While Paul Mokeski didn’t even live a full year in Spokane, where he was born, it wasn’t impossible that the future NBA big man would have played for Gonzaga.
His father, Casmer, graduated from Gonzaga in 1952, and when Mokeski visited campus during his recruiting process in the mid-1970s, he loved him. But at the time, Gonzaga – still a few years after Dan Fitzgerald’s first stint as a coach – was not yet tied with Kansas or UCLA, who were also recruiting him.
“I visited Gonzaga more for my dad than anything else,” Mokeski said last week. “I really enjoyed it, but it was really small.”
He also traveled to Washington state because of coach George Raveling, he said. But in the end, the 7-footer Mokeski chose Kansas. He played four seasons at Lawrence from 1975 to 1979 and continued a 12-year career in the NBA, marked by seven years with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks were good at the time – the third-best regular season team in the Eastern Conference from 1981 to 1988 – but they shared the East with the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, who each represented the Conference in each of these seasons.
“We were really good the whole time, but we just couldn’t get over that bump,” Mokeski said. “We were meeting Philly with Dr. J. (Julius Erving), the Celtics and Larry Bird and this group, and it was very frustrating.”
So seeing the Bucks now in the NBA Finals – they lead 3-2 ahead of Tuesday night Game 6 in Milwaukee – pleases Mokeski, who has never gone further than the Conference Finals as a player. .
“I’m pretty much a Buck at heart,” he said.
Mokeski’s move from Spokane to California at the age of nine months was just the first in more than two dozen of his life. Mokeski’s professional career began in Houston, then took him to Milwakuee, Detroit, Cleveland and Golden State. He’s averaged 4.0 points and 3.4 rebounds over his playing career, starting 38 times in 694 games.
During his 23-year coaching and recruiting career that followed, he lived in at least a dozen cities and traveled to 42 countries. So after 28 moves, he said, it’s been nice to be just in one place for the past three years. He and Linda, his wife of 40 years, now live in Las Vegas.
When Mokeski took over as a coach in the mid-90s, the transition was not as smooth as he had hoped. Being a great man, he said he had been stereotyped as someone who could only coach other great men. He has settled for assistant coaching positions in the NBA Development League, or the CBA, or for international teams like Jamaica and Great Britain.
All the while he picked up what he could from the various coaches he worked with.
“If you’re smart, like I think I sometimes am, you take all the right things and when you get the chance you use it,” Mokeski said. “You use it to create your own coaching philosophy.”
Eventually, he became an advanced scout for the Dallas Mavericks, a job that sent him on the road 20 to 25 days a month, watching out for the Mavericks’ next opponents. He said he produced 20-30 page reports, noting team substitution patterns, last-second games, playcalls and other strategic details.
It was grueling work, but now he has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the game calls of the great coaches he has watched, like Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle, Mike D’Antoni, he said.
“You have a personal, up-close chance to watch the best coaches in the game,” he said. “I have chart books and calls from all of these teams and coaches.”
Mokeski never had the chance to be the head coach of the NBA, but he is still following the game closely. He also co-hosts a weekly podcast titled “The D. Gerv and Big Mo Show” with Derrick Gervin.
“It’s about old school and new school basketball,” he said.
He still follows college basketball, including Gonzaga, but not just because of his father’s connection to Spokane.
“I like the way they play,” Mokeski said. “In the grand scheme of things (they are) with the Kansases and the Dukes.
“It’s like what the Suns and the Bucks are like now. It used to be Philly, the Lakers, Boston. Now you have two middle teams in the final, and that’s what the Zags are every year. I like it, and I like the way they play. … This is the way I like to coach.