[The Second Season]
Phoenix, April 21 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"The Suns are built for the regular season. Every series is going to be tough for them because when you live by your offensive three-point shooting, then any off-night you could lose a game."
It is generally believed, though not always elucidated, that NBA teams cannot suddenly change their essence when the playoffs come around. You are, to a large extent, what you have been for the previous eight months. But coaches and players are expected to offer the requisite chestnuts We have a chance to turn this around. We're starting to peak right about now. It's time to make a fresh start and broadcasters have to declare the official beginning to the Second Season.
After studying the Phoenix Suns at close range all season, I offer this projection about them:
Odds of beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round: 2-1.
Odds of beating either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Denver Nuggets in the second round: 5-2.
Odds of winning the Western Conference, probably by beating either the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, and making the Finals: 6-1.
Odds of winning the championship: 10-1.
Another thing that is generally believed and always elucidated is that fast-break teams like the Suns cannot go far in the playoffs. Tempo inevitably slows down, and that leaves transition teams playing an unfamiliar style. To the purveyors of that belief, which is a vast majority of NBA pundits, the fact that the Suns advanced all the way to the Western finals last season before losing to the San Antonio Spurs proves only that a fast-break team can't make it to the Finals. Had the Suns made the championship round and lost to the Detroit Pistons, the axiom would've presumably changed to: A fast-break team can't win it all.
Hearing that premise is one of the few things that will turn Mike D'Antoni's sunny disposition cloudy. (Another is a restaurant waiter mispronouncing bruschetta with a soft sound in the middle instead of the hard "K" sound, the way the Italians do it, "who, after all, only invented the damn thing.") The coach does not dispute statistics that indicate, yes, scoring usually does go down in the postseason. Nor does he doubt that competitive intensity, which is associated more with defense than offense, goes up significantly, also. But he doesn't see slow-down ball as inevitable. "Coaches hear it, start to believe it, then do it," says D'Antoni, "and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. My point is, it doesn't have to be that way. It's not written in stone."
There is, to be sure, an extra buzz about this opening round, given the historical weight of the opponent. Though the Lakers finished in seventh place in the Western Conference, thereby drawing the second-place Suns, they had finished strongly, one of their final victories a 109-89 win over Phoenix on April 16 in Los Angeles. The Suns believe that the Lakers' transition defense is close to nonexistent and will provide an open highway for the Nash-led fast break, so this was the matchup they wanted. D'Antoni couldn't precisely orchestrate it not in an eighty-two-game season but the coach had benched Nash and Raja Bell for that late-season game, all but assuring a Laker win that would help them beat out the Sacramento Kings, who were in eighth place.
At the same time, the Suns assume that the Lakers, despite having lost three of four regular-season games to Phoenix and seven in a row before that victory on April 16, also wanted to play them. As hard as the Suns are to defend, there is the general impression that, perhaps, they will let you outscore them that is more likely to happen in the fox-trot pace of the postseason and, even if they don't, they won't beat you up physically. Since Kurt Thomas, the Suns' only interior player with a physical presence, went out with a stress fracture in his foot on February 22, the Suns had struggled to an 18-11 record and given up an average of 107.6 points per game, near the bottom in the NBA. Phoenix's further aversion to contact could be demonstrated by the fact that it set an NBA record for both fewest free throws made (14.5) and attempted (18.0). The Suns were deadly accurate from the line but didn't get there much.
Todd Quinter, the Suns' lead scout, feeds this perception in the fifty-page loose-leaf notebook he has prepared for the coaches before each playoff series. (He is already at work on one for the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, one of which Phoenix will be playing should it move on.) The book contains all relevant Lakers statistics, individual tendencies of the players, and even a pie-chart breakdown of the Lakers' offense. (They run "ISO's," which stand for isolations, 30 percent of the time, "side p/r," pick-and-rolls on one side of the court or the other, 22 percent of the time, etc.) To make sure the message gets across, Quinter writes:
While watching their last broadcast & postgame shows it was amazing to me how absolutely they dismissed us. They talked about getting home court advantage in the next round already like it was a done deal. For whatever reason their team and staff do not respect us at all!
Phoenix has in fact become rather the popular upset pick among the scores of seers who lay out their playoff grids in newspapers and cyberspace. Ex-point guard Mark Jackson of ABC, former NBA coach Bill Fitch (picking for NBA.com), and David Dupree, USA Today's respected NBA writer, all pick the Lakers. So does ESPN's Greg Anthony, a particular irritant for the Suns; during a memorable brawl with the New York Knicks several years ago, Anthony came off the bench in street clothes to attack Phoenix point guard Kevin Johnson from behind. "He's a Republican," Alvin Gentry says in dismissing Anthony.
