Merle Kidwell was a point guard at Lewis County. Donnie Tyndall was a point guard at Morehead State when Kidwell was a graduate assistant for the Eagles. Jacob Porter was a point guard at Russell when Kidwell led the Red Devils.
That was surely a connection point for Tyndall and Porter in the employ of the NBA G League’s Grand Rapids Drive.
“It’s just amazing how small the basketball community really is,” Tyndall said last week. “Merle’s been a very, very loyal lifelong friend to me, and Jacob Porter happens to be a Morehead grad like myself.”
But the shared background didn’t determine how Porter came to work under the former Morehead State coach.
If Porter moving to the minor league franchise in Tyndall’s hometown at the same time as Porter’s high school coach’s former volunteer assistant continued his own road back in a place he never thought he’d work again was due to the randomness of the universe, fate or God — or at least the randomness of the basketball universe — that didn’t give Porter a professional assistant coaching gig. He broke into the professional coaching ranks from an intern position based on merit, his boss said.
“He’s a tireless worker, he’s an upbeat personality, and he just absolutely loves basketball,” Tyndall said of Porter. “So when I was given the head opportunity here, I wanted Jacob to be part of my staff.
“I joke with him and say I’m his Jon Gruden and he’s Sean McVay,” Tyndall continued, using Super Bowl-participant NFL head coaches in his analogy, “and I’m trying to fast-track his career.”
It’s worked: this winter in Grand Rapids has kick-started Porter’s career — and re-started Tyndall’s. And it’s been a point of pride for Kidwell, who witnessed the embryonic stages of both men’s coaching lives in northeastern Kentucky — the distance of a metaphorical metamorphosis from where they are now, one step shy of the NBA.
“Both of them are just basketball junkies,” Kidwell said of what he jokingly called his “coaching tree.” “They live and die basketball, and I think it’s a match made in heaven with those two being together. ... I think it’s gonna be beneficial for both of them.”
Starting down the path
Kidwell knew Tyndall was cut out to be a coach, he said, when Kidwell was a graduate assistant at Morehead State in 1991-93 and when Tyndall joined his staff at Lewis County in 1993-94.
“That’s my passion,” Tyndall said, “and I don’t think I’m too good at a whole lot of things, but I like to think I’m pretty decent at being a head basketball coach.”
Porter had other career plans the first time he saw Tyndall at work in 2011, when Kidwell took the Red Devils team on which Porter was a sophomore to Morehead to watch Tyndall put his alma mater through its practice paces.
Upon graduation from Russell two years later, Porter went to Northern Kentucky intending to become a television sports broadcaster.
That lasted until he was offered a job coaching Russell middle schoolers in the Marv Meredith League the ensuing winter.
“Once I went to the first practice ... I was just hooked immediately from there,” Porter said. “They played games on Saturdays, so I would drive home on the weekends and coach that league. It was great. I had a lot of fun.
“Through that process is when I decided, OK, coaching is what I want to do, that’s what I’m passionate about; let me see if I can get in this professional door here.”
From there, it was a common coaching climbing-the-ladder story, the merger of hard work and building the right relationships.
Porter garnered an internship in the business department of the G League’s Erie BayHawks in the summer between his junior and senior years at Morehead State, where he had transferred. BayHawks team president Matt Bresee talked Porter up to Malik Rose, who in 2017 became the Erie general manager; Porter then got a basketball operations intern gig with the BayHawks.
Rose moved on to be an assistant GM for the Pistons and brought Porter along to Detroit’s G League affiliate, the Drive, as an intern before the 2018-19 season. Tyndall landed in Grand Rapids at almost the same time.
Kidwell separately alerted both Tyndall and Porter of their connection through himself before they met. They then hit it off.
“Just got to spend a lot of quality time with him and learned how he evaluates players and puts his scouting reports together, his basketball philosophies,” Porter said of Tyndall, “and when he got the job as the head coach at the end of the (2018-19) season, he decided to move me up to an assistant role, too.”
Blazing a trail
That story isn’t unlike how Tyndall went from being a volunteer assistant to a Volunteers head coach.
