Mike D’Antoni: The Smartest Guy in the NBA
Posted By Paul Solotaroff On October 8, 2008 @ 7:05 pm In Sports
Anyone who thinks Mike D’Antoni is soft wasn’t there the night he clocked a bruiser for hand-checking him in Pesaro. This was back in 1980, shortly after D’Antoni, a stick-thin kid with a fickle jump shot and a really regrettable brush mustache, planted himself in Italy following four blah years riding the bench in the NBA and the ABA. The Lega Basket, a brutish league with scores in the 60s and crowds that pelted players with coins and lighters, should have been basketball hell for him, but in his first four wild seasons with Olimpia Milano, D’Antoni had turned the sport on its ear. Pushing the go-go offense of his expat coach Dan Peterson, he transformed the tired brawl into a laser show, helping light the scoreboard for 100 points a night with his dashes to the rim and four-man breaks, and inspiring a grade-school kid by the name of Kobe Bryant with his half-court lobs.
Naturally this enraged some of the men who had to guard him, homegrown toughs who knew their way around a foul. Night after night they’d bang him through picks and stick out knees when he dribbled past. D’Antoni, a mountain boy from rural West Virginia who’d always minded his manners, bore up with it quietly, not bitching to the refs or beat reporters. But one night some goon stepped over the line, mugging him up and down the court. The horn blew for halftime, and as the two teams trundled off, D’Antoni caught up to the guy in the tunnel and iced him with a straight right hand. “I did it the cowardly way: I hit him from behind, then ran like hell,” he says, laughing. “I was nice enough off the court, but on it, different story. Rules were just suggestions made by someone else, sort of like the stoplights in Naples.”
After 25 years on and off in Italy — first as a player who set a franchise mark for career scoring, led Milan to five league titles, and was voted best point guard ever in Italy; then as a championship coach — Mike D’Antoni came home in 2002 for an assistant coach job with the Phoenix Suns. In less than a year he changed the sport there, too, taking over the low-volt, unloved Suns and refashioning them in his own image. They scored more points than anyone else and won more games than all but two teams over a four-year period and, save for freak injuries and one curious ruling by the commissioner, would probably have bagged a title or two. But they didn’t, and that opened both team and coach to the harshest of jock indictments: They were soft.
So this past summer D’Antoni parted ways with the Suns and headed straight for the lion’s den. Turning down a plush job in Chicago, whose Bulls players were born for his warp-9 attack, he took on the red-eyed, coach-killing monster that is the New York Knicks. With this team, owned by James Dolan, a black-sheep scion, and mismanaged so badly by Isiah Thomas that there must be a role for him at FEMA, D’Antoni inherited a roster that was like something sewn together on a slab in a moonlit castle. In lieu of Steve Nash and his skywalking wingmen, D’Antoni has been saddled with slow-footed forwards and point guards lacking both a lick of court sense and any inclination to pass the ball. But that, it turns out, is just the way he wants it.
Thirty years after he left America as a scrub sent packing by the game, D’Antoni has chosen this place to make his stand, answering, here and now, the taunts hurled at him since his boyhood at the foot of Tater Hill — not tough enough to win, too lightweight to last — and to put on the line his lifetime vision of how this game should be played. “I’ve worked some rough crowds and had all sorts of teams,” he demurs. “It’s just basketball, same as anywhere.” He’s right about that, as far as it goes, though it can all go wrong for him in a New York minute, this being a town that feasts on new thinkers and share-the-wealth savants. But if he pulls it off here, turns this dim-bulb bunch into a model of cerebral speed, he will take his place with the giants of the game and excise forever the words yes, but that have tailed him his entire life.
The training facility of the New York Knicks is tucked into an office park about 30 miles north of the city. An unbadged portal of gray and teal yields to a 16-acre pleasure dome, with hangar-size weight rooms, theaters for film work, and players’ lounges fitted out like men’s clubs. No expense has been spared or corner cut, as befits a franchise with by far the highest payroll in the league the last four years. But since the day this building opened in 2002, five head coaches have walked its halls, and none of them seemed awfully glad to be here. None, that is, till now; D’Antoni’s lambent wit is like karma-cleanser, one of those feng shui spells that purge a room. “I remember coming in here in 1973 as a rookie with the Kansas City Kings,” he says, “and that great Knicks team whipped our tails so smooth, it didn’t even hurt to watch. They’re up by seven after one, up by 14 at the break, up by 20 after three, and then I go in, get my little beating, and go sit down.”
