More than the other major sports leagues, the NBA has a strong tradition of great players serving as head coaches. Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, Bob Cousy, Dave Cowens, Billy Cunningham, Magic Johnson, Willis Reed, Bill Russell, Isiah Thomas, Wes Unseld, Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens all have pulled stints on the sidelines for NBA teams.
Naismith Memorial Hall of Famers all, they have brought a legendary feel even to the most mundane, one-out-of-82, Indianapolis-in-February contests. The results have been mixed — only Cunningham, Wilkens and Russell steered teams to titles, with Russell deserving an asterisk as player-coach — but the belief remains that specialness somehow can be contagious. Or, at least, imparted.
Kevin McHale belongs in the above group, too, now more than ever. He is working as the Timberwolves’ head coach for the second time, taking over at owner Glen Taylor’s urging (demand?) after Randy Wittman was fired on Dec. 8. The first time McHale commandeered the Wolves’ bench, it was a temporary move, an attempt over the final 31 games to salvage the 2004-05 season.
This time, it is more permanent — oops, wrong word, when it comes to coaching and pro sports. Let’s say it is more official then, and maybe even final, in terms of McHale’s job status and continued employment with the franchise beyond this season.
The dicey part of that is that McHale no longer has his old job, vice president of basketball operations, as a haven to which he can retreat this summer; Taylor and he both made that clear. The funny part is, McHale might not need it. This coaching stuff seems to suit him, whether he likes it or not.
The Wolves, who open a three-game West Coast trip Friday at Phoenix, were 4-15 and losers of five straight when McHale took over. They lost their next eight, too, before flip-flopping four outcomes (with the last possibly the worst: a loss at Dallas in which they blew a lead of 29 points). They won their next five games, however, and their 5-1 mark so far in 2009 is as good as, or better than, any other team in the NBA.
Some of the improvements have been collective: Minnesota has cut its defensive average from 103.0 points allowed to 93.8 over the past five games. They have been taking, and making, more three-point shots (87 of 196, 42.3 percent, during their 7-3 surge) and taking, and making, more free throws as well. Nine times in the past 19 games, the Wolves have gone to the line at least 30 times; last season, they did that only five times all season.
Much of the improvement has come from individuals, though, such as the confidence guard Randy Foye has shown again, freed from heavy responsibilities at point guard to create and romp at the other backcourt spot. Such as Sebastian Telfair’s seizing of extra minutes at the point, saving a season that began miserably for him. Such as Al Jefferson’s push toward All-Star status, at least putting pressure on the conference coaches who pick the reserves. Such as Rodney Carney emerging as the Wolves’ best athlete and even a shot-maker, while regressing Rashad McCants gets more run in the gossip pages.
When it comes to individuals, that’s where McHale has made his biggest mark. His personality — a little too cocky, a bit too glib and awfully casual for the executive suite — serves him well in the locker room and on the bench. Unlike a number of his NBA coaching peers, McHale doesn’t fear or resent the power his players hold, in terms of guaranteed, multimillion-dollar financial commitments. And more than any been-there, done-that connection with these guys, McHale isn’t a careerist in this line of work, with one eye on the standings and the other on his next job somewhere.
“The biggest influence in my life was my father by far,” McHale said before the 99-96 loss to Miami Tuesday. “My father wasn’t a guy who cried over spilled milk. He worked for 42 years in the mines for U.S. Steel. Hey, every day you put your boots on. And no one’s going to give you anything. You walk around like this [McHale holds open the palm of one hand], in the summer you’re going to get a sun-burned palm because nobody’s going to put anything on it. So you’ve got to go out there and work and do the best you can.
“Then my high school coach had a huge influence on me. And all the coaches I’ve been under. I always asked myself why they did stuff. After practice, after games, I was always analytical. I played for Bobby Knight [in the 1979 Pan Am Games] — I would say to myself, I wonder why Bobby’s doing this. I wonder why Bill Fitch is doing that. All those things … everybody influences you. You are who you are through all your life experiences.”
There also is a little double-standard in play here: One of the reasons McHale went from Dwane Casey to Wittman in January 2007 was his desire for a firmer hand, someone to challenge and push the players. Now that bad-cop Wittman is gone, McHale has been able to play the good cop, helping them to relax. “It’s just fun the way McHale lets us play,” Foye said recently.
It helps, too, that the players know McHale is this team’s last word, basketball-wise, at least for now. If they fail under him, they likely won’t be around long, even if this coach goes, too. That is invaluable for a coach’s authority. It’s the reason Miami coach Erik Spoelstra — a 38-year-old who appears 10 years younger — can oversee a roster of NBA vets such as Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion and Udonis Haslem. Spoelstra never played in the league and, working 40 feet down from McHale, looks for all the world like a high school coach. But he was Heat president Pat Riley’s hand-picked successor, he has owner Micky Arison’s full support and Wade has Spoelstra’s back for the long prep hours they logged, developing Wade’s jump shot when the coach was a video coordinator and a Riley assistant.
It’s connections like that, and personalities and loyalties that make an NBA head coach successful. Then, maybe, it’s the championship rings or the Hall of Fame plaques.
So how is this gig going for McHale?
After all, he dreaded the travel, and this latest trip is the Wolves’ fifth in six weeks since he took over. “I’ve tried to make it as enjoyable as you can,” he said. “I’ve tried to make sure, on the road, that I’ve got some time to read, some quiet time, some reflection time and some times that I enjoy for myself. That makes it tolerable for me.”
McHale, meanwhile, has made it tolerable for Wolves fans again.