Tyndall had built a relationship with Kidwell while Kidwell was a graduate assistant at Morehead State from 1991-93 under Tommy Gaither and Dick Fick. Tyndall played what Kidwell called probably his best game against Kentucky’s “Unforgettables” on Dec. 12, 1991 in Freedom Hall in Louisville.
Kidwell still has a picture of then-Wildcats coach Rick Pitino talking to Tyndall after the game; their paths famously crossed again 19 seasons later, when Tyndall’s 13th-seeded Morehead State club knocked off Pitino and fourth-seeded Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Tyndall, a Ravenna, Michigan native — a half-hour’s drive from Grand Rapids, where he’d return to coach nearly 30 years later — spent Christmas break with the Kidwell family in Vanceburg one year.
“Donnie and I, we both loved basketball and were kinda drawn together,” Kidwell said. “He just became like one of ours.”
Kidwell brought Tyndall with him as a volunteer assistant when he took over at Lewis County in 1993-94. From there, Tyndall went to Iowa Central Community College as an assistant for two seasons before his first head-coaching job at St. Catharine, then a junior college in Springfield. The Patriots went 30-5, and Tyndall got the attention of the Division I ranks.
He worked as an assistant at LSU for four years, Idaho for one and Middle Tennessee State for four more before his first Division I head-coaching gig at his alma mater in 2006.
The Eagles won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and went to the Big Dance twice, after which Tyndall coached two seasons at Southern Miss before getting the call to the Power Five at Tennessee in 2014.
“Talking about somebody that started from the bottom and got to where he is now, he was a junior college coach,” Kidwell said of Tyndall. “His job was security at night. He laughs about that, wearing one of those fluorescent green things, driving around doing security at night at Iowa Central.
“He just lives it, eats, drinks basketball, but he’s an excellent basketball coach, bottom line, wherever he’s been.”
A bump, and a refocus
It was in Knoxville where Tyndall’s steady ascent up the coaching ladder encountered its first significant trouble. Tennessee fired him in 2015 after the NCAA informed the school of possible major violations during his time at Southern Miss. The NCAA slapped a 10-year show-cause on Tyndall that expires in 2026.
Tyndall made clear he has said just about all he plans to about that matter on the record. He’s back to work and, true to form for coaches, is using the episode as a lesson learned and a metaphor.
“In my coaching career up until the point of the Tennessee deal, things had happened pretty fast and pretty smooth,” Tyndall said, “but I used to always tell my players and my teams, you understand what a person’s about when things go bad. So what I tried to do is just bounce back and be resilient.
“It’s been tough, don’t get me wrong. Patience has definitely been required.”
Tyndall was out of coaching for a year before then-Raptors head coach Dwane Casey — connected to Tyndall through former Morehead State coach Wayne Martin, the Detroit News reported — brought Tyndall on as an assistant with Toronto’s G League team.
Casey moved on to Detroit in 2018 and brought Tyndall along as a G League assistant in Grand Rapids. One year later, Tyndall attained the head coaching position there.
In addition to a return to head coaching, Tyndall’s post in Grand Rapids has given him time with his mother, stepfather and sister, who still live in the area, he said.
“As I progressed in my college career, and all my jobs were basically in the southeast part of the country, I never thought I’d get back to Michigan and certainly not back to Grand Rapids,” Tyndall said, “but it’s just amazing how things have come full-circle.
“Obviously, you go through a tough time like this right now with the virus, nothing’s more important than being around your family, and for them to have the opportunity to see me coach in person a lot this winter and now be around them some during this pandemic has been really, really healthy and good for me.”
A screeching halt
The patience Tyndall developed as he resumed his coaching climb was surely tested when the Drive’s stretch run was stopped seven games short of the end of the regular season by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus on the night of March 11, shortly after Grand Rapids completed what would be the final game of a 25-18 campaign, a 111-103 loss to Fort Wayne. At the time, the Drive stood fifth in the G League’s Eastern Conference, squarely in the mix for a wild-card postseason berth.
“We had a good season, we’re ready for a postseason run, and our last game, we found out after the game immediately that that was all happening,” Porter said of the pandemic. “That was around the same time period that the Gobert test came back positive, and you come into the locker room after the game and see the news filtering down from Woj (ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski) on Twitter, and all the players are talking about it. Some of their agents have already reached out to them.”
