Westchester's Basketball Guru

This has been the season when boroughs and ’burbs started buzzing about the Knicks again. This has been the season when actual, cheering bodies have filled just about all of Madison Square Garden’s violet and teal seats, and bright new stars of music, screen, sports, and television have joined stalwarts Spike and Woody down where you actually can sense how tall these guys are. This has been the season when a young (finally), hustling (finally) Knicks team has been playing a lickety-split, run-pass-pass-shoot style of basketball. No, it’s not the clogged-lane, hard-fouls style of the Ewing-Oakley-Starks teams. No, it’s not the wisdom basketball that was the creed of the even-more-ancient Reed-Frazier-DeBusschere-Bradley teams. No, it does not offer much of a response to the crowd’s vestigial calls for DEE-fence: Carmelo Anthony was not brought in for his willingness to fight through a screen. But these Knicks have been playing an entertaining and encouraging style of basketball.

I’m sitting with the still relatively thin, surprisingly tall (he played a little in the NBA himself) guy who taught the team this vivace style—the guy who, in fact, more or less invented the 21st-century version of this style. I’m sitting in a large office at the Knicks-Rangers practice facility in Greenburgh with the round-cheeked, mustachioed, handsome coach who seems to have done the impossible: get a New York Knicks team, once again, to win more games than it loses.

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And what I’m learning is that, for Mike D’Antoni, the man at the center of all this chatter and enthusiasm, coaching a rebuilding basketball team in New York has been a very tough job.

“You still love it?” I ask. The mouth below the mustache and the eyes above slide into a familiar, ironic arrangement, and D’Antoni answers, “I guess.”

The coach follows this with a smile. D’Antoni is not always smiling—his courtside scowl ranks with the best—but he often is looking as if he wants to smile: sometimes ironically, sometimes ruefully. “I mean, I love basketball, but it is still bittersweet. There are some days in everybody’s job that are just bad days.”

D’Antoni makes clear that the move his family made—to Westchester—so he could take this particular job has not been part of the problem. Westchester has been, he says, using one of his favorite words, “terrific.”

D’Antoni spent more than two decades playing and coaching basketball in Italy—in Milan and in Treviso, near Venice. He’s also lived and worked in, among other places, Denver, Portland, and Phoenix. Nice parts of the world, all of them. “I’ve been really, really lucky,” he acknowledges. Now it’s Westchester: Most of his day-to-day work is done in Greenburgh. He lives with his wife and their
son in Rye. They’ve settled in nicely.

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“I just like the quaintness of it,” D’Antoni reports. “I like the little towns. We have a great work environment here in Westchester. We’ve met some great people.” His wife, Laurel, to whom he was introduced when she came to work as a model in Italy, has long been committed to charitable work. Lately, she has been involved with Port Chester’s Carver Center. Wife and husband, along with the entire Knicks coaching staff, helped the center distribute 150 dinners in November to families for Thanksgiving.

Mike and Laurel’s only child is a sophomore at Rye High School. “To raise a kid in Westchester is the best,” D’Antoni gushes. “The Rye schools are fabulous for my son.”

D’Antoni reportedly earns $6 million a year—high for a coach or manager in any sport; very high for a public-school parent. But a private school was not a consideration for D’Antoni’s son. “My dad was a principal in West Virginia,” D’Antoni explains. “My sister was an assistant superintendent of schools in West Virginia. And my brother was a thirty-year high-school teacher. So we’ve always advocated for public schools.”

D’Antoni’s father, Lewis, was not just a principal. He coached high-school basketball for a few decades and won a state championship. Lewis D’Antoni, who has a memoir out called The Coach’s Coach, is now 97 and winters in Westchester with Mike and his family —attending Knick games. D’Antoni’s brother, Dan, was also a longtime and very successful high-school basketball coach. He’s at the Knick games, too—as an assistant coach, working beside his younger brother.

Mike D’Antoni’s son, who shares his name, is a member of the Rye High School basketball team. Might there have been some pressure to enter the family business? “No, we haven’t pushed him,” D’Antoni insists. “He’s a good student and a good person, and if he wants to play, great.” He does—at off guard; D’Antoni played the point. Pro-basketball coach and high-school basketball player sometimes hang out together at Rye Rec. “I wish I could play with him,” D’Antoni admits. “Too old. Too old. That’s one problem with having a kid when you’re older.” Mike D’Antoni, senior, is 60.

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The Knicks coach is so happy with how his son is doing at Rye High School that he says he won’t leave the area until he graduates—whatever happens with the Knicks.

Oh yes, the Knicks.

The New York area has one other unavoidable feature—especially for someone who grew up in West Virginia: “You have a lot of motivated people here,” is how D’Antoni puts it. “It can get a little hairy sometimes, but, for the most part, it’s exciting.” The area’s sports fans certainly are motivated: “This is a great environment for basketball, because they care. That’s what makes Madison Square Garden so special: the energy.” Then the coach adds, with that rueful almost-smile, “Not always a positive energy.”

D’Antoni’s job has not always been so terrific. He was hired by Knicks President Donnie Walsh in 2008 to coach a team Walsh was about to tear apart: in a two-year effort to shed lots of players, which the previous regime had signed to oversized contracts, and get under the salary cap. The idea was to have enough salary room to sign LeBron James and another star. As a coach, D’Antoni had won big in Italy. He won big, too, with Phoenix, though he never quite made it to the NBA finals. The price of coming to New York, however, was an almost guaranteed two years of losing—big.

LeBron failed to sign on, but, last summer, the Knicks did get another star: Amar’e Stoudemire, who had played for D’Antoni in Phoenix and has proven to be a stellar acquisition—as a scorer but also as a leader. “Amar’e has blossomed into a terrific person,” his coach says, quietly. And in D’Antoni’s third season with the Knicks, the young, committed team Walsh put together around Stoudemire lost and won, and won and then lost again. Since for so long the Knicks had just lost and lost, the fans’ energy this season has been, for the most part, quite positive.

I showed up in the coach’s office shortly before the All-Star break—after some of that throwback losing. It was a time when many of those young players were worrying that they would be included in the much-rumored trade with Denver for Carmelo Anthony. D’Antoni seemed a little worn out by it all.

On days when the team is in town but isn’t playing, he gets to the Greenburgh practice facility (shared with hockey’s Rangers) at about eight in the morning and meets with his assistant coaches. The players start wandering in at about 9 am. From 11 am until about 1 pm, they practice: they watch some video, perform warm-up exercises, plan defenses for upcoming games, practice various shots (over and over and over), and then engage in a full-court scrimmage, with rotating blue and white teams.

D’Antoni, always dapper at the Garden, here looks like just another basketball lifer in sneakers and sweats. He walks alongside that scrimmage as if he were controlling it with a remote control: stopping it, starting it, and, with the help of his assistants, pointing out errors, encouraging, making his points. Walsh sits courtside and watches. The players go pretty hard and cheer and joke. Sneakers squeak. The ball, when it slips most easily through the net, makes that ethereal whoosh, which you miss from up in the cheap seats.

D’Antoni talks to the various cameras, microphones, and notepads that have assembled at the end of practice, then hangs around the Greenburgh facility until two or three, spending some time meeting with Walsh. He can head home then but will likely spend his evening scouting NBA games on television.

The coach and his wife see the Broadway plays; they visit the Westchester restaurants. D’Antoni says his next goal is to get to some comedy clubs. But that’s mostly for the off-season. During the season, between the games and the practices, there aren’t a lot of days off—about one every two weeks, the coach estimates. Then there’s the travel and the triumph-or-despair intensity of
the games.

Good coaches, of course, are a melding of jock, instructor, motivational speaker, and tactician. (Search YouTube for D’Antoni’s explication of his revered “pick and roll.”) They are always well supplied with worries: players, strategies, players. “You don’t sleep a whole lot as a coach during the season,” D’Antoni notes.

Like many individuals in jobs where failure is highly visible, D’Antoni allows himself an escape fantasy: working with players in junior high school or high school. (The fantasy has changed as his son has gotten older.) “I would love to go back to teach,” he admits. He also admits that it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

So it’s necessary to attempt to deal with the pressure. “I try to keep an even keel, but it’s tough in New York. You have to live a sheltered life.” That means, to begin with, no tabloid newspapers. D’Antoni is pretty good with the press: well spoken, good humored, clever, reasonably understanding. But, he says, “I would never, ever read their stuff.” He doesn’t listen to talk radio either, or watch sports news on television.

Surely D’Antoni was aware, however, that there was an awful lot of news about the Knicks in recent months, as speculation about whether they would get Carmelo Anthony intensified. The media frenzy even gained a name: “the Melodrama.” In February, what many of his players feared would happen happened: four of those young, hustling players—three starters and D’Antoni’s top reserve—were traded to secure the Knicks a second star: Carmelo Anthony, plus Chauncey Billups and
some others.

The scuttlebutt was that D’Antoni thought the Knicks had given up too much. He’s denied it. Certainly D’Antoni’s coaching and his hyperkinetic system—which produces lots of possessions and, therefore, lots of assists, rebounds, and points—had made those young players more valuable, made them into what the league now refers to as “assets.”

After the trade, D’Antoni was back to doing what he has had to do too often in his three seasons in New York: start over—organizing and training a largely new team; making sure Anthony, Billups, and the others have mastered the intricacies of his pick and roll; developing some new “assets.” He had little time before the playoffs.

With two superstars, Stoudermire and Anthony, now on the team, the buzz has gotten even louder, the celebrities thicker, the tickets hotter, the pressure to win greater. And at home in Rye, Mike D’Antoni will likely be getting even less sleep.

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism at NYU’s Carter Institute, has been following the Knicks since before the DeBusschere trade.

Photo by George Kalinsky for Madison Square Garden

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