Tum Tum Nairn Masters the Rare College Player-to-NBA Assistant Transition
Travis Scott’s "SICKO MODE" blares through the Madison Square Garden speakers and Tum Tum Nairn shouts every word into Mikal Bridges’s grill. While his rap-along effort, coupled with a right hand blanketing the Phoenix rookie’s eyes, pales in comparison to the havoc Nairn once brought atop Michigan State’s defense, it adequately readies the lottery pick for battle against the Knicks. Nairn teases Bridges with each miss, as if his mimicked closeouts score a victory for the Suns’ coaching staff. He cheekily apologizes to Cody Toppert, Phoenix’s director of player development, when the ball passes iron and falls through the net.
As big men Richaun Holmes and Eric Moreland drill a mock high-screen action, Nairn fires pinpoint entry passes from the baseline after each giant finishes his roll to the rim. If a loose rebound sputters amidst the chaos that is an NBA team’s pregame warm up, Nairn scurries to collect the trickling ball, like a running back weaving through tacklers, somehow intersecting multiple players’ and coaches’ routines without ruining their rhythm. “He’s recharging our batteries on a daily basis,” says Suns head coach Igor Kokoškov.
Phoenix’s first-year leader originally crossed paths with his staff’s unlikely energizer bunny three years earlier, when the Spartans visited Trieste, Italy, for a preseason tournament. Months before Michigan State opened the 2015-16 season 13-0, Nairn whiffed a last-second layup against Kokoškov’s Georgian national team, ultimately sealing a 71-70 loss. “I remember this tiny little kid was crying after the game,” Kokoškov says. Indeed, Sparty’s 5’10”, 170-pound sophomore point guard tossed his consolation prize into the trash. “They gave us a trophy for second place,” Nairn recalls, “and I was just really upset.”
Emotion has fueled Nairn’s hardwood journey. He fled an impoverished neighborhood in Nassau, Bahamas, at 13, arriving—alone—at Kansas’s Sunrise Christian Academy with hoop dreams the one-bedroom home he shared with his mother couldn’t realize. Later digesting his senior year scouting tape, Tom Izzo needed to pay Sunrise a visit, joining the team for an early morning weight lifting workout. The diminutive floor general—nicknamed after the boisterous character from the 1992 movie 3 Ninjas—boasted the largest personality in the room. “I hadn’t even seen him play at that point, and I told my staff, 'We need this kid,'" Izzo says. "It was so bizarre.”
Nairn joined Michigan State’s camp the following spring, with Draymond Green, mere months shy of his 2014-15 breakout season, and scores of future NBA talents like Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes running fives. After losing one game, Nairn barked at his upperclassmen teammates content with losing one of countless offseason bouts. He hated losing more than he liked winning, he screamed. “He was commanding energy on the court and trying to will his team,” says Quinton Sawyer, Michigan State’s former head athletic trainer, now with the Charlotte Hornets. After scrimmages, Nairn replicated his buzzing weight room persona, urging two more reps and one more set. “He was so infectious,” Izzo says.
As the school year began, MSU staffers would see their newest ballhandler, Caribbean sun in his veins, strolling the Midwestern campus with a jacket and without a worry. He solely responded to how-are-yous with “better than good.” “Early on, I’d almost get mad at him,” Izzo says. “Then I would go find him just so I could change my attitude by talking to him.” Some players criticized Sawyer for a lack of originality in the team’s meals. There are only so many nutritious combinations that can cost-effectively feed a dozen gargantuan-and-growing young men. Nairn regularly sought the trainer privately, thanking him for organizing dinners he had never imagined in his youth. When the Spartans fell to Duke in that 2015 Final Four, Nairn beamed amongst the teary postgame locker room, praising his teammates for the lessons they gifted him, and the experience they enjoyed together. “I don’t know if I ever saw Tum have a bad day,” Sawyer says.
Izzo quickly named Nairn a team captain for the following campaign, a title he would never relinquish. He was the paragon host for prospective new teammates on recruiting visits. Izzo even put Nairn on the phone with recruit’s parents, if he wasn’t busy playing hide-and-seek with boosters’ children. “He can relate with everybody,” Izzo says. When the coach’s son, Steven, reached his junior year of high school, the legendary leader asked Nairn to mentor his own kin. “It sounds like I’m making him out to be God,” Izzo says. “And, he’s in second place.”
Fittingly enough, Nairn launched a bible study as a junior, with the encouragement of freshmen roommates Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. He hoped to squeeze sessions in between practices and games, vying to host upwards of three meetings in the their apartment per week. While studying the bible alone his room for two hours, Nairn posted inspirational quotes and verses on his Instagram to announce that evening’s 7 p.m. discussion. What started with four visitors quickly ballooned to a regular attendance of 40 participants. “Random people would just come and we’d just talk about God,” says Bridges, now a rookie forward in Charlotte. Some would sit pretzel-legged on the floor. Others would listen from chairs the players dragged into the common area from other rooms in their home. “He’s not afraid to express himself,” Bridges says. “That’s what makes him special. He’s not nervous to talk to anybody.”
