You can’t escape your past. You can start over but your past is one of those ghosts that lingers in the shadows, quiet but persistent, like a foggy light. It is a reminder: once upon a time this happened. Here you were. Here you are.
Of this, perhaps, Mike D’Antoni is aware in a way we hardly understand, that he brings to the Lakers coaching job the memory of what he used to be when he thought he would have a different kind of NBA career, not a career in which he played behind Jimmy Walker who was an underachieving shooting guard, and, later, Jalen Rose’s father. Not when he played on a team that won eight of their first thirty two games. Not when he played for Celtic Hall of Famer Bob Cousy who would be fired. Not when he lost eleven games in a row during his rookie season with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, a team that gave up more points than they scored, was last in rebounding and their best player, Tiny Archibald, was limited because of an Achilles injury.
But sports differs from politics perfectly; fates change quickly. During D’Antoni’s second year in the league Tiny was healthy and the team thrived. A six foot one combo guard Tiny was a quick and fearless floor leader with a mesmerizing game. The Kings were a young team, only Jimmy Walker was thirty. It was a small team too. Mike D’Antoni, was six foot three, just two inches taller than Tiny. But unlike Tiny, D’Antoni was an unremarkable guard that shot 39%. The team would win 44 games that year and lose to the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
“The problem is you have to assume things” D’Antoni said when he coached the New York Knicks. “Usually you have a month to work things out. Now you have to assume something and I want to be careful about jumping to conclusions.”
And yet careful was not the case when last year he was dealing with Pau Gasol and out of pride or spite or disinterest gave the impression he found Gasol’s post game and his contribution irrelevant, concluding that Gasol’s participation was not critical to winning. It was so ridiculously unfair. It showed a lack of vision and an ignorance of history, of 2008 and 2009 and 2010 when Pau was featured in the offense, when his production was the difference between winning and losing. When D’Antoni benched Pau Gasol late in the fourth quarter because he said he wanted to win D’Antoni came across as confused, insulting and not very smart.
After two years in the league, 24 year old Mike D’Antoni had been out of the playoffs and in the playoffs. He suffered through a dismal early stretch in the beginning of his third season shooting 25%. In November, just a month into the season, D’Antoni was waived by the Kings. The next month he signed with the Spirits of St. Louis, an ABA franchise, where one of his teammates was a twenty year old Moses Malone. D’Antoni was the fourth guard in the rotation, playing behind Ron Boone (21 points, five assists), Don Chaney and Mike Barr. The star of the team was a power forward, a 24/10 player with the nickname Bad News which appropriately fit. Marvin Barnes was known for his love of cash, drugs and guns which ruined his career. But the year D’Antoni was his teammate was one of Marvin’s best seasons. There was another forward on the team, a dynamic Maurice Lucas who scored 20 points and pulled down 15 rebounds. Once again, though, a D’Antoni team gave up more points then they scored and missed the playoffs.
D’Antoni by then was the type of player the league swallowed up, an inconsistent shooter who came off the bench, unremembered, replaceable. D’Antoni would spend two games with the Spurs the following season, his last as a NBA player before finding glory in Italy.
“I think the best way to get things out of players”, he said when he coached the Phoenix Suns, “is to trust them and their instincts. I just don’t believe that when you take men you’re trying to change them that much.”
Of course no one believes any of that, no one thinks of D’Antoni as a player’s coach, as someone flexible enough to alter his offense to suit players strengths, no one thinks he has changed his basic belief that post players slow the game down, no one believes he and Pau will get along this year despite his comments to the contrary in these first days of training camp, no one believes when Kobe returns D’Antoni will do what Mitch Kupchak suggested he do, get to know Kobe better, no one believes he will ever see Nash for Nash, a forty year old guard with limitations, no one believes he or his staff can get Nick Young to take defense seriously, to do that D’Antoni would have to take defense seriously himself which would be like the moon turning blue, no one believes he can recover Wes Johnson’s once promising but now flat career, no one believes this is a job he should have been offered or taken, no one believes D’Antoni can do the job to the satisfaction of a global fan base that for the most part despises him for not being Phil.
It’s been forty years since his NBA dream first started, since the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, and playing in Municipal Auditorium and losing his first professional game to the Bulls and not scoring a point. We like to say we want dreams to come true but we don’t want that, not really, what we want is the dreamer, we want the dreamer to be what we think he should be, to either be us, or, a reflection of us, or, to be so different from us they are heroic, and when neither is true, when men like D’Antoni are unremarkable over here, and great over there, and then ordinary one more time, when the regressive nature of their failed dream changes things for us and for them, sports loses its privileges; we turn away, we say they don’t deserve to coach our team, we say they are losers, we say they are a round peg in a square hole, we say we hate them, when, what we hate is the truth in front of us. So. We wait to see if the avalanche comes, the bad defense, the turnovers, the losing, and if it buries us we start the countdown on when D’Antoni will be fired, we bang the drum ever so loudly until finally someone new replaces him.