Micah Nori leads Timberwolves in NBA Western Conference finals as coach Chris Finch recovers (2024)

Micah Nori once used the word cattywampus during a live TV interview. That's only because he already had accepted a dare to say Snuffleupagus, boomshakalaka and aluminum siding, and any self-respecting quipster knows that one never double-dips with originality.

The man didn't even flinch when he was instructed to meow like a cat on TV.

"That one worked out great," Nori said, launching into the story about his perfect timing and execution in meowing into the camera.

Dropping quirky words into halftime interviews as an NBA assistant coach is not what he envisioned for himself growing up. He dreamed of being selected in the major league baseball draft as a talented high school shortstop from Ohio. He has a story about that, too.

After about 40 rounds of the 1993 baseball draft, teams began to pass on making a pick. Nori knew his odds of being selected were becoming increasingly slim as the hours went by, but when teams chose to skip their turn rather than call his name, he knew his baseball future was fading fast.

"They were like, 'Nah, we don't want that guy,' " he said.

He eventually found someone willing to bet on him in an unlikely place — the NBA. Unlikely because he didn't play basketball beyond high school.

Thirty years later, Nori is patrolling the Timberwolves sideline this postseason as a stand-in for injured coach Chris Finch on game day. The Wolves turned a potentially disruptive predicament into something close to business-as-usual because of Nori's affable personality and his deep understanding of how Finch operates.

The team is in some tense trouble as it heads to Texas, down 0-2 to the Mavericks. They have in Nori the right leader to keep things light.

"I don't try to vary too much from Finchy," Nori said in his office before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. "I've been on the bench with him now over 200 games. You kind of know what he's thinking."

Finch still handles almost all his duties after having knee surgery. He sits behind Nori on the bench, close enough to offer advice or instruction, but Finch also has given his top assistant freedom to make his own calls regarding timeouts, defensive coverages and other strategy that requires quick decisions.

"I told him, 'You're not going to be wrong. What you decide might not work, but it's not going to be wrong.' " Finch said. "It's just coaching."

Nori's path to coaching began in college as a middle infielder for Indiana.

"That was about 50 pounds ago," he said.

He was an accomplished Big Ten player, ranking in the top 20 in Indiana program history in home runs, RBI, hits, slugging percentage and extra-base hits.

Looking back, Nori believes he could have played professional baseball, likely topping out at Class AA. Instead, he chose graduate school, earning a master's degree in sports organization. His plan was to become a baseball coach or scout, or to pursue a career in athletic administration.

A family connection led him to basketball. Nori's father had coached Butch Carter, brother of Hall of Fame receiver Cris, as a high school athlete in Middletown, Ohio, which sits between Dayton and Cincinnati.

Butch Carter became head coach of the Toronto Raptors after his NBA playing career and offered Nori a position as an entry-level assistant and then advance scout. Nori returned to Indiana for a stint as the Hoosiers' hitting coach before moving back to the NBA for good in 2009 when Toronto coach Jay Triano offered him an assistant job.

Nori has a Rolodex of coaches who served as mentors and also provided endless material for his gut-busting stories. One of those was P.J. Carlesimo, the former NBA head coach who spent one year on Toronto's staff.

Carlesimo took Nori and fellow assistant Eric Hughes to dinner every night on nongame days, turning them into Italian food aficionados.

Nori dined at one upscale Italian restaurant three times in his first 15 years in Toronto. Once Carlesimo arrived, he ate there once a week. Carlesimo always picked up the tab.

"They were two-hour dinners," Nori said. "We're ordering everything. P.J.'s one of the nicest and funniest people you'll ever meet."

Nori could give him a run in that department. His deadpan delivery when inserting a peculiar word or funny one-liner into his halftime interviews on Wolves broadcasts has made him a fan favorite.

He traces the origin of his wordplay to his time with head coach Michael Malone in Sacramento and Denver. He would watch other coaches around the league give uncomfortable interviews while regurgitating clichés and wanted to try something different.

"Why not have some fun with it?" he said.

It became a thing. Staffers in Denver created a bingo card with different words for him to say. Nori's daughter, Mia, started giving him suggestions. As an assistant in Detroit, Nori would liven up team video sessions with his witty phrases.

"I always sit there and think, 'I hope the head coach doesn't think you worry more about what you're going to say at halftime than you worry about making adjustments,'" he joked.

No chance. There is substance behind the shtick. Nori is being mentioned for head coaching vacancies because of his reputation as a smart strategist who relates well to players.

Finch's unfortunate injury has afforded Nori a real-time audition under the highest pressure.

"It makes you feel good when I sit down in that chair and look across and have five pairs of eyes looking right at you locked in," Nori said.

This playoff run isn't the only major event in the Nori household this summer. His son, Dante, a high school senior, is listed as the No. 49 overall prospect in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft. Nori's family remained in Michigan after he got hired by the Wolves in 2021 because Dante had moved seven times growing up. The lefthanded-hitting outfielder is expected to be selected in the first two rounds.

Come July, all these years later, Nori will hear his last name announced at the MLB draft.

Micah Nori leads Timberwolves in NBA Western Conference finals as coach Chris Finch recovers (2024)
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