As Bridges famously spurned the NBA for a sophomore season in East Lansing, Mich.—to the surprise of Izzo—his best friend became a critical factor in returning to college. “If he wasn’t there, I don’t know if I would have went back,” Bridges says. He wanted to inherit as much of Nairn’s positivity as possible, looking at each day alongside his teammate as one step further from the trouble that lurked back in his own hometown of Flint, Mich. The group continued hosting text studies, now including phenom freshman roommate Jaren Jackson. The inimitable forward is not religious, but felt a higher sense of needing to attend. They remain in a daily group message with the Spartans’ current roster. “We stay in contact, for sure,” Jackson says. “It’s a family environment,” adds Bridges.
Under former general manager Ryan McDonough, the Suns scouting department polled prospects on the most influential players and coaches they encountered. During Jackson’s pre-draft visit to Phoenix, he spent 10 full minutes at dinner with the team’s then-assistant general manager Pat Connelly monologuing about Nairn, the teammate who started 30 games the season prior only to return to the bench in favor of a greener point guard. “It was just like, 'Man, this kid,'” Connelly says. McDonough quickly phoned Izzo. With the Suns firmly entrenched in a youthful rebuild, the idea of adding a younger advisor, a 22-year-old who could connect with 19-year-old prodigies while also calling out their mistakes, increasingly intrigued Phoenix brass. "You gotta be an old school guy with a young school age,” Izzo says.
Nairn contemplated continuing his playing career, even signing with Detroit-based agent Ryan Dempsey. He had already garnered an offer from a club in Denmark and planned to attend a summer showcase in Las Vegas for overseas scouts. Then, roughly 10 days before the NBA draft, as Nairn typed away in his East Lansing bedroom, inching closer to finishing his autobiography and motivational book, an unknown number pinged his cellphone. Nairn rarely acknowledges rings from foreign contacts, but something drew him to accept this call. “A spirit told me to answer the phone,” he says. It was Connelly, and Nairn could hardly contain his excitement. He nearly barrelled into Jackson’s nearby room. “I thought, 'Oh my god, he might be the No. 1 pick!'"
Instead, the Suns had privately zeroed in on Arizona center, and Bahamian behemoth, Deandre Ayton, and Connelly wanted to support their franchise pillar with the same cement Izzo supported Jackson with at MSU. “He has this kind of presence about him,” Connelly says, a unique ability to earnestly connect with superstar talents. “He has their heart and mind.” Phoenix shuttled Nairn to its Summer League minicamp, an early test of his prophetic personality within an NBA facility. He seamlessly began shagging bouncing balls, rebounding in shooting drills, and simulating pick-and-rolls with big men. After a brief interview with Kokoškov—“Just, you can feel it,” the coach says—Phoenix inked Nairn as a player development assistant.
Anecdotal history shows only one previous occurrence of a Final Four starter immediately joining the coaching ranks. Ronald Nored even got a head start. On weekends, his AAU team watched the guard during Butler’s nationally-televised, magical NCAA Tournament run, before he’d fly back to Indianapolis to lead their practices after Tuesday classes. After completing his senior season in 2011-12, Nored took over the basketball program at his running mate Gordon Hayward’s high school in Brownsburg, Ind. The following summer, Brad Stevens made the leap to the Celtics, Nored in tow, leading to a stint with Boston’s G-League affiliate Maine Red Claws and later the head coach of the Long Island Nets. “I’ve done everything but go to Europe,” says Nored, now an assistant for the Hornets. He mastered the player-to-coach transition with a keen sense of perspective. You can only talk so much junk—Travis Scott lyrics included—during pregame warmups. “I think a separation is important. And I try to walk that line pretty closely without overstepping it,” Nored says.
At times, Nairn has, to the Suns’ benefit, struggled walking that tightrope. When coaches have acted as scout teams, running through upcoming opponents’ plays, Nairn will attack Phoenix’s players like he’s still facing Josh Jackson and Kansas in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. “What I remember about him as a player, super tough, always play hard, balls-to-the-wall type of guy,” Jackson says. “That’s what he is here for us. I love his intensity.” Nairn could have brought that fervor to a pulpit or a campaign trail for a local government post. He remains interested in motivational speaking. Coaching can perhaps combine his myriad passions, where teamwork must meet inspiration and competition to former a powerful blend of winning. His profile is one that, mixed with a steady diet of NBA film study and tactical growth, could one day create a rising head coaching candidate. “If it’s God's will, I think it will happen either way," Nairn says. "I don’t have to force it." He never has.