Q&A with Noel Hightower: On his year with the Pacers, joining the Warriors and writing a children's book
Noel Hightower spent the 2021-22 season with the Pacers as a basketball assistant and is now on staff with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the G League.
Each season, NBA teams hire basketball assistants who can help on the court and in the video room. They are typically former college players who aspire to either be coaches or to continue working in professional basketball.
Last year’s group with the Pacers was a memorable one. I wrote about Bryce Taylor then accepting a coaching position in Germany; Logan Power joined the Chicago Bulls as a player development coordinator.
Now I want to introduce you to Noel Hightower, who accomplished all four of his goals in 2022, including becoming a published author.
Last season was a crazy one because we were still coming off Covid restrictions, the Pacers had 30 different players spend time with the team and they only won 25 games as they moved toward a rebuild.
Hightower was a part of that and as players were sidelined with injuries, he (and others) would help them ramp back up on the court.
One week before the NBA training camp, I interviewed Hightower for my podcast and a story. Unfortunately, the audio didn’t record clearly enough so it would not make for a good listening experience. Just one week on the job, now with the Santa Cruz Warriors, Hightower talked at length about his time with the Pacers, moving to The Bay Area and spending several years writing his first book.
So you’re now working with … no big deal … the Golden State Warriors as part of their player development team and working as a G League assistant coach with the Santa Cruz Warriors. How’d the move go?
The move has been great. The Bay is a little different than Indiana, to say the least. I loved my time in Indiana and I loved living there.
The Pacers always hire a handful of seasonal basketball assistants and that was your role this past season, where you get immersed in so much. Mostly working with the players on the court, rebounding and reviewing film. For you, how did the opportunity come about?
It was a great opportunity, I was happy to have it. It came about in late August (of 2021). I heard about the position through a friend of a friend and got connected with the Pacers organization. I went through the application process and instantly connected with assistant coach Mike Weinar, Zach Chu and Dylan DeBusk. And we had some great conversations over the phone. One thing led to another and I moved to Indiana.
Before you came to the Pacers, you went to college, then coached at Lehigh University and got your Master’s Degree. What was that experience like — and did you always know you wanted to stay in basketball as a coach?
I always knew I wanted to be in athletics, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into coaching. The coaching profession is so competitive at the Div. I college level and NBA level so I initially trying to go the administrative route in college athletics. And then the opportunity opened up at Lehigh to join the staff and I couldn’t pass it up. It was the director of basketball operations as well as a graduate assistant at a great university. I got my Master’s in educational leadership. I was the operations guy for one year and then an assistant for four. Got my Master’s in three and a half years and it was a lot of high-character of people who valued athletics and education. It was a great fit for me.
So then take me back to your experience with the Pacers. Who did you connect with immediately?
Just coming in, I was looking for any opportunity and I literally worked with everybody — from head coach Rick Carlisle to our assistants to our player development guys and video coordinators. I spent a lot of time with Jannero Pargo doing a lot of player development stuff, and then as the season progressed, I got time with Zach and Dylan in the film room. Literally, I got a taste of what everybody does and find my own way and take from all of them.
And the thing I like about that, with all those names, it means you got a lot of touch points. You weren’t just going through the motions, but hopefully took away a few things from each role. That’s what that experience is about. Which players did you work with?
Our biggest thing was working with guys who were rehabbing back so I spent a lot of time with Caris LeVert, TJ. Warren, T.J. McConnell. And then Malcolm Brogdon toward the end of the year. We were literally playing every day with Malcolm the past four or five weeks to try to get him right and get him back.
And that’s one of the things I should highlight, how one of the things the Pacers and other teams like is how you still have game. That you can still play because there will be many days when there’s no practice or it’s a light day. So it’s you, the other basketball assistants and Pargo — always — and one way where you could feel like you’re always contributing.
I remember when the big trade happened, Buddy Hield, Tristan Thompson and Tyrese Haliburton came in and as soon as Buddy came in, he wanted to play 1-on-1 all the time.
Buddy never turns down games.
Yeah, I would play him every day. And then as we transitioned into the summer time, I would guard Tyrese in almost every drill. That was great, it was a blast. It was one of the most real experience because the NBA is the best players in the entire world. Just to get on the floor with those guys and be around them was an honor.
Take me through this past summer then as you tried to figure out what’s next — and landed on a tremendous opportunity. I saw you at summer league and you were considering your options and now have moved across the country. There’s familiar names with the Warriors, like Will Sheehey and Hilton Armstrong. What intrigued you about this opportunity with the Warriors?
Everybody here has been great. I first came across this opportunity was out at summer league. I had a lot of conversations with their G League GM and their head coach. We connected, had some really quality conversations and after summer league, everything goes quiet in the NBA. So I reached out to them again, had an interview and then they offered me the position.
My biggest thing for me personally was to stay in the NBA for player development, but I also wanted to expand and prove that I could coach at the professional level. So having a blending role was perfect for me.
That’s awesome. But not all to your story. The other reason I wanted to talk was because you had some big news this summer, not basketball related. You became a published author with the book “Shame, Shame Shame! We Could Have Won the Game.” A children’s book and as I read through the summery, I have to ask: the star player is Myles. Was that influenced by Myles Turner?
I love Myles Turner, but it was not him. My younger brother is named Myles and then the second character is Isabella — and that’s for my younger sister.
What was your writing process like and when did you first set out to write a book. Because it’s not easy.
It took me about three years. I was inspired by using basketball to teach and get this story out to more people. My ultimate goal was to write a book to prove to myself that I could write a book. And it’s a success. I’ve read it at multiple camps, schools and right now, it’s in over 30 elementary schools in 12 different states — so it’s going really well.
My initial thought was that it would be a great bedtime story for a young kid. And then as the kid gets older, they could read it to their parents. In the back, there’s some interactive questions as well.
What was it like in the final days leading up to it and then finally seeing it published and receiving your first copy?
My biggest thing, to be totally honest, was that before I put it out, I was very worried about the opinion of others and what they would think bout my product. But then I thought to myself, this was something I created myself, an original, so I should be proud of it. And for the first day on Amazon, it was the number one selling book in child hood education. So that was an overwhelming moment for me and I was really proud of that.
The key, like a story or podcast, is just getting the word out. And those kids books seem to sell like crazy. Whenever I’m around my nieces and nephews, I seem to be reading to them. Have you thought about what’s next for you or are you good, checked this box and moved on?
Coming into the year, I wanted to accomplish four goals and I did those four things. All of them were geared to be outside of basketball. They were to 1) get my Dominican Citizenship. My mother is from the Dominican and I wanted to have that as well. 2) To publish a children’s book. 3) Run my own basketball camp and 4) Create an LLC. And it was meaningful for me to accomplish all four.
Now my biggest focus is on my current role and being the best version of myself in that role. And go from there.
What was the hardest part of becoming an author?
That was it, doing it for the first time. There were a lot of hiccups, but there were also a lot of hands in the pot. I had multiple drafts; I read drafts to elementary school students to get their view on it and how they responded to it. And then at the tail end, it’s the publishing process.