A greater source of irritation is TNT commentator Charles Barkley, whose shadow looms over the franchise. (Insert weight joke here.) Barkley was the star of the 1992-93 team that made it to the Finals and lost in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He still lives in Phoenix but harbors some resentment toward the Suns, who traded him to Houston two seasons after that near-championship run. Barkley goes out of his way to praise Nash "Man, I would've loved to have played with a point guard like Nash" and even wrote a short essay for Time when the magazine picked Nash as one of its "100 Most Influential People." (You think essay, you think Charles Barkley.) But Barkley doesn't buy into the D'Antoni up-tempo style.
"The Suns are built for the regular season," says Barkley. "Every series is going to be tough for them because when you live by your offensive three-point shooting, then any off-night you could lose a game. I think the Suns are always going to struggle just because they don't rebound and they don't play good defense. The game always comes down to rebounding and defense. Your flaws don't show until you play a real good team. I think the Suns are too small to win it all."
The presence of Kobe Bryant adds to the buzz. With the possible exception of hockey, where a hot goalie can win a series himself, in no other sport does one superstar player make such a difference as basketball. Great players rarely win an entire series themselves, but they can win one or two individual games, and the Suns are hardly a mortal lock to begin with. The longer the series goes, the more Bryant can exert his considerable will upon it, especially considering that he averaged 42.5 points against Phoenix in four games during the regular season.
D'Antoni has his history with Bryant, too. Kobe grew up in Italy where his father, former NBA player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, was enjoying an expatriate career. The star of Italian basketball at that time was none other than D'Antoni, the dashing Milan guard, who wore number 8. Lacking American role models, young Kobe wore 8 in honor of D'Antoni. Before most Suns-Laker games, Bryant stops by the Phoenix bench, and he and D'Antoni exchange a few pleasantries in Italian, which both speak fluently. (Bryant, though, has petitioned the league to allow him to change his number to 24 in the following season. It's no slight to D'Antoni, but, rather, Bryant's homage to what he considers his 24/7 work ethic.)
Raja Bell had his history with Bryant, too. Bell first gained a small measure of fame in the NBA when, as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he helped limit Bryant to 7-of-22 shooting in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals. The Sixers won that game in L.A., 107-101, though the Lakers swept the next four to win the title. Early in the season, Bryant, reacting to what he considered Bell's overaggressiveness, elbowed Bell in the mouth and shoved him, drawing a technical foul. Later in the season, on April 7, with two weeks remaining in this regular season, Bryant had come to US Airways Arena and scored fifty-one against the Suns, the majority of them with Bell as his defender.
The game actually presented a template for how to conquer the Lakers Bryant got his share, but his teammates never got involved, and the Suns won 107-96 but that gave Bell meager consolation. After saying all the right things to the press, Bell stood in front of his locker, doing well to contain the fury he felt inside. "Way to go, Rah-Rah," he said aloud. "You held him to fitty." (He deliberately used the street pronunciation of "fifty.") Eddie House and Brian Grant, two of the Suns always willing to lift a teammate up, were standing by.
"Rah-Rah, it was like B.G. said about that guy the night that Jordan went off on his ass," said House. "What was his name, B.G.?"
"Keith Atkins," said Grant, naming a former journeyman guard.
"Yeah," says House. "Keith Atkins says, 'Michael got sixty-nine on me, but he earned every one of 'em.'"
Plus, when Bryant was asked about the sometimes contentious scrums between him and Bell, Bryant scrunched up his face, as only Bryant can do, and said, with requisite contempt, "Raja Bell? I got bigger fish to fry than Raja Bell."
I asked Bell for his reaction. "I know exactly what he's doing," says Bell. "He's saying, 'How dare you mention his name in the same sentence as mine?' I understand that. That's how he thinks."
Bryant, meanwhile, has utterly dominated the preplayoff planning of the coaching staff, which is meeting, as is its custom, in the central office on the fourth floor of US Airways Center. A day earlier, the discussion had even turned physical when Dan D'Antoni suggested, half-kiddingly, that he could guard Bryant, or at least keep him off the baseline.
"You could guard Kobe?" Marc Iavaroni asked.
"Yep," said Dan.
"Well, what do you do if Kobe does . . . this!" said Iavaroni, lunging his six-foot-eight-inch, 240-pound body forward, inadvertently knocking D'Antoni off his feet and into a wall, as the other coaches collapsed in laughter.
As the defensive guru, Iavaroni is tasked with coming up with a plan. Plus, the Lakers are "his team." The assistants (with the exception of Dan, who is in his first year) divvy up the opponents during the year for careful scrutiny, and the Lakers belong to Iavaroni, meaning that he has already watched them on tape for countless hours. His intelligence will then be combined with Todd Quinter's more detailed scouting report.
