Monday, June 23, 2008

Better Know Your Head Coach (Part 1)

The first in WWOD?'s three-part series Better Know Your (NEW) Head Coach explores the background and life story of Mike D'Antoni - from his hometown of Mullens, West Virginia to his new work place of Madison Square Garden. This is your official primer on D'Antoni.

In case you hadn't heard, the New York Knickerbockers of the NBA hired a new head coach back in May. The team's previous coach, Isiah Thomas, was fired after an interminable death march that makes the Willie Randolph saga seem like the joyous and brief harmony of a group of briskly strolling charolers on a mid December night.

Although the roster appears in shambles the New York Knicks gig is still one of the most coveted jobs in sports. Coaching the Knicks goes along with coaching the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls as the top jobs in the pro game. It's on par with coaching men's b-ball at UCLA or paid, grown-up football in Dallas, Texas. I mean, it's coaching hoops in New York City. In the Mecca. It's the Great White Way. Even if recent seasons were more vaudeville than Broadway this is the Big Time.So, for the first time in a long time, the Knicks as an organization were dealing from a position of power in conducting their coaching search. For the first time in a long time they had something that other people actually covet. Actually they had two somethings that many somebodies coveted: they had the job itself to offer and they had all the money that goes along with it. And, with both of those things Donnie Walsh was able to land the 2004-2005 NBA Coach of the Year, Mike D'Antoni.

Born on May 8, 1951 in Mullens, West Virginia, D'Antoni has been zigging when everyone thought he should be zagging throughout his entire life. He is a Taurus and true to his sign of the Zodiac has a great work ethic, is artistic (see the offense he installed in Phoenix) and has a good sense of humor (read 7 Seconds Or Less). Also, true to his sign, he can be stubborn and prone to getting stuck in ruts (more about that in Part 2).

D'Antoni's hometown of Mullens is a small no-movie-theater and no-bowling-alley place in the mountainous south west of West Virginia. It could be said that D'Antoni lived in the sticks. But the truth is that you had to drive several miles to the next town to find a five-and-dime store that sold sticks. Perhaps because of a lack of options, the D'Antonis were a basketball family. The family patriarch, Lewis, was the coach at Mullens High School. His sons Dan and Mike were the local hardwood heroes. Mike was the top-rated baller in the state during his senior year at Mullens High and had recruiters making their way to his out-of-the-way home. In spite of being heavily recruited out of high school by in-state powerhouse West Virginia University (where everyone in Morgantown was hoping he would prove to be the homegrown second-coming of Jerry West) and out-of-state programs like Duke and Davidson, D'Antoni chose to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Dan (who is now an assistant coach on his staff in NY) and head to Marshall University. He was 19-years old in 1970 when a tragic airplane crash claimed the lives of 37 Marshall football players and 12 coaches. Many of the students who perished resided in the same athlete-dorm as the young point guard and at least twenty were people whom he considered friends. During his time on campus Mike led the team to NIT and NCAA tournament appearances.

After his standout college career at Marshall University, D'Antoni was drafted by the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in the 2nd round of the 1973 NBA Draft. He was the second pick of the second round in a draft headlined by Doug Collins. The Kansas City-Omaha team that he joined had finished last in the Midwest Division the previous season in spite of the presence of Tiny Archibald at the point guard spot. The year before D'Antoni had been drafted Archibald led the NBA in minutes played, field goals made, field goals attempted, free throws made, free throws attempted, assists and points. Archibald had been 1st Team All-NBA selection. So, no matter how much D'Antoni shined in spot duty, and shine he did as he was was an all-NBA Rookie Second Team choice for 1974, there was not much room for him on the stat sheet or on the court.

After 3 seasons stuck behind Archibald with the Kings, D'Antoni tested the waters of the freewheeling ABA, playing for the Spirits of St. Louis in 1976. He signed with the San Antonio Spurs the following season and found himself back in the NBA thanks to the 1977 merger of the two leagues. The Spurs team that D'Antoni joined was George Gervin's squad. It was Gervin's team and it was Gervin's ball. Quickly realizing that his situation in San Antonio was no better (and perhaps worse) than Kansas City, his Spurs career lasted just two games before he left our shores for the fast-cars and fast-play of Italy.

The pairing of D'Antonio and Olimpia Milano of the Italian league was a near perfect union from jump street. His confidence, being an American player coming to the Italian league in his prime years rather than after his best years were behind him (see Gervin), started D'Antoni on a legendary European career. He would go on to become his club's all-time leading scorer and lead them to five Italian titles, two Euroleague titles, two Cups of Italy, one Korac Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. He was their Michael Jordan. He would be voted the league’s top point guard of all time in 1990, which is a far more illustrious honor than the NBA All-Time Top 50 memberships doled out stateside in 1996.

D'Antoni's nickname across the continent was Arsène Lupin for his deft ability to steal the ball from other players. Lupin was a fictional character, a gentleman thief, created by French novelist Maurice Leblanc. This dapper thief was a sort of rakish contemporary counterpart to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes solved mysteries from the right side of the law with his trademark erudition and logic, Lupin was a more mustachioed do-gooder who was trying to avoid detection by the bad guys and the "good" guys.

Like Lupin, Mike D'Antoni was a mustachioed phenom and most of his countrymen had no idea. Among the select few who Americans who knew full well the measure of this man was a young boy whose father's line of work caused him to spend several of his formative years living at the epicenter of D'Antoni's heroics. This young boy would eventually move back to America and take up the game of his idol (and not coincidentally, his father). In homage to D'Antoni this precocious hoopster would wear his No. 8 upon reaching the NBA. You might have heard of this D'Antoni disciple, his name is Kobe Bryant. He may have erroniously been dubbed the "next Jordan" but it was D'Antoni's number on his uniform through the first ten seasons of his career.

After hanging up his high-tops Arsene Lupin was ready to become a coach. He began his career as the head coach for the Milanese club where he became a legend. He patrolled the sidelines for Olimpio Milano from 1990 to 1994, leading the club to the 1993 Korac Cup. He was then tapped to coach Pallacanestro Treviso Benetton, another Italian club. During his 3-year tenure the team captured the Cup of Europe and Coppa Italia and won the league title. He was twice voted the Coach of the Year. In other words, he was awesome.With Europe conquered, he re-crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The first NBA coaching job ever held by D'Antoni was with the Denver Nuggets. He joined the Nuggets during the 1997-98 season as he was the club’s director of player personnel. The head coach of the Nuggets that season was Bill Hanzlik. His team finished in last place in the Midwest Division. The next year, D'Antoni took over the reins. It was the 50-game season shortened by the work stoppage and D'Antoni never got his team - featuring Nick Van Exel, Antonio McDyess and Chauncey Billups - turned around. They scratched out only 14 victories in that foreshortened campaign and the rookie head coach was fired without little thought. D'Antoni latched on with the San Antonio Spurs as a scout during the 1999-2000 season an was also an assistant for a Portland Trail Blazers squad helmed by Mike Dunleavy in 2000-01.

With progress in the New World slow, D'Antoni returned to Italy for a second stint as the coach of Benetton Treviso in 2001. In his one season back in Europe he picked up right where he left off, leading the team to a 28-8 record and a league championship. Perhaps reassured of his abilities (or perhaps having just reassured others back home) he returned to the NBA as a Phoenix Suns assistant in 2002 under Frank Johnson. In 2003, D'Antoni took over during midseason as Phoenix head coach and, despite leading the team to a poor record in the second half of the year, he received a vote of confidence for producing inspired play from an injury riddled team.

And, that bit of faith in him has arguably altered the trajectory of the NBA game. The patience that father and son Collangelo showed in their young employee was prescient. The next season, with D'Antoni's encouragement, the team acquired Canadian point guard Steve Nash. The introduction of Nash to a team which already included Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire produced a perfect storm and an incredible turnaround for the franchise. Whether the system made the players or the players made the system was inconsequential as the wins and rave reviews piled up.

The Suns averaged 58 wins in D’Antoni’s four full seasons and made the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006. They were one of four teams — along with Detroit, San Antonio and Dallas — to win at least 50 games in each of the last four years. The team's open, free-flowing style of play rejuvenated the league and lured back fans who had tuned out in recent years. His teams were the favorites of television programmers and players in the Association as well. D'Antoni would win the NBA Coach of the Year Award and his star pupil, point guard Steve Nash, would win back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Awards.

And, now D'Antoni is paired with Stephon Marbury. What could go wrong?

Monday's Starting Five

1. Iker Casillas. The Real Madrid and Spanish national team keeper kept a clean sheet through 120 minutes against the Italians in Sunday's Euro 08 quarterfinal and went on to save spot-kicks from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale during the ensuing penalty shootout. He made a phenomenal, reaction kick-save during the regulation play and was clearly the star in the shootout. He dove correctly after both balls that did find the back of his net from the penalty spot and was within inches of blanking Italy their as well. Even those two penalties that hit pay dirt for the Azurri did so only in circumstances where his side held the lead. He always kept his teammates ahead or tied in the shootout and made it as "easy" as possible for them to perform in the clutch.

2. David Villa, Santi Cazaria, Marcos Senna & Cesc Fabregas. These four Spaniards slotted home penalty kicks for their country in the penalty shootout. Villa hit the opening shot of the shootout, Cazaria put Spain back on top after Grosso had equalized for Spain. Casillas toook over from their, allowing Senna to shoot with a 3-1 lead filling his sails. When the young Fabregas stepped up to the spot, the ebulient Arsenal midfielder cooly got Italian keeper Buffon going to his (Fabregas') left and crushed the ball into the gaping right side of the goal mouth. Game. Over.

3. George Carlin. A great comedian and American thinker passed away. He was the first comedian who really got me to connect the dots between knowing stuff and being clever and being entertained and being entertaining.

(foul language, not surprisingly)

4. Charles Oakley. When not partying shirtless in Vegas, Oak is out spreading the truth about the nefarious doings of NBA officials. In talking with the Post Oakley revealed that he believes, "they should have asked about this a long time ago. ...When you can talk to officials at halftime about calls they made in the first half, that's control. When you control something, that's cheating." So, even as NBA Commissioner David Stern tries to discredit former referee Tim Donaghy's claim that referees consciously affected the outcome of games and playoff series to fit the league's wishes, there are pillars of integrity like Charles stepping forward to say they knew something fishy was going on all along. I mean, how else could there not be a foul called when Charles Smith got mauled by everyone in a Bulls in the 1993 NBA playoffs. As Oakley put it:
You look back and look at the teams and think who can make the money for the league. Who made the league shine in their careers, Michael Jordan or Patrick Ewing?

5. Andrei Arshavin. The breakout star of Euro 08 thus far is this baby-faced Russian who bears a striking resemblance to Kyle Korver of the NBA's Utah Jazz. He was downright mesmerizing on Saturday in leading Russia to a surprise victory of the previously romping Dutch in the Euro 08 quarters. I went into the game pulling for De Oranje and left fawning over Arshavin, who lofted a perfectly weighted assist from an impossible angle along to the winning goal, rung the Dutch death knell with his team's third score and only had one touch that strayed farther than three inches off his foot the entire match.