The Drive quickly calculated its own connections to the situation, too. Four days earlier, the Pistons had played against the Jazz, and Jordan Bone, who has a two-way contract that allows him to suit up for both Detroit and Grand Rapids, had been at Little Caesars Arena for that game.
Detroit’s Christian Wood later tested positive for the novel coronavirus, The Athletic reported on March 14, a week after playing Gobert and the Jazz.
“At first, you’re disappointed because you’ve put a lot of hard work into the season; you’re excited to see that play out through the postseason and see what you can do,” Porter said. “And then from there, it just progressed so rapidly, as you start drawing the connections throughout the NBA, like, OK, who’s been around who?”
By then, the NBA and G League had suspended their seasons.
That didn’t totally dampen what had been a remarkable season. Tyndall is proud of the Drive’s No. 1 rankings in the G League in defense, rebounding and assist percentage, and Grand Rapids did it with elements of Tyndall’s signature pressing and zone defenses — used considerably less often at higher levels of the game.
“At this level, it’s so much more limited. In college, all we did for 40 minutes a game (was zone),” Tyndall said. “At this level, we played about 10 possessions of zone a game, which was actually the second-most in the league. You’re just not playing much zone at this level. With that being said ... from our token press back to our zone, it proved to be beneficial.”
Grand Rapids would employ those tactics to try to get a quick jolt by throwing an opponent off-balance, Tyndall said.
“We’d get a steal or two in our press, keep (opponents) out of rhythm in the zone, and all of a sudden the game would go from five or six (-point margin) to 14 or 15, and you kinda put it away for yourself,” Tyndall said. “To the players’ credit, they bought in and worked extremely hard, and I think it was a weapon that helped our team be pretty good.”
That taste of success rewarded Porter for the work he’s done to get into the position he’s in.
“The G-League, especially as an intern, it’s a tough role to be in,” Porter said, adding witch a chuckle, “You gotta do a thousand different jobs on a daily basis, and most of them aren’t yours.”
Big basketball success didn’t come easily to Porter. His first love was golf, but Kidwell noticed a difference in him between his junior and senior years at Russell, when Porter stepped off the links to focus on hoops.
“He was the Robin to our Batman at the time, Kyle Skaggs,” Kidwell said, “but there were some games Kyle sat out and Jacob stepped up and was a really good player for us. He went from not being a great defensive player to being our stopper. He came and asked to guard the other team’s best player.”
Porter applied the same principles as he set his sights on coaching.
“That determination and grit and work ethic that goes into being a player, I think it definitely translates over into the coaching world,” Porter said.
What to do now
Porter approached Kidwell, he said, after graduating from Morehead State for advice of what direction to take his coaching career next.
“I told him, ‘Jacob, you’re young, you’re single, I know how much you love basketball, give this a chance and then you can always come back if it doesn’t work out,’” Kidwell recalled.
Porter was back home as of late April, although not because it didn’t work out. He was in Russell waiting out the pandemic.
“Your mind is gearing up on a daily basis, how can we get better and what can we do to help our guys get better, and you’re game-planning and doing scouts and everything, and then all of a sudden it just ends,” Porter said. “In a normal season, you can see the end; we got the playoffs coming, but to have to turn off overnight like that was difficult.”
Tyndall hasn’t fared much better.
“Let’s be honest, I’ve never watched Netflix in my life, and I’m watching some Netflix,” he said. “There’s just not a whole lot to do.”
Tyndall and Porter still talk with each other and the basketball people in Detroit and watch film, looking for ways to continue the franchise’s upward hike.
Kidwell knows how it feels for the two to suddenly have to turn it off. His most recent coaching job concluded in 2018. He’s filled the void with family time and was the radio voice of Fairview boys basketball for WLGC last season, but conceded he at first felt “lost a little bit.”
He has, however, enjoyed the solace of seeing two of his former charges reach the professional basketball ranks — and do it together.
“It was definitely nice to know that two people that maybe you had an influence on are doing so well at the next level,” Kidwell said.
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