It is, however, difficult to out-detail Iavaroni. His father was for many years the supervisor at Kennedy Airport, a man with an organizational mind who made sure the runways were kept clean, and the son has that kind of mind, too. He had a seven-year NBA career as a cerebral, overachieving forward and cut his coaching teeth on Pat Riley's uber-prepared staff in Miami. Phrases such as "Indiana's 42 Fist is our quick curl pinch" tumble easily out of his mouth. "I think even Marc would agree that, left to his own devices, he would spend more time in the room than any of us," says Gentry.
Like players, coaches have tendencies. Gentry tends to conjure up remedies and theories from his rich past, having been a head coach of three teams and an assistant under men like Larry Brown, Kevin Loughery, and Doug Collins. Weber is a relentlessly upbeat clinician and an unshakeable positive thinker who has read over four hundred books with titles like Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior and written poems with lines like "So don't wallow in doubt or be crippled by fear/Take positive action and watch both disappear." He never has a bad day. Dan D'Antoni, Mike's older brother who joined the staff this season, coached high school ball in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for thirty years. Dan's default strategic position is: Never mind all the X's and O's, let's just play harder than they do. Iavaroni calls Dan, affectionately, "The Old Ball Coach."
D'Antoni's coaching instincts are closer to Dan's than to Iavaroni's. Early in the season D'Antoni had a dream in which he had to prepare an academic paper about the season. "But then I found out Marc had already finished his," says D'Antoni, "and I got all worried because I knew mine wouldn't be nearly as good." During a coaches meeting in December, D'Antoni said: "We need to play this lineup Nash, Bell, House, Marion, and Diaw. Against the Clippers it was real nice; against New York it was real nice. We gotta have people who can make shots."
"But, Mike," said Iavaroni, "that lineup was only out there for a few minutes together."
"But if you watch the game," said D'Antoni, "you just get a better feel about it."
It was a constant dialectic between the head coach and his lead assistant: Iavaroni relies on tape and stats, D'Antoni on feel and flow. Art versus science. Quite often, after he has grouped his players into a certain offensive alignment, D'Antoni will say, "All right, from here, we just play basketball."
At the same time, D'Antoni has been around long enough to know that "just playing basketball" or "just playing harder" than the other team isn't enough. And so he relies heavily on Iavaroni's stats and ability to construct a defensive game plan. In preparing for the Lakers, Iavaroni wants to play more traditionally, less like an NBA team, and keep one defender on Bryant so he will be likely to take a lot of shots and freeze out his teammates.
"So the philosophy we use on Carmelo Anthony, Ray Allen, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant is, 'The more involved the superstar, the less involved his teammates,'" says Iavaroni. (When the coaches talk specific strategy about a player or team, they almost always bring in examples from other players and other teams.) "I know it's not real comfortable for us if Kobe is feeling it. But for every shot he makes, the other guys are saying, 'Oh, shit, Kobe's doing it all again.'"
D'Antoni sees some logic to that, but it makes him nervous. "I don't know why sometimes we just don't trap Kobe on pick-and-rolls," D'Antoni says. "Why give him a chance to really get off? Let's say we're going down the stretch and we're two points up. And now you can't turn Kobe off."
Iavaroni: "You can't turn Kobe off down the stretch anyway."
D'Antoni: "Yeah, but what I'm saying is that we might be up ten going down the stretch instead of two if we didn't let him get off. You lay back and let him score, which I understand at some level, but why not make him hit hard shots? I've never seen him get everyone involved whether you trap him or not."
Iavaroni: "I saw it on tape this year. A few times. He gets everyone involved and they create a team concept that has blossomed. If his teammates get the ball from him, they play with his balls." Iavaroni is so lost in thought that he doesn't even see the joke.
D'Antoni shrugs. He still has forty-eight hours to make the decision. During the endless hours of discussion about Bryant, it comes up often that he can score fifty points and the Suns could still win, as was the case in that April game. This drives Dan D'Antoni to distraction. As a former high school coach, he can't get his mind around the idea that an opponent, no matter how talented, can scorch you with fifty and everyone treats it as normal. "I don't think we should ever just say, 'Kobe can get fifty and we'll be all right,'" says Dan. "We should just say, 'We're gonna play our ass off on him, make him work and get on his ass.'"
Also worrisome are the inevitable defensive switches that will occur; good defenders like Bell and Shawn Marion have a hard enough time stopping Bryant without him running wild against the other Suns.
"I think it's death death! having Tim Thomas on Kobe," says Gentry. All agree except for Dan.
"We shouldn't be afraid of that," he says. "I expect Tim Thomas to play good defense. He's an NBA player."
"Could you reiterate that?" says Iavaroni with mock seriousness. "You expect Tim Thomas to play good defense? You are a trusting soul."
