I feel sorry for Kevin McHale, and not just because I had a beer with him once, years ago, on the occasion of his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
That was in 1999, and McHale stopped by a post-induction party hosted by the contingent that had come east to witness the induction of Fort Wayne Pistons owner Fred Zollner. I tagged along. Still one of the great weekends ever.
But that's not why I feel sorry for Kevin McHale.
I feel sorry for him because the Houston Rockets pink-slipped him the other day 11 games into an NBA season that lasts longer than the Ming Dynasty. They were, I believe, a game out of the last playoff spot, with only 71 games left to make up the difference. Clearly it was time to panic and eighty-six the coach who, five months ago, got the Rockets to the conference finals.
Even that bit of fuzzy-headed logic, however, is not why I really feel sorry for Kevin McHale. I feel sorry for him because he was coaching a bunch of laydown artists who clearly didn't want him around anymore.
Oh, they all say the right things about him now, but actions speak louder than words. And so last night, in their first game without McHale, the Rockets finally decided to start the season a dozen games late.
James Harden, who had done nothing for 11 games, suddenly erupted for 45 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists and five steals.
Dwight Howard, who had also done nothing, took 19 rebounds.
Trevor Ariza, who had also done nothing (sense a theme here?) went for 18 points.
And the Rockets beat the Trail Blazers in overtime 108-103.
What this illustrates, yet again, is just how precarious life is in the NBA if you have the misfortune to be a coach and not a player. It is, surprise, surprise, an entirely player-run enterprise. And if the players decide for whatever reason they feel uninspired by the man holding the greaseboard, it doesn't matter if that man is some genetic mutation of Bob Knight, John Wooden and Red Auerbach. He's toast on a stick.
And so, McHale is gone despite all his good works of five months ago. Bernie Bickerstaff's kid is the coach now. How long he lasts will depend entirely on how adept he is at getting out of the way of his players. And even then, a mere shift in the locker room mood that has nothing whatsoever to do with him could end him.
Makes me marvel all the more at the genius (and longevity) of guys like Gregg Popovich. Makes me wonder why any prominent college coach in his right mind would want to make the jump to the League, no matter how fat a pile of cash was laid before him.
"We're going to miss him being around," Howard said of McHale when the win was in the books last night.
Amazingly, some people probably thought he meant it.