Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw opens up about guilt over tragic deaths of parents, sister
Brian Shaw, the Nuggets’ first-year head coach, has plenty on his mind right now. His Denver team has jolted back to earth following a 57-win campaign, two of his starters are out injured and one of his team’s most popular players has found his name in trade rumors less than a month into the start of the season. The Nuggets are off to a sub-.500 start and are a good bet to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
The burden of expectations and the weight of losses can consume a coach’s perspective in these circumstances, but that seems unlikely in Shaw’s case. As Bernard Goldberg documents in an HBO’s Real Sports profile that airs Tuesday, Shaw has survived and thrived as a player and a coach while battling through an unimaginable mental test: deep-seated guilt related to the tragic deaths of his parents and sister.
In June 1993, about five years after Shaw was a first-round pick in the 1988 draft, Shaw’s father fell asleep at the wheel after driving all night. As the car rolled over, it sent everyone — Shaw’s father, mother, sister and niece — from the vehicle. Only Brianna — Shaw’s 11-month-old niece, who was named after Shaw — survived, and she was transported to the hospital in critical condition. Shaw received an early-morning call from the coroner rather than the “We made it safe” call from his parents that he was expecting.
As if those horrific, life-altering circumstances weren’t enough, Shaw tells HBO Sports that he couldn’t help but feel that he played a direct role in the accident, that his parents — a mechanic and a daycare provider — would still be alive if he hadn’t purchased the car that Shaw’s father was driving as a gift to his family, and if he hadn’t purchased the Las Vegas house the family was driving to on that night.
“I said to myself, ‘If I hadn’t bought the house down there they wouldn’t be goin’ down there,’” Shaw says. “If I hadn’t got my father a new car they would o’ just flown down there — I ran over every scenario in my head. … At the time, you know, I just beat myself up over it.”
Even now, more than 20 years later, Shaw says he seeks comfort in the personal belongings of his deceased family members.
“I kept a couple articles of my father’s clothing, my mother’s as well as my sister’s,” he tells HBO Sports. “And — every once in a while I just go get ‘em– and just place the garments over my face, over my nose and I just feel like their essence is still in it. And then I put it back until the next time I need a dose of it again.”
Shaw’s playing career went go on for another decade after the accident. All told, he played 15 seasons for the Celtics, Heat, Magic, Warriors, Sixers, Blazers and Lakers. In L.A., his final stop, he was a part of the Lakers’ three-peat from 2002-2002 and, after retiring in 2003, he transitioned into a scouting role and then took a job as an assistant coach for the Lakers.
After L.A. named Mike Brown instead of Shaw as Phil Jackson’s successor, overriding Kobe Bryant’s endorsement, Shaw would move on to Indiana as an assistant for the Pacers. Finally, he got his first head coaching gig after years of interviews this summer.
One constant during all those stops along the way: Brianna. Following the accident, Shaw and his wife Nikki raised his niece. He describes taking a young Brianna to the cemetery and explaining that, “this is where you put the body and then their souls go on to heaven.” Brianna, now attending Arizona State, has helped Shaw “fill the void” created by the loss of his family and vice versa.
The ordeal has influenced Shaw’s basketball life too. He remembers the Lakers’ title feeling “bittersweet” because he couldn’t share the accomplishment with his parents, like his teammates, and he recalls trying to stave off a potential “physical altercation” between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant by reminding them that life is too short for unnecessary animosity.
“Well [the death of my family] came up,” Shaw tells HBO Sports, as he describes serving as mediator between the two warring teammates. “I brought that up and I talked about that making the most of the time that you have. Imagine what it would feel like if you got along and just worked hand-in-hand.”
The O’Neal-Bryant marriage was surely doomed to the world of irreconcilable differences by that point, but Shaw’s message is an incredibly personal take on the eternal coaching maxim of togetherness and sacrifice.
Rebuilding plans tend to be thought of in three-to-five year increments in the NBA; Shaw’s rebuilding is now two decades in the making, and his perseverance and appreciation of the moment would seem to make him well-suited to handling any turbulence that results from Denver’s plans pivoting so drastically this offseason.