One thing everyone agrees with it's not a good idea to show a bunch of video snippets of Bryant getting beneficial calls from the officials. "I don't want to mess with Raja's head, and I don't want to mess with Shawn's head," concludes Iavaroni.
The coaches are used to two sets of tapes anyway. They have a "coaches' tape," which contains lots of game footage and lots of mistakes made by the Suns, and a "players' tape," a heavily edited version that is shown at practice and almost never includes egregious errors by players. D'Antoni believes that embarrassment is a poor coaching tool. It is the job of video coordinator Noel Gillespie and his assistant, Jason March, to keep the tapes separate.
One other minor but irritating concern is Amare' Stoudemire. Back in October, before the season began, the Suns' superstar-in-the-making had gone down with what was first presumed to be a minor injury to his left knee but subsequently required surgery. Throughout the season, Stoudemire's physical condition had been the Subplot from Hell. He was supposed to come back in late February, but he didn't come back until late March. He was lackadaisical in his rehabilitation even as the Suns tried to sell the idea that he was diligent. By the time his left knee was pronounced fit for duty, his right knee had started to hurt. He came back anyway and played one promising game, one mediocre game, and one disastrous game before the Suns decided to deactivate him again. Then he got arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
The knee injuries were one thing. But even when he was with the team, he wasn't quite of the team. For example, he had left at halftime of the team's April 17 game against the New Orleans Hornets, Fan Appreciation Night, which included a mandatory postgame flesh-press to thank the ticket buyers. (Similar blowoffs by Allen Iverson and Chris Webber in Philadelphia and Zach Randolph in Portland had produced headlines; Stoudemire got away with it.) D'Antoni had thought of telling Stoudemire to stay home during the postseason, or, at least, not having him travel with the team, but decided against it. None of Stoudemire's teammates would've jumped up to protest that move. Now, with the playoffs here, he wasn't always showing up when he should and wasn't always there even when he was there, concentration and intensity being two of Stoudemire's problems.
D'Antoni and assistant general manager David Griffin had thought that they were on the same page with Stoudemire regarding his plans for rehabilitation. They had all decided that Stoudemire would work diligently with the Suns' athletic trainers and try out the knee in the summer with the United States team that would meet for camp in Las Vegas in July, then travel to the Far East for an Olympic qualifier. Stoudemire seemed in accord with the plan, but then told reporters, "I don't think I can play for Team U.S.A. this summer."
And so the Subplot from Hell continues.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack McCallum
A few weeks before the 2005-06 NBA training camps began, I called Julie Fie, the Phoenix Suns' ace director of public relations, to propose a story idea for Sports Illustrated. I would be with the team throughout training camp as an "assistant coach" and would then write a story about my experiences. (I may have even said "quote marks around assistant coach" during our conversation.)
I was looking to do something different, something from the inside. In my twenty-five years at SI, which included two decades of following the NBA, I had covered everything from BASE jumping to the world championship of squash, but had never engaged in participatory journalism, unless you count having Shaquille O'Neal back his 350-pound ass into me to demonstrate how he doesn't commit offensive fouls.
Julie said she'd check with the authorities general manager Bryan Colangelo and coach Mike D'Antoni and get back to me.
I homed in on the Suns for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was Fie. I had known her for two decades and considered her one of the best in the business, not to mention someone who might actually think it was an idea that would fly. I automatically crossed out a couple dozen or so other PR directors who would either dismiss it out of hand or worked for a head coach who would rather push a mule cart down Broadway while wearing a thong than open a window into the inner workings of his team.
I also knew Colangelo and his father, Jerry, still the team's CEO and president. I knew D'Antoni and his assistant coaches, though not all that well, from interviewing them for a story I had written about the Suns during the previous season. I knew assistant coach Todd Quinter well I even wrote a few stories about him three decades ago when he was a high school basketball star in Nazareth, Pennsylvania but, as the team's chief scout, he was away from the team much of the time. I knew Steve Nash and Shawn Marion, the team's veteran stars, though neither was what I would call a professional confidant. I thought they were good guys who might not mind a notebook-carrying dilettante; obviously, any such project would need the blessing of the team's superstars, tacit or otherwise.
The other reasons were purely pragmatic. First, the Suns were probably going to be good; unless a team is profoundly bad, like, say, the expansion New York Mets or the 2005-06 New York Knicks, it is almost always better to write about a winner. Winning teams are happy, happy teams talk, talk makes stories. Further, the Suns were coming off of a positively revolutionary season during which they had become one of the most entertaining shows in sports. D'Antoni, having spent most of his playing and coaching career in Italy, did not subscribe to the prevailing NBA wisdom that a fast-break team cannot succeed, and so he built a team around Nash that ran like hell and tossed up three-point shots like so much wedding confetti. And, though no one suggested that D'Antoni and his staff didn't work hard, they seemed to be serious about the idea of not taking themselves seriously. In short, they seemed like good guys to hang with.
Julie called back forty-eight hours later and said, "Buy a pair of sneakers. You're on the staff." So to speak.
There are certain stories that just work out, that through some weird alchemy present a combination of factors that trigger positive feelings in the reader. The preseason "assistant coach" story in SI was one of them. Judging from the letters, e-mails, and personal comments I received, people enjoyed the inside perspective, the lively interplay (especially the insults) among the coaches, the details of how players and coaches work together, what the coaches say about other teams, and the participatory/Walter Mitty aspect of the story, i.e., the outsider-amateur getting the chance to do what the insider-pro does. Along with allowing me total access to practices, meetings, and meals, the coaches let me participate in drills here and there. On the first day, Marion nailed me in the face as I held the ball during a shell drill, and I felt I belonged.
Soon after the story ran in Sports Illustrated, I was asked to expand it into a book. I had doubts as to whether it would work. As friendly and open as the coaches had been in early October, when workouts and scrimmages were held far from prying eyes, they were not about to allow me to muck up drills during the regular season. But perhaps they would once again grant me the same unfettered access and that would be the essence of the book. The publisher said, "Give it a try." I called D'Antoni and he said, "Sure." It was almost that simple.
I had written one "season-with" book (Unfinished Business) after spending a considerable part of the 1990-91 season with the Boston Celtics. I rode the team bus, collected stories from players such as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, and just generally spent a lot of time hanging around. It was "inside" but not in any way, shape, or form like this would be. I didn't fly with the team when it went charter. Coach Chris Ford didn't invite me to coaches' meetings. I was not allowed into the locker room when the rest of the media wasn't there. I couldn't attend closed practices. So this would be an entirely different book.
When I showed up a couple of weeks into the regular season to begin my research, D'Antoni took, literally, ten seconds to brief the team on the colossal significance of my presence. "You remember Jack from the preseason," D'Antoni said at the beginning of an off-day practice. "He's going to be with us a lot of the time working on, I don't know, a book or something." That was it.
Rarely was I asked to keep something off-the-record. As the man in charge, D'Antoni would usually be the one to say, with a smile, "I'll kill you if this is in the book," or, more seriously, "Don't put this in." But considering the hours and hours I spent with the team from November to June, the requests were entirely reasonable. They came to trust me (I think) and further believed that (a) transparency is the best course, and (b) we don't say that many controversial things anyway.
The season turned out to be, in a word, memorable. It's the only word I can come up with. Going into the season, the Suns looked weaker on paper than they did last season because two starters, Quentin Richardson and, most significantly, Joe Johnson, had been traded. Their leading scorer, Amare' Stoudemire, went down with an injury in training camp and missed all but three games. Their supposed lone defensive presence, Kurt Thomas, missed the last two months of the regular season and played only a few garbage-time minutes in one playoff game. Their instant offense off the bench, Leandro Barbosa, missed twenty-five games with various injuries. Their fire-and-brimstone guard, Raja Bell, managed to get himself suspended for an elimination game against the Los Angeles Lakers. On it went.
But they always always seemed to have something in reserve. Just when it appeared that Nash had played himself into a state of utter fatigue, he would summon up some uncommon effort and hit a shot down the stretch. Just when it appeared that Marion was out of sorts and frustrated by having to guard bigger opponents, he would break loose and win a game almost by himself. And the franchise players were by no means the only source of miracles. Consider: During the playoffs, Phoenix got no fewer than three game-saving or game-winning shots from players (Bell, Tim Thomas, and Boris Diaw) who weren't even with the team last season.
More to the point, they did it their way. By returning to the "old" way of playing, they in fact did something very new. By going back, they moved the game forward. By looking to the past, when teams acted instead of reacted, they were revolutionary.
Truth be told, the Suns advanced further than I thought they would. When you're close to a team, you see not only their strengths but also their weaknesses, of which the Suns had many. You see the process at work, how long and difficult it is, how many minidramas have to play out, how many extraordinary moments have to be coaxed out of players, who, like everybody else on this planet, suffer crises of confidence from time to time. Off the court, the players and coaches were pretty ordinary guys; on it, they did some pretty extraordinary things.
The parameters of my access were simple: I went where the coaches did. I attended their meetings, accompanied them to practice, and sat in the coaches sections of the plane and the bus on road trips, usually next to Dan D'Antoni, the older brother Mike had brought aboard as an assistant. But for me, a journalist who for four decades has been on the outside looking in, nose pressed to the glass, it wasn't that simple suddenly becoming an insider.
