Saturday, May 3, 2014

Looking Back on Mr. D’Antoni’s Wild Ride

It wasn’t quite two seasons long but that’s just a trifle—Mike D’Antoni was hired by the Los Angeles Lakers ten games into the 2012-13 campaign and took them on an unapologetic spin through his uniquely myopic, often entertaining and ultimately disastrous brand of basketball.

Along the road were too many injuries to recount, empowerment for minimum-salary castoffs and 67 wins and 87 losses. Yowsa!

The overall total reads better than the denouement—his second season accounted for 55 of those misfires and will go down as the worst loss record in franchise history.

Toward the end, it had become a screaming banshee death spiral capped off with one last flourish that says more about D’Antoni’s lack of tether to the franchise than any other singular action.

The Lakers ended their train wreck with back-to-back wins, thus squandering any chance to move up the ladder in the all-important draft lottery.

And when told by reporters of the implication of beating the Spurs in the last game of the regular season, the onetime COY responded, “They played hard, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the same number of ping-pong balls, right? They flip a coin, or something.”

Oh, you impish wag.

He was informed of his misperception, of course.

But in the end it really didn’t matter—D’Antoni had long since gone all in on a basketball philosophy that could just have well been told in iconic theme park verse:

“We’re merrily on our way, to nowhere in particular!”

I never wanted him to coach the Lakers. I was a Zen Master devotee through and through—it was all  about the guy with the rings and the soul patch, and that absurd fascination with staring at the floor while seated, as important basketball business transpired on court.

The decision just didn’t make any sense in my mind, I spent too much time recycling through an endless tape loop of “but, why?”

I probably missed too many memorable moments over the almost-two seasons, simply because I found obstinate fault with a system that never had a prayer when married to guys like Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

It was prideful and wrong and basically stupid of me, like parents who turn away from a class performance because they don't approve of the silly bumblebee costumes.

Yes, it was an abomination like no other. But how those pom-pom antennas waved merrily through the air, as an array of giddy gunners launched gobstoppers toward a distant honeypot.

“We’re always in a hurry, we have no time to stall!”

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride lasted 154 games, the likes of which we won’t see again. If there’s any comparison in the annals of Laker lore, it might be Dennis Rodman’s 23-game party rager during the 1998-99 season, in which he averaged 2.1 points and 11.2 boards before taking an impromptu detour from the Forum to Vegas, causing Jerry West to remove the tap from the keg.

D’Antoni wasn’t the right coach for the Lakers, at least not for a team assembled from such disparate elements. And of course, nobody could have won with all those injuries. Just because it’s been repeated ad nauseam, doesn’t change that inherent truth.

He rejected the star system in an organization that personifies it.

And the villagers with their pitchforks and fiery torches helped hasten a foregone conclusion. Or maybe not, does it even matter?

He went out the way he came in, suddenly and amidst contradictory reports and predictions.

And despite the dark days, D’Antoni delivered some shining moments—diagraming brilliant timeout plays, reviving the careers of young NBA rejects and never once wavering from an extreme form of tunnel vision that belongs to life’s true believers.

I never supported him but I find myself wishing I had paid better attention nonetheless.

Actually, I kind of did pay attention. I think I watched all 55 losses. Sometimes, wild rides can be god-awful.

Fare thee well, Mr. D’Antoni—may the wind be always at your back, though our roads are perpendicular!

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