of guys who participated with four players eventually chosen, plus a couple of alternates. The men’s 3x3 team, which included former Purdue standout Robbie Hummel, unfortunately failed to qualify for the Olympics held in Tokyo. The women’s team went on to win it all.
“We looked for guys who were dialed in, believed in the system, could play team ball and score,” he continued. “It was an awesome opportunity and a segue to get into (more), get through the door and then potentially do something else.”
Ehambe, who grew up in Dallas, said the experience brought him back to playing at a local park when he was young. He later played at Hoop It Up, a nationwide 3-on-3 tournament and “fell in love with it.”
He played professionally for a decade and now is proving himself on the sidelines in coaching.
The business of basketball is tough business, though. Ehambe and his family had just closed on a home this summer around the time Rick Carlisle was hired to replace Bjorkgren. There’s uncertainty that comes after each season and especially after a coaching change.
He never did get that conversation with Carlisle that he wanted and was not retained for a second season.
“This is where you want to be,” he said of the NBA. “Now it’s about staying. It was sad to see him leave, obviously. But business is business and the fact that he got me here (means a lot).”
As a player, Ehambe never got a call-up from the D League and he spent more than a half-dozen seasons overseas. So when he got an opportunity to work in the NBA a year ago, he found a unique way to show his appreciation.
He ordered custom wooden Pacers notebooks for Bjorkgren, team president Kevin Pritchard and general manager Chad Buchanan.
“I played in the D League for three-to-five years off and on, and I was so close to getting a call-up — so close — but it never happened,” he said. “But I saw the opportunity to come here as finally getting the call-up, so I thanked them.”
After each game, he ran to the southwest end of the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, to row one of the stands, where his family came down for hugs and kisses. Family is everything to him and this was a small way he showed his appreciation to his five kids and his wife, Sarah.
A season in the league gave him a sample taste, one he hopes to continue. It wasn’t even the full experience, removed from restrictions in place due to the pandemic — like coaching without a mask and reconnecting with friends on road trips. There could be no team activities away from the gym, like paintballing or as simple as team dinners.
But he remains grateful for the opportunity and is thankful for one player in particular.
“T.J. (McConnell) made my experience in a sense, just being a good person, a good guy and a hard worker,” he said. “He was willing to listen and work and we cultivated a relationship. It was more personal rather than just out on the court. That’s what I took advantage of with coaching.
“These guys are given an opportunity to be one of the best in the world but as they’re doing that, it’s my job to not only cultivate relationships on the court, but off the court was as important. These guys are human beings, they go through stuff. I know that if they’re good in their personal life and in their minds, they’re going to be 110 percent on the court.”