He tilts his chair back in a dining hall for 40 that employs a full-time chef. D’Antoni, who hasn’t taken a jump shot since he stopped playing in Italy in 1990, has grown a small paunch in his late 50s and looks, in an open-collared dress shirt and work slacks, like a rumpled dentist lingering over lunch. He plays a little golf and is competitive at bridge, but coaching, says anyone who knows him well, is all he really does these days. Already he’s midseason haggard, wearing the face of a man who, in June, falls asleep on his couch studying tape. To be fair, he’s been tasked, since his hiring in May, with the job of basketball salvage. He’s had a staff to pick, predraft workouts to watch, and endless film and files on pending free agents to sift. Then there’s the matter of his part-time gig as an assistant coach of the U.S. men’s team, getting Kobe-LeBron-D-Wade & Co. ready for Beijing. “Vacation?” he sighs, swirling the last of his soft drink. “There are people who take summer vacations?”
While he’s in the field house working, his Knicks are elsewhere, scattered around the country in their off-season homes, though if they know what’s good for them they’re up at first light, running with a fat suit on. Steve Nash, no one’s pudgie, dropped 15 pounds the summer he signed with Phoenix, in 2004; then, gaunt but indefatigable, he led a doormat team to 62 wins and the Western Conference finals. D’Antoni is famous for his short rotations, playing eight men the entire way, and if you aren’t fit to fly for 35 minutes you’ll find yourself hot-glued to his bench.
“I have my in-group I trust and my out-group I don’t, and if you’re out it takes a long time to get back in,” D’Antoni says. “I know one way to play, and it’s worked for me since high school: Push the ball up. Space the floor. Shoot before the defense gets set. Once you understand it, it’s easy as hell. But, and here’s the catch: You need skill guys to play it, and skill,” he intones, “isn’t the same as talent.”
Indeed, the two things often exclude each other, and have for years in New York. With the Suns, D’Antoni had eight or nine guys who could beat their man off the dribble, step behind the line for a three-pointer, and see at least one pass ahead at all times so the pace never slowed. “Our mantra was: The ball always finds where they’re weak and where we’re strongest,” he says. With the self-consumed Knicks, though, the ball often found itself in the third row. The team finished last in assists in ’07 and near it in field-goal percentage, three-point shooting, and free throws. All lousy teams are bad at something, but the Knicks were atrocious at everything.
What Isiah Thomas left behind, after his richly earned ouster this spring, was a grotesque monument to what the sport had become in its post-Bird-and-Magic devolution. Beginning in the ’80s, when the Bad Boy Pistons won titles by beating other teams bloody, and carried into the ’90s by the Knicks of Pat Riley, who made the paint a no-fly zone, the game diverged into a padless version of Big 10 football. Point totals plunged, hard fouls soared, and players stood around while franchise stars monopolized the ball and the salary cap. Finally, this decade, the needle began to nudge, as refs were directed to call the game tighter on defenses. But it wasn’t till D’Antoni took over in Phoenix that anyone thought to open the court up again for the sport’s high flyers and passers.
“What we forgot, until we got our tails kicked by other countries, is this game is actually beautiful when it’s done right,” says Dan Peterson, D’Antoni’s old American coach in Milan. “Mike saw that there was all this room on the court no one really uses anymore.”
Running his Suns after every make or miss and playing smallish big forwards who could shoot the three, he made the floor as roomy as a soccer pitch, from which he took some cues about flow. “As small as we were, we’d lead the league in dunks because their shot blockers were chasing our big guys in the corner,” says D’Antoni. “People call it small ball, and that pisses me off. It’s skill ball, plain and simple. I’d start two 7-footers if they could run and shoot. But better five midgets than stiffs who can’t push it, and I’ll live with how many we give up. As we said in Phoenix, the team with the most points is the one that played the best defense.”