I never walked through the Suns' training room, verboten to anyone except team personnel (more than once I saw a player's agent chased out of there), without feeling that I didn't belong, even though everyone welcomed me. I set all kinds of rules for myself. I wouldn't accept an employee pass, and, instead, spent a considerable amount of time snaking my way by any means possible into US Airways Center (which, before January 6, was known as America West Arena) for early-morning coaches' meetings. Yes, I ate the food on the team plane (but not too much), drank the bottled water in the coaches office, and plucked grapes from the pregame fruit plate. But I tried not to avail myself of the postgame buffet that sat, appetizingly, on a table in the locker room.
I went to great lengths to prevent my fellow journalists from seeing me step off a bus or get into a locker room before the prescribed press time. I literally dove for cover when NBA-TV filmed practices at which journalists were not supposed to be in attendance. I was able to insinuate myself behind the bench for many games but refused to adopt what Phil Weber, an assistant coach, calls "the State of the Union look" (white shirt, red tie) to help sell the idea to security guards and other arena personnel that I was actually a coach.
During the season, I wrote about the Suns for Sports Illustrated only once a long piece about Steve Nash, in which he came across glowingly but no more so than if I hadn't been with the team. (I hope that's the case anyway.) When it came time to vote for end-of-the-season awards, I thought of recusing myself but finally decided I could vote fairly. I put Nash in third place (behind Detroit's Chauncey Billups and Cleveland's LeBron James) in the voting for MVP and put D'Antoni second behind San Antonio's Gregg Popovich for coach of the year. Nash won anyway. D'Antoni finished second, jokingly making the claim, whenever I was in earshot, that "one vote for Popovich spun the whole process upside down in some weird way," preventing him from winning for the second straight year.
I didn't hang out with the players much when the coaches weren't around. For one thing, it's not like their first thought was, "Man, we really want some fifty-six-year-old interloper dude going clubbing with us." But there is also a precise line of demarcation between players and coaches. You can't sit in on all the coaches meetings, then try to pass yourself off as some sort of special-exempt player. There were many times, however, when I would just sit in the locker room and listen to Eddie House's nonstop rap or chat with Shawn Marion, Kurt Thomas, James Jones, or Pat Burke about nothing at all. They are good people, and I enjoyed our conversations.
I had a good enough relationship with a couple players, Nash and Raja Bell in particular, that I could give them a gentle amount of grief, and they could certainly give it back. On the day the team photo was taken, the coaches insisted that I get into one just for posterity's sake, and, as I stood there, silently urging the photographer to hurry up and snap, Nash said, "Okay, be careful. The spy's in the picture." On the one occasion that I did pilfer a chicken finger from that postgame buffet, Nash caught me. "Jack, I hope you're paying for that," he said with a couple of other reporters around.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did two things that I wouldn't normally do as a journalist: I got Nash to autograph a jersey for a charity auction and Raja Bell to autograph for my sister-in-law. She thinks he's hot.
Going into the project, I was curious about one thing in particular how do professional coaches deal with losing? I had coached an eighth-grade team for several years, and, though I don't consider myself a particularly competitive person, the losses would gnaw at my insides, keep me up nights, and have me on the phone for hours with my assistant coach trying to deconstruct what went wrong . . . with a bunch of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. What must it be like when the stakes are high? A basketball coach makes so many decisions during a game substitutions, out-of-bounds plays, defensive alterations, time-outs that any single one of them can have an impact on the result.
The answer turns out to be: The losses do indeed take a heavy toll. Coaches don't sleep well. They beat themselves up. They look terrible in the morning. They catch colds. They suck on candy. They drink too much caffeine. They snap at each other. Sometimes they order onion rings and French fries together. Then they come in the next day and do it again.
I flew back to Phoenix with the team after it had lost a 140-133 triple-overtime game to the Knicks in New York on January 2. The referees that night had suffered from a case of Madison Square Garden-itis. The Knicks shot fifty-four free throws compared to just sixteen for the Suns. Had Kurt Thomas not been called for a phantom foul with eight seconds left, the Suns would've won in regulation. It could hardly have been a more agonizing loss, especially since it came to an inferior team. Security at the private airstrip in Newark took forever. It was raining. The plane didn't take off until 1:15 a.m. Some players had brought along their families (they do that on a few road trips per year) and babies were wailing. I felt like wailing, too, and couldn't imagine how badly I would've felt had I been the one presiding over this godforsaken evening.
"Five hours of freakin' misery awaits," said D'Antoni as he boarded the plane. Then he and his assistants fired up their portable DVDs and watched the game, over and over and over, consigning themselves to their own personal small-screen hell.
Yet, no Suns coach no coach I've ever known, in fact wants to give up the life. The highs are too high. Though I never in any way, shape, or form considered myself a member of the team, I understood that feeling for the first time.
