Former NBA Coach Leads Haines Girls’ Basketball

Haines School now has a physical education teacher and high school girls’ basketball coach who trained an NBA team for 20 years.

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And what might be even more surprising — Greg Brittenham says despite his high-profile jobs with the New York Knicks and later with Wake Forest University, what he’s really wanted is to end up in the 2,000-person town of Haines.

During a recent basketball practice, Coach Brittenham leads ten girls in a layup drill. It looks like a humble job for someone with this on their resume:

(Courtesy Haines Borough School District)
(Courtesy Haines Borough School District)

“Prior to this was at Wake Forest University as a player development coach. Prior to that with the New York Knicks for 20 years as an assistant coach in varying capacities.”

But Brittenham waited years for the right opportunity to move to Haines. He would call or email school district administrative assistant Ashley Sage about once a year asking about job openings. Why?

“Look around,” Brittenham said. “I mean, that’s why everybody’s here, especially in the winter. People don’t leave this place, it’s just spectacular. It’s everything I’ve wanted. It’s taken me about 18 years to get here and I’ve finally made it.”

In the early 1990’s, Brittenham visited Haines for the first time. He was working with a summer program in Klukwan called Camp of Champs. After that first experience, he kept coming back every year, even after the Camp of Champs program ended. He’s also done basketball clinics all over Southeast Alaska.

When the Haines PE teacher position opened for this school year, Brittenham saw his chance. He and his wife moved here in the summer.

“One of the things I believe is if the kids know that there’s no other agenda and they know I’m not in it to make the money, to use this school to get to another level, not at all, I’m only here to help,” Brittenham said. “Once you’ve gained their trust, then the job is easy because they know you’ve got their best interests at heart.”

Brittenham has never worked as a school PE teacher before. He says one of the most surprising things about the new job is what he’s seen from other teachers.

“These teachers work endless hours,” Brittenham said. “I came in on a Sunday off the ferry and there were teachers here preparing for Monday on a holiday weekend. The amount of hours that these people invest in the community is just astounding.”

Brittenham is now getting the unique chance to teach kids about movement in a way he often wished NBA players had been taught. He says youth sports are so competitive that kids go right into learning sports skills before they learn fundamental movement patterns, like how to tuck and roll when you fall.

“So when I go to the pros, there’s a lot of those guys that — they’re unbelievable jump shooters and they can dunk, but they can’t move. They don’t run the floor very well, or they don’t slide their feet, they can’t get over to play defense,” Brittenham said. “It was interesting to see, these guys made it that far, yet they’re really lacking the skills that we’re working on now with our fourth and fifth graders.”

Brittenham is enjoying the challenge of teaching, but he says basketball is his passion. So he’s happy to be a Glacier Bears coach.

“I’ve got a group of girls that just absolutely embrace learning how to play the game of basketball,” he said.

There are 16 girls signed up for the team. Brittenham says they’re working on mechanics:  Shooting, passing, keeping control of the ball. That’s something junior Kayley Swinton has noticed.

“It’s more perfecting everything,” Swinton said.

Swinton has played basketball in Haines since fourth grade. This season has been different.

“A lot more positivity and everybody’s working together,” Swinton said. “Coaches and everybody have just been more into basketball and they’re just more into the game.”

Brittenham says he plans to coach a little unconventionally. He wants to give team members more equal playing time regardless of talent.

“You know, the philosophy is if you’re going to invest time and energy into this team, then I’m gonna absolutely find minutes for you to play games,” he said.

He also doesn’t plan on choosing a team captain. He says he’d prefer to think everyone is a leader on the team.

The Glacier Bears girls play their first game in Petersburg December 19th. The first home game is January 2nd against Wrangell.

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Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.