“People think he just rolls out a ball and tells the guys to shoot it till they’re tired,” says Alvin Gentry, a Suns assistant and a former head coach himself. “The whole idea of spacing, moving the big men out and keeping the middle open for drivers, the drags and drops” — a series of on-the-fly screens meant to create easy shots — “if that’s so simple, how come no one tried it until he came along? Outside of Phil Jackson or Greg Popovich, you show me a coach who’s brighter than Mike, or more brilliant at making teams adjust to him.”
His hardwired offense gets all the play, but the soft-tissue stuff — the way he deals with psyches — is every bit the anomaly these days. “Mike is the best I’ve seen at handling players,” says Gentry, who stayed with Phoenix for family reasons after D’Antoni took the job in New York. “It’s no big secret we had guys who needed stroking, and the way he pumped up Shawn [Marion] and Leandro [Barbosa] with confidence — hell, this group went to war for him every night.” In a profession of screamers and cross-armed strongmen, what marks D’Antoni is his stony optimism and the creative freedom he gives his team. “If I throw one into the stands,” Nash once told me, “he knows I’m trying for something special, not just screwing around and being careless. Guys play hard for coaches who believe in them, and his greatest strength is giving that to his players.”
As players from other teams are well aware. “Every kid we brought in for predraft workouts said they badly wanted to play for Mike,” says Jonathan Supranowitz, the Knicks vice president of public relations. “Not, ‘I want to play at the Garden’ or ‘I love New York’; it was Mike and his energy. And as we go forward and get out from under the salary cap, it’ll be Mike’s reputation that really makes us players [in the big free-agent market] in two years.”
But 2010 is a ways off, and there may be a lot of blood between here and there. Such assets as the Knicks have — the young rebounder David Lee; slick but streaky shooters Jamal Crawford and Wilson Chandler — seem better suited to a half-court game, and though the team has signed Chris Duhon, the kind of run-out point guard that D’Antoni refers to as an “engine,” it’s hard to imagine who he’ll kick the ball to on the break. They also lack the prototype small big forward with range, though Danilo Gallinari, the 6–8 teenager they drafted this summer from D’Antoni’s former club in Milan, may become one when he’s finished filling out in a couple of years. “Can I do it with this group?” says D’Antoni. “Ask in October after I get them in and see how smart they are. But here’s what I do know: We will play fast, and we will have fun and be entertaining.”
But fast and fun won’t cut it if his team loses 50 games. Not for the fans, and certainly not for D’Antoni, because losing eats him alive. He’ll mount the tight smile and deflect his hurt with humor, then go home and torture himself all night, rewatching tape till 3 am. “He takes every loss very personally,” his wife Laurel has said. She met him 24 years ago while modeling in Italy, and they got engaged within a month. “Mike is possessed with basketball.”
“I thought, after all I’ve done, this is what I get? Fine, I’ll take my ball and go home.”
It was ever thus for Mike D’Antoni. Growing up in the one-light, coal-mining town of Mullens, West Virginia, he was wildly competitive right from the cradle, anguishing over insignificant defeats. The middle of three boys (there is also a sister), Mike would run upstairs and bang his head against a wall when he lost at something as silly as Scrabble. His mother Betty Jo was as feisty as her kids, beating them blind at rummy, then posting the running totals on the fridge. “A tough woman who pushed us all, always made us better ourselves,” says D’Antoni. “She wanted me in med school, but I loved playing basketball and decided that no one in this country would outwork me. I was out there rain or shine, playing till after dark, while other kids who were bigger and quicker were back home watching TV.”
Their little town of 2,000 was mad for the game, sending dozens of kids to Division I programs and canonizing its brilliant high school coach, one Luigi “Lewis” D’Antoni, Mike’s father. As early as the ’50s, Lewis’s undersize teams raced the ball upcourt and shot it quickly, lifting a page from the Celtics of Cousy and Russell. “He retired early so he wouldn’t have to coach us, but he’d sit in the stands and give Mike and me notes on how we’d played, asking why we’d passed it to X and not Y,” says older brother Dan, himself a high school coach before he joined Mike’s staff with the Suns. (He has followed him east to the Knicks.) “Finally, after Mike made all-American, Dad went up to him and said, ‘I have no notes for you.’ That was a really big moment in Mike’s life, though I’m sure he’d deny it.”