For at least seven months a year, NBA coaches spend as much as eighteen hours a day together. And the goal is to spend more by advancing to the Western Conference finals, the Suns' coaches were together almost constantly from the second week of September until the first week of June. Part of the reason I was accepted into their fraternity, I theorize, was that I supplied relief, a diversion from the never-ending mission of figuring it out, a buffer when they got sick of each other.
They have no secrets. If one assistant dozes off on a plane or in the coaches' office, one of the others will pull out a cell phone and snap an unflattering photo of him. They rag each other endlessly about their packing "systems" on road trips and celebrate wildly when one or the other of them forgets socks or brings two different shoes. They shower and dress in locker rooms where space is at a premium and personal fashion peccadilloes become conversational fodder. Weber, for example, tucks his shirt into his undershorts, "a tip I picked up in GQ," he says. "Maybe it works in the magazine," says Dan D'Antoni, "but not in real life."
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: "D'Antoni" alone will refer to Mike D'Antoni.)
One day Weber and Dan told me how much pleasure they get out of watching Alvin Gentry take his morning vitamins because it is so difficult for him. I wanted to see it, so we spent fifteen minutes surreptitiously tailing Gentry around the training room as he juggled the pills in his hand and made the conversational rounds. Finally, he grimaced, put a pill on his tongue, took a long slug of water, and violently tilted his head back to get it down. We burst into laughter.
"Let me guess," he said, "you jackasses have been following me."
Studying a coaching staff would be rich material for an industrial psychologist. A delicate political game is played every day, even on staffs as close-knit as the Suns'. Coaches are by nature intensely competitive, their lives defined by the joy of winning and the agony of that alternative eventuality. But they have to find a way to get along, to consider each other's opinions yet make themselves heard in the eternal battle to gain traction within the organization. "There is an almost subconscious vying for attention," concedes Iavaroni. "You want to feel indispensable, you want your credit. But you have to subjugate that for the good of the team."
There is a distinct separation between the head coach and his assistants. Every day it is the head coach who must deal with the owner, the front office, the media, and the cold arithmetic of wins and losses. To the public, the most important person in the franchise is the star player; within the franchise, the most important person is the head coach. It's not even close. "You slide down two feet on that bench," says Gentry, who was once a head coach, "and you just feel the difference in pressure."
A head coach has to act like the boss, even a head coach with the easygoing and casual personality of D'Antoni. It might seem like a small matter, but in seven months with the team I never saw D'Antoni, who is still in good shape, take a shot at the basket or do anything remotely connected to playing. Never. Before and after practice, I frequently shot around with the other assistants (I finished the season with a humiliating 3-13 H-O-R-S-E record against Iavaroni) and watched as they traded shots with and even got into some one-on-one work with the players. But D'Antoni was always the overseer. "Well, hell, why would I want to embarrass myself in front of guys who are the best players in the world?" he said when I asked him about it. My theory, though, is that he held off because, in some small way, it sets him apart. This is my gym, my practice, my team.
The theoretical role of the assistant is to give the head man enough information so that he can make his decisions, find his "comfort level," as Weber puts it. But an assistant has to sense when the head man has enough information and doesn't want to hear anything else. "I want every one of my coaches to say whatever the hell they want to say," says D'Antoni. "I want to hear everything. But if I don't follow what they say, I don't want to hear about it afterward." He rarely did. The Suns coaches move forward.
"Having been a head coach and an assistant," says Gentry, "I've seen it from both sides. It's tempting to just throw out suggestions aimlessly when something goes wrong. 'Hey, let's go trap this pick-and-roll.' But if you trap it and they throw it to somebody else and he hits a three, the assistant is not the one who has to explain it. That's on the head coach. That's why you just have to shut the hell up sometimes."
Countless teams have been ripped apart by assistants who curry favor with the star players or the general manager. "Getting your guy fired by backstabbing him," says Iavaroni, "is the most common way to get a head job." Over an entire season, I never saw one instance of that in Phoenix. That doesn't mean it didn't happen or won't happen, particularly if the team starts to lose. But I didn't see it. There were countless times when I was certain that one or a couple of the assistant coaches weren't in complete accord with D'Antoni's game-plan decision. But they never gave off a whiff of their doubt to the team. "Doug Collins used to have a saying when we were in Detroit," says Gentry. "'Agree or disagree in the room, but, when the meeting's over, align.' We always align."
