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How former Runnin' Ute Phil Cullen turned being laid off into working in a sport he loves with NBA's San Antonio Spurs

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah basketball fans saw a familiar face at the Salt Lake City Summer League. Phil Cullen, who played for the Utes and later served on Larry Krystkowiak’s staff, was back in town in his role as director of basketball strategy for the San Antonio Spurs.

“It’s a title that was really meant to include a little bit of everything,” Cullen said of the post he accepted in 2016. “While meeting with (general manager R.C. Buford) and sitting down and talking about what he wanted and needed in the front office, it was a little bit of everything. So I’m able to just contribute in a number of different areas.”

And that includes some scouting.

“Everybody is a scout. Everybody needs to have that basketball eye,” Cullen said. “You have to be able to identify basketball talent and for us that’s something that we’re fortunate — whether it's watching video — everybody needs to understand what basketball talent is all about at an elite level and how you can develop it.”

Cullen has quite a pedigree, and a majority of it was established at Utah. As a player from 1998-2002, the Utes went 90-35. He appeared in 126 games for Rick Majerus (as well as the interim tenure by Dick Hunsaker), averaging 6.5 points and 3.1 rebounds. Cullen made 153 3-pointers in his career. The 6-foot-9 forward from Chelan, Washington, finished on a high note — making seven straight 3-pointers in his final game, netting 25 points in an NCAA Tournament loss to Indiana.

Cullen said playing at Utah and with Majerus has a lot to do with his current post in the NBA. “It laid that foundation of who you are as a basketball player and kind of what you know as a basketball player,” Cullen explained. “So I think when you put that on your resume, I think people see that you played here for four years under coach and you played on some really good teams, you have that basketball pedigree. You kind of know how the game should be played.”

As time passed, Cullen picked up more experience as Utah’s director of basketball operations, director of player development and camps and as an assistant coach at Grand Canyon (2009-12). He considers himself very fortunate and blessed in that regard.

At Grand Canyon, the Antelopes were still a Division II program and Cullen was exposed to everything.

“It was an entry point where you can really learn. You’re sweeping floors, you’re doing laundry, you’re doing a little bit of video scouting and game prep,” he said. “So we were really able to learn the skill of what it meant to be a basketball player.”

The move to Utah allowed him to develop another skill set and a higher level of operation.

Cullen’s basketball course began with some adversity, however. He came back to the game after losing his job as a civil environmental engineer in 2009, getting laid off when the economy took a turn for the worse.

“Ten years ago, I didn’t have a job,” Cullen acknowledged. “The recession hit and just had nowhere to go. So I was competing for jobs with 15- to 20-year professionals in engineering and what I knew was basketball. That’s the path I went. So you never know why doors open and why doors close, but this is one that opened for me.”

It was at that moment, Cullen said, that he got into coaching full-time to pay the bills.

“I never would have believed it. I tell my wife that we’re extremely blessed and fortunate. Faith has had a big part of it. But I could have never scripted it like this,” Cullen said. “I’m fortunate to be part of an organization with just incredible people. For me it’s a learning experience. But it’s just something that I’m glad to be involved in.”

The path to San Antonio is something he said he couldn’t have drawn up or even thought of.

Krystkowiak noted that there are a lot of elements to a career in basketball. Learning the craft — as a former player — and understanding the game in the classroom under a teacher like Majerus was beneficial to Cullen. So, too, Krystkowiak added, is Cullen’s super communication skills and work ethic.

“He checks an awful lot of the boxes. I just think he’s kind of got a great knack for jumping in and getting things done,” Krystkowiak said. “He was super instrumental in the day-to-day operations for two years of our basketball facility. I think at the end of the day that’s what got the Spurs’ attention when they were in town a few years back and he was showing off the basketball facility. He was passionate about that. Being an engineer, he was kind of mechanically driven that way. So he just adds so much value.”

Krystkowiak emphasized that he’s super happy for Cullen.

“I just was always impressed with his demeanor and his people skills are second to none. A great family man. We actually went to the same church,” Krystkowiak continued. “It’s been interesting. He’s got a great family, raising some kids now, and doing the thing. I know the culture in San Antonio is awesome. Every time I talk to him and we text and stuff, it seems like he’s doing great. He’s just of those guys that’s really easy to pull for and you’re not surprised when somebody is successful and advancing in their career.”

Cullen is a multitasker. While attending the U., he started playing minor league baseball for the Seattle Mariners. An arm injury limited the pitcher to three seasons and a 7-13 record. In the classroom, Cullen received a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from Utah in 2002 and a master’s in leadership from Grand Canyon in 2012.

There was also time spent coaching AAU and college basketball on a part-time basis.

“Just knowing where I’ve been in my past, I just know that I want to be the best I can be today and hopefully that leads to the best I can be for tomorrow,” Cullen said. “Opportunities present themselves. That is the result of doing things right. Honestly, my family’s in a good spot and that’s probably the most important thing right now.”

Krystkowiak insists that Cullen was “just an opportunity away from finding his path.” He’s had a lot of people around him that have had an impact.

“The thing about this game of basketball, I think, that the more you’re around it the thing you probably take away from it that’s the most rewarding is just all the relationships you have,” said Krystkowiak, who referenced all the teammates and coaches he worked with in the business. “You name it. And when people in that circle, your circle of friends and influence, are working at the pinnacle of the profession, we’re all proud. It gives us a team in the NBA to cheer for.”

Utah fans have an extra reason to root for the Spurs. Center Jakob Poeltl is on the roster.

“So you’ve got two guys that the Utes are keeping a close eye on,” Krystkowiak said.

It’s a two-way street. Cullen still follows things up on the hill. The U. is a special place and always will be, he added, since it’s where he met his wife Tara.

“Through and through I’m an alumni and I really believe in the people. I believe in the program,” Cullen said. “Fortunately for me, now, I get to still be a part of it just by getting to watch and observe it and stay on top of it.”

As part of San Antonio’s basketball operations group, Cullen is involved in a lot of things. He said it’s more than just building a team.

“My job really, into basketball strategy pieces, is more focused on kind of what’s next, what’s coming on the horizon — not necessarily just in the day-to-day,” he said. “And so for me, I get to be involved in a lot of important discussions. But also to just kind of take a step back and see, OK, how can we prepare for what’s coming, and honestly, how to support the people in our building?”

The job, Cullen marveled, is nothing he ever expected. It’s allowed him to come back to Utah on occasion and work in a sport he loves.

“I still get to be around the game, so I still get to scratch that itch little bit,” Cullen said. “Just being involved, being in the gym, and just being here for the summer league, those are experiences that are fulfilling.”