D’Antoni played fast in high school, fast in college at Marshall, and fast again in Italy. Curiously, though, he didn’t choose to coach fast when he inherited the Milan job in 1990. His first two squads played the half-court game that was gunking up the NBA and were tolerably successful at it. But in season three, his team started losing, and D’Antoni, desperate to keep his job, scrapped the setup offense for the run-and-gun. Olimpia went on a tear and wound up with the second best record in the league. He later won two championships with Benetton Treviso. “What he did with the fast break was build a playbook around it, turn it from an option to a system,” says Peterson. “He went so much further with it than even I thought he could, and now he’s got half the teams in the NBA looking to push the ball.”
Perhaps. But D’Antoni is still seen as something of a gadget salesman by the old-school cranks. Their critiques of him reduce to a single trope: You can’t survive in the slow-it-down playoffs by running for 48 minutes. He had no lack of chances to prove them wrong in the clash-of-titans conference that is the West, but something always contrived to trip him up. In the ’05 playoffs it was Joe Johnson’s broken face in the conference finals against San Antonio. In ’06 his team toughed out the loss of Amare Stoudemire, but a round-three injury to their stopper Raja Bell cost them a trip to the finals. Then, in ’07, the cruelest cut of all: the famously cracked decision by commissioner David Stern to suspend two Suns for leaving their bench after Nash was mugged by San Antonio. It handed the Spurs a series they had every chance of losing (they’d go on to beat Cleveland for their third title in five years), and dealt the Suns a blow they’d never get over.
What followed was an anatomy of a death foretold. Less than a month into the 2007–’08 season there was a screaming match between D’Antoni and the new GM there, Steve Kerr. “Steve went in to make suggestions about the defense, and Mike just exploded,” says Paul Coro, the Suns beat writer for the Arizona Republic. Tensions between the two men simmered all season, and though D’Antoni had actually stumped for the midyear trade that brought Shaq O’Neal west for Shawn Marion, it was widely seen as being forced down his throat by an undermining front office. D’Antoni, rubbed raw, barked at sports-talk callers who criticized his bench rotations, and went upstairs to backbite the guys who called the Suns’ games on TV. After game one in the first-round playoff series against the Spurs, in which D’Antoni got burned by a decision not to foul and blew a win the Suns had in the bag, “I barely recognized him,” says a Suns’ insider. “He wasn’t his personable, insightful self, and he felt really betrayed by the second-guessers.” The Suns went on to lose that series in five games.
“Here’s what I do know: We will play fast, we will have fun and be entertaining.”
“I was pretty disillusioned,” says D’Antoni, who was given permission by Phoenix to seek another job. “I thought, after all I’ve done here, the three division titles, this is what I get from you? Well, fine, I’ll take my ball and go home.”
That peevishness is partly why he’s in New York. After a lifetime of being stinted of his proper due, he was made to feel wanted by Donnie Walsh, the world-wise GM who replaced Isiah. “Chicago was very fair, but with Donnie it was, ‘You’re my guy,’ and at my age, it’s nice to finally have that,” he says. “Nothing against the Suns — and I think they’ll really do well if Shaq’s back and healthy this year — but you get tired of having to make the case again. When I started there, it was, ‘You’ll never win by running.’ Then we came out blazing, and it was, ‘You’ll never keep it up.’ We won the conference title, and it was, ‘You can’t beat playoff teams.’ We beat Memphis and Dallas, and it was, ‘You can’t win it all.’ And so far, on that point, they’ve proven themselves right, but I won’t quit until I’ve proven them all wrong.”