It was fascinating to watch the interaction of the coaches with each other and with D'Antoni, and he with them. Weber, for example, is below both Iavaroni (the designated lead assistant) and Gentry (the former head coach) on D'Antoni's pecking order, yet he is the assistant most likely to chat up D'Antoni immediately after a time-out is called. It's just Weber's personality. ("White Noise," Gentry calls him.) Iavaroni was schooled in a more formal process in Miami under Pat Riley. "I would never go right to Pat and say, 'Coach, I think we need to do this.' I would make a case with Stan Van Gundy [Riley's lead assistant]. And if Stan thought it was valid, then he would take it to Pat."
Iavaroni knows that D'Antoni doesn't share his insatiable appetite for video, so he reflexively semi-apologizes for it in advance. "I have a lot of clips here, Mike, so any time you want to stop me . . ." The assistants respect each other's territory. During a plane ride between Toronto and Detroit on April 1, Gentry, watching the replay of a game, catches Phoenix's quicksilver guard Leandro Barbosa jumping around on defense when he should just be guarding his man. He tells Dan D'Antoni about it, so that Dan, who had become more or less Barbosa's personal coach, could go back and discuss it with the player. Iavaroni, the de facto defensive coach, feels free to discuss that aspect of the game with any player. But if he happened to catch, say, a flaw in Boris Diaw's shooting, he would tell Weber about it, and Weber, Diaw's shooting coach, would be the one to bring it up.
If any of the assistants detected what they considered to be a major problem with the offense, they would certainly tell D'Antoni about it first, particularly if it involved Nash. Nash and D'Antoni are like quarterback and offensive coordinator. But D'Antoni respected the relationships Iavaroni and the big men, Weber and Diaw, Dan and Barbosa the assistants had with individual players, too. And D'Antoni would often count on Gentry, who has the gift for getting along with everyone, to talk to Marion or encourage one of the reserves who hadn't played much.
Part of my motivation for doing the original SI story was to demonstrate that NBA coaches do, in fact, coach. While football coaches are venerated for both their acumen and their organizational skills, and baseball managers are cast as mystics, able to turn around the course of a season simply by calling a pitchout, pro basketball coaches are victims of the worst kind of stereotyping. The average sports fan, even some NBA fans, believe that coaches roll out the balls, players pick them up and start firing, and that pretty much constitutes the essence of what the coach does, until one day he gets fired with a year or two still left on his contract. (Or, in the case of Larry Brown, four years with $40 million left.) To watch D'Antoni and his assistants disprove the flawed conventional thinking was a unique privilege.
Some readers may object to the occasional rough language, but this is what sports sounds like. There are faculty meetings, Boy Scout getaways, and, Lord knows, sportswriter bull sessions at which the language is ten times rougher than at a meeting of the Suns coaches or a locker room conversation among players. And if I had been looking to write about indecorous behavior on the road, I chose the wrong team, certainly the wrong coaching staff. Unless you call ordering both onion rings and French fries at Johnny Rocket's perverse and you might this was a strictly PG season.
Writing in the first person is an implicit act of narcissism, particularly when you are not the focus of the story. But the "I" voice does slip in once in a while and my only excuse is that it was unavoidable. Over time the book became an intensely personal experience, much more so than anything I've ever worked on. I witnessed more than half of the regular-season games and all except one of the playoff games live. That meant I spent quite a lot of time in "America's Sweatiest City," as Phoenix was declared by a publication called LiveScience, although from November to April it felt pretty damn good. I went on a dozen road trips and ate countless meals with the coaches. Night life was at a minimum, but Dan D'Antoni and I would share an adult beverage from time to time and solve most of the world's problems. When I wasn't with the team, I followed the Suns through the NBA-TV package, the Internet, and once, while en route to a New Year's Eve party, on satellite radio.
Around the league, I had to accept the joshing I got about my affiliation. P. J. Carlesimo, the San Antonio Spurs' assistant coach, saw me once and said, "Hey, there's the Suns' houseboy." I had no retort.
Family and friends eventually got a case of Suns stroke, too. Chris Stone, my editor at SI, had a lot of general NBA business to talk over with me but our conversations invariably began with Phoenix. "You pick up anything about their offense this week?" Chris might ask. Or, "Did Eddie House say anything funny?" My brother-in-law's wedding took place on the night of Game 7 of the playoff series against the Lakers, and I felt terrible about missing it. But when I reached the bride and groom by telephone to congratulate them, their first words were, "We saw the last part of the game in the bar at the reception. Awesome!" They may have had a glass of champagne or two by then.
Most emotionally invested was my wife, Donna, who in thirty years of marriage had never made a single comment about a player or game. One December morning when I was out in Phoenix, I awakened to find this e-mail message from her: "I think that Diaw's really going to be a player!" That's when I knew this was something different.
It was a fortuitous bonus that the season turned out infinitely more interesting than I thought it would. The postseason was so long and intriguing that the backbone of the book consists of those final six weeks of the season. And so we begin at the end.
Stone Harbor, N.J.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack McCallum