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Getting to know 17-year NBA veteran and TNT assistant Alton Lister

Alton Lister, seen here with fellow NBA veteran Craig Hodges, has been with TNT since 2016. Ernie Sarmiento

If you've watched PBA games live at the different arenas, you may have seen him a few times. It's hard to miss someone so imposing, a towering presence to whom only Greg Slaughter comes close. He is usually seen wearing the TNT blue nowadays as an assistant coach to Bong Ravena and Mark Dickel, but pre-game, he is often in sports attire working with the frontcourt players of the team, helping them get warmed up for the game at hand.

If you did not know him at first, you'd surely ask, "Who is that guy?", and if anyone around you knows, he would tell you, "That's Alton Lister. He used to play in the NBA."

Curious, you'll probably research on the man and find out that he did indeed play in the NBA and that he was just not a passing fancy - he is a 17-year NBA veteran who played for five different teams, and his teams made the playoffs in eleven seasons. His statistics overall were not outstanding, although he did average about six points, six rebounds, and one and a half blocks for his career as a defensive presence who protected the paint, shooting over 50% from the field and about 60% from the line.

With the high interest of Filipino basketball fans in the NBA, it seems crazy that not much ado is made about Coach Alton's presence here, especially considering that he was able to play on some of the top contenders in NBA history, successful franchises (Bucks, Sonics, Warriors, Celtics, and Blazers), with some of the best players in league history, under some top-caliber coaches. On experience and stories alone, his collection should be worth a gazillion.

In anticipation of the resumption of the NBA season in the Florida bubble very soon, we spoke with Coach Alton about his time in what most still consider the top basketball league in the world.

Favorite coach

Without a doubt, he chose his first NBA coach, Hall of Famer Don Nelson. "Don Nelson was my favorite coach and definitely made an impact on me as a person and in my NBA career. He drafted me initially with the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (21st overall out of Arizona State in 1981)." Five years later, Nelson traded Lister to the Seattle Supersonics in exchange for Jack Sikma, but when he became head coach of the Golden State Warriors, they were reunited in 1989 as Nelson traded a first-round pick to Seattle for Lister. "He (Nelson) was instrumental in both my personal and professional transition from college to the NBA. Don coached me 10 years out of my 17 in my NBA career."

Talented teammates

In a lengthy career on some tough teams that played deep into the playoffs, Lister had many talented teammates. We asked him who is best (most talented) teammate was and who his favorite (he loved playing with them) teammates were. "My best teammate with the most talent," he said, "was Bob Lanier," his fellow center on the Bucks. Lanier, also a Hall of Famer like Nelson, was Lister's mentor and "groomed me for the position of center as he would soon be retiring and I would become his heir apparent. He instilled in me the [idea] that few positions on the basketball court are as pivotal as the center position." Lanier, a bulky center from St. Bonaventure, went to work every night despite bad knees from a long career that started with the Detroit Pistons, with whom he played for ten years before moving to Milwaukee and mentoring Lister.

Coach Alton then named an impressive bunch of players that helped enhance his career as his teammates. "My favorite teammates that I enjoyed playing with, but who were also very talented players, were Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, and Paul Pressey (Bucks); Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, and Mitch Richmond (Warriors); Rick Fox (Boston); and Jermaine O'Neal, Arvydas Sabonis, and Rasheed Wallace (Portland), just to name a few." Four players on this list - Moncrief, Mullin, Richmond, and Sabonis - are Hall of Famers.

Lister recalled that during his era, especially in the earlier part of his career, some of the best teams were in the East. "Although we didn't have a clear-cut rivalry, our nemeses were always the Celtics and the 76ers. Even though we had future Hall of Famers Bob Lanier and Sidney Moncrief, and great matchups with some of the greatest players in the history of the game, we were on the losing end." Lister played in an era when the Bucks were so good, but the Celtics or Sixers just seemed to be a notch better. "During my tenure with the Bucks, our team won the Central Division all five years and went on to the Eastern Conference Finals three out of five years, but lost to Boston or the 76ers!" he recalled. Lister was part of a trio of seven-footers on the Bucks' frontline, with Randy Breuer and Paul Mokeski.

That Shawn Kemp dunk

While he was with the Warriors, in Game 4 of a 1992 playoff series against the Supersonics, Lister was on the receiving end of a thunderous dunk completed by Seattle forward Shawn Kemp. Recalling what happened, Lister said, "Kemp had the reputation as one of the best in-game dunkers in the history of the game and I just happened to be one of the recipients. My job as a rim-protector would always have players challenging me every night and, unfortunately, one of his monstrous dunks came at [my expense]." Coach Alton, though, recalls that he and Kemp had been going at it throughout the series such that Kemp's dunk, in his opinion, was a form of "revenge." "In Game 2 of the series, I did a good job of defending him and throwing him off his game. Kemp eventually lost his temper and punches were thrown. Kemp and I each received a technical foul and a $10K fine."

Lister continued, "During my era I did not back down as a rim protector. I was challenged by a lot of players and sometimes I was successful and other times, not. But Game 4 was a whole different story. Kemp made sure he was going to have a good game, and that's what he did. It was personal for him. That's why he pointed at me after the dunk." The sequence still gets airtime on highlight reels until today - a fact that Coach Alton is well aware of. "Over the years, it has gained more momentum and has become one of the top in-game dunks in the history of the game. If that dunk happened when social media was around, who knows the interaction it would have gotten from people!"

His secret to a long career

We asked Coach Alton what the secret was to his NBA longevity. He stated the obvious, which is physical fitness, but he went a step further. "Physical fitness is not my sole basis of being healthy; being healthy for me means being mentally and emotionally fit. Being healthy is a part of my overall lifestyle. I believe my maintaining a healthy lifestyle allowed me to last 17 seasons in the NBA. Physical discipline with my body, eating healthy, a positive attitude to be in the best shape of my life continues today." In addition, Lister feels he was "a constant professional. I was a great team-first player that fit in. [I] maximized my roll and was all about winning - good in the locker room and every night I played hard."

He has carried the same mentality in his post-NBA life. "I have worked with upcoming, gifted young athletes, emphasizing a healthy lifestyle on and off the court." However, he sees that the game has changed so much since his playing days. "The game was different - big men had a major impact in the game [before]. In today's game it is not as important to have a guy that only plays with his back to the basket as a scorer. [Centers now have] more versatility, with multiple skills sets [like] three-point shooting, ball-handling, and being able to rebound, push it, and make plays. The direction the game is moving toward now is 'position less', with emphasis on the three-point shot. I hope that the game of basketball will go back to the traditional center. A solution may be to extend the three-point line farther out so that all five players are now involved in the offensive aspect of the game."

Coaching in the Philippines

So how did Coach Alton end up coaching in the Philippines anyway? He had dabbled in some coaching at a community college in Arizona and served as an Assistant Coach with the Atlanta Hawks for two years, when, after his contract expired in 2009, his friend Paul Howard, an Assistant Coach from his alma mater, Arizona State, contacted him. Howard had some connections with the PBA, and he recommended Lister to the San Miguel Beermen, as, naturally, a big man coach. He spent four years with the team.

When his contract expired, he returned to Southern California, where he was able to work for different entities in varying capacities, including San Diego University of Integrated Studies as Director of Pro Players transitioning to continuing their education, with former Boston and Clippers coach Don Casey on various basketball initiatives and non-profit organizations, training camps with former NBA players like Chris Dudley, one-on-one training of young boys and girls in the San Diego area (one of which was former NBA player Michael Cage's son), and for the City of Chulavista during the transition of the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center from the U.S. Olympic Committee to the City.

Lister had been residing for a couple of years in San Diego, when in 2016, he received another call from Howard, who informed that there was a coaching position open with Talk 'N Text of the PBA, now called TNT, particularly to help manage and work with import Ivan Johnson as a skills coach. Even after Johnson's stint, Lister stayed on to continue working with the frontcourt players of the team. Last season, when TNT hired Dickel as a consultant to Coach Ravena, management appointed Lister as an assistant coach. While Coach Alton has been in that position, the team has gone to the Finals once (2019 Commissioner's Cup), and he feels that the team "is going in the right direction now."

Unfortunately, the current pandemic has put everything on hold and TNT has yet to test its line-up in the PBA's 45th season. Hopefully, PBA games will return soon, with all possible safeguards and protocols in place. Meantime, the NBA looks to resume its season in a few days. Surely, Coach Alton Lister will be observing the goings-on over there as well, in the league where, for 17 years, he shared the hardcourt with superstars and icons and held his own.

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