It seems somehow unjust that he must meet that burden now with the team least built for it. The Knicks have so antagonized their fans and the press that knives are already out for the coach. The tabloids howled when D’Antoni got the job, blaring that he wasn’t the kind of
“Strong pack leader” this motley bunch required. They sneered at his “20-minute practices” and claimed his taking the job was a callous money grab.
The mood was no less acrid the night of the draft in June, when the media converged on the Knicks’ training facility, where Walsh and D’Antoni ran the team’s war room. Hours before they made their only pick, it was an open secret that they would choose Gallinari, and though none of the writers had actually seen him play, the jury had reached a verdict. He was “soft” (that word again) and “unathletic,” and when Commissioner Stern called his name on TV, the beat guys greeted the news with knowing smirks. They chortled and dashed off stinging leads as Knicks fans at the Garden rained thunderous boos on the young Italian striding to the dais.
A couple of hours later D’Antoni took questions and, per usual, was drolly self-mocking. (Q: “Who does Gallinari remind you of?” A: “In my dreams, Dirk Nowitzki; in my nightmares, someone else.” Q: “What are his strengths?” A: “Well, shooting and court sense, and hopefully someone’ll teach him to play defense.”) But even in jest his antennae were up. He cut the session short at five minutes.
The thin skin sanded by fickle crowds and reporters whose memories are porous — this has laid low the kinds of hypercompetitors who, by nature, are given to brooding. The last fine coach here, Jeff Van Gundy, quit two years after taking the Knicks to the finals in ’99, drowning in Diet Coke and dyspepsia. In the desert D’Antoni dealt with two beat writers, and on road trips it was often one. In New York there are 14 at every game, plus stringers, columnists, producers, cam crews — and one clear pack mentality. It is, boiled down to its braying essence, the voice coming out of Bruce-from-Queens’ cah phone on the “Mike and the Mad Dog” show: mocking, parochial, and know-it-all bitter. But D’Antoni claims not to be fazed by it. “The first step’s to win here, and the second’s to win big, and if by midyear we’re not in the playoff running, I’ll be very disappointed, to say the least. I mean, in Phoenix we were, like, 31–1 against the East, so how hard can it really be in this division?”
He pauses a beat before dropping a grin into the fold of the conversation. That’s D’Antoni: the tart subversive, armed with jokes and pointed elbows for the pack of nonbelievers on his tail. He has worked five decades for a nod of affirmation, the sign from on high that he’s in the winners club with the rest of life’s favored sons. It hasn’t come yet, for all the fireworks in Phoenix and his Coach of the Year award in ’05, and he knows he has little or no margin here, in a town that wanted someone — anyone — else. But he has worked tough rooms and given worse than he’s taken, and he isn’t about to knuckle in now.
“When bad things happen and naysayers pipe up and management ‘suggests’ that you post up more and commit more to defense, that’s when I climb up on the rooftop and say, No, bullshit, I won’t change,” he says. “I am who I am, and I’ll be that guy till they ship me back to Italy.”
Four things D’Antoni will need to do to turn the Knicks into contenders
1. Put the best shine on tarnished talent: Look for D’Antoni to spit-and-polish the team’s soft-serve big men, Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry (owed $80 million over the next three years), with minutes and a slew of easy buckets, then move them for a couple of expiring contracts after the All-Star break.
2. Woo LeBron at all costs: With cap space freed, the Knicks should offer him the moon and stars when he hits free agency in 2010. As the fastest player in the NBA (even at 6-8) and its most lethal finisher, he’d be devastating in D’Antoni’s system. Short of that: Chris Bosh and D-Wade will also be on the market.
3. Find an intimidator inside: As soon as next year’s draft, the Knicks, near the bottom of the league for years in field-goal percentage allowed and shots rejected, must land a big man to menace opponents driving the lane. UConn’s shot-blocking monster, Hasheem Thabeet, would do nicely, for starters.
4. Make some steals: D’Antoni’s special gift is for spotting gold at the end of other teams’ benches. He heisted Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa and made them second-tier stars in Phoenix and recast Raja Bell as a three-point assassin and Kobe-stopper. The Knicks’ signing of speedy Chris Duhon, who played second fiddle in Chicago, is a solid first step.
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Men’s Journal.
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