Take every opportunity when it comes because it may not come again. Former Moravian College basketball player and former assistant coach of Montclair State University O’Neil Holder got the opportunity of a lifetime earning a spot on the Atlanta Hawks coaching staff.
After having a remarkable career at Moravian College and being one of the main focal points of a great basketball program for four years, his college career came to an end. Holder had an everlasting love for the sport and didn’t want to disconnect from it, so he sought out coaching.
“I always dreamed of playing basketball, but I’ve also dreamed of coaching because eventually the ball stops rolling,” Holder said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the highest level. You’re going to retire at some point and have to find something else you love to do.”
Holder’s love for the game came from watching all the basketball greats on television and wanting to be exactly like them. But growing up, he found interest in coaching because of his former high school coaches and college coaches Sean Rossi and Justin Potts.
After working numerous summer camps and staying around the game he loved, he got a call from Potts, who is the current head coach of Montclair State’s men’s basketball team. Potts offered him his first official coaching gig as his assistant.
“When I was looking to make the move to Montclair State, I liked building a staff of guys I know and I’m comfortable with,” Potts said. “I was very comfortable with him, so it was kind of a no-brainer that I wanted him on the team.”
When Potts started his Red Hawk journey in August 2019, he took Rossi with him and later on added Steve Weiler to the coaching staff, but he also needed someone who played in the system, understood the style of play and could relate to the guys on the team.
“He was just recently in their shoes, and he played against some of them in scrimmages,” Potts said. “He was a great coach. He’s one of those guys that are very quiet at times, so he did much of his coaching giving instructions, guidance and advice on the side. He would just grab a guy and tell them, ‘If you get to this spot —and this spot — this is what is going to happen.’”
After only two years of being an assistant coach for the Red Hawks, Holder got a chance to take his young coaching career to new heights when a long-time friend of Potts, former NBA player and current assistant coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Chris Jent, reached out to him about a job with the franchise.
Jent had the responsibility a few summers ago to add video interns to the Atlanta Hawks video room. Holder and Jent met in Holder’s first year as an assistant coach with the Red Hawks in Portland, Oregon, when the Red Hawks were playing in a tournament.
Jent gave the Red Hawk basketball team tickets to the Atlanta Hawks game versus the Portland Trailblazers, and let Holder know during one of their talks that there may be a job opening up later on down the line.
On Aug. 16, 2020, Holder’s dream became a reality. Jent reached out to Potts and told him he needed someone to fill the video assistant role. Before they knew it, the former Moravian basketball star’s name came up in conversation.
“I called college coaches that I knew, and I spoke to a number of people,” Jent said. “I really respect coach Potts’ opinion, the judgment of character, work ethic and all those things. So, getting a group of names, talking to [Holder] and just getting a good feel of him and obviously, coach Potts’ recommendation, put him toward the top of the list.”
It wasn’t only Potts who had given Jent the recommendation, but a former classmate did as well. Scott Davidson rented out the Montclair State gym this past summer for workouts and Davidson marveled at the way Holder was such a big help.
“When I received a call from [Davidson] and the way he spoke of [Holder] and the type of person he was, in addition to his willingness to help them out and be there for them, I kind of got that vibe talking to him on the phone,” Jent said. “[I also got that vibe from] his interest in coaching, wanting to be on the floor and always willing to chip in. The fact that he spent a lot of time on the floor with the guys demonstrating or being the rebounder and just doing a lot of things on the court was kind of a clincher.”
Holder landed the video assistant job over the summer. His job details in player personnel notes, scouting players and assisting in player-development coaching. Player-developing is one of Holder’s favorite things to do because he works with the assistant coaches who help guys develop their game and help out in practice.
Holder knew he was coming into the team as a video assistant, but was also aware that he would be pulled into different directions and he was ready for the challenge.
“You’re not just one title,” Holder said. “You pick one status, but your role is many, there are multiple job roles in one title. You just have to be there and be present and everything will work itself out.”
Several times throughout his day, Holder takes the time to soak in how surreal working for an NBA team has been.
“My first couple of times going through the experience was surreal,” Holder said. “And even now, after going through it for a whole season, you still look up sometimes and [think], ‘It’s still a surreal feeling that I’m here sometimes.’ It’s just a blessing and you don’t take it for granted.”
Working in the sports industry is a very hard place to break into. Sometimes it’s about the people you know — but it’s also about the hard work you put in that builds the connection with people.
“One thing is [to] work hard, and a lot of people don’t understand that,” Holder said. “It may seem very cliché, [but] hard work pays off man, it really does. I was grateful to know a lot of people that kind of steered me in this direction. [As] for the next generation and group of young guys: just take it every day and continue to work your tail off.”