McHale finds a new lease on coaching life in Houston

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2012 - 8:51 AM

After he was unceremoniously dropped by the Timberwolves, the kid from Hibbing is rejuvenated with the Rockets.

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Houston coach Kevin McHale is finding a fresh appreciation for helping instill some old-school values in his team. The Rockets visit Target Center on Monday.

Photo: David J. Phillip, Associated Press - Ap

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LOS ANGELES - Awash in harsh industrial light unlike any you would find on a television network set, Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale limped down a Staples Center corridor late one night earlier this month on a perpetually damaged ankle that just won't bend anymore.

Stuffed into a suit and loosened tie that made him look like the world's tallest undertaker, he stopped, turned and tersely addressed a resounding loss to the Clippers before he wearily returned from whence he came and disappeared into his locker room.

When a visitor wandered by shortly thereafter searching for him, a member of the Rockets' traveling party warned, "You don't want to go in there tonight."

If you ever wondered what the Hall of Fame player, northwoods outdoorsman and former Timberwolves executive is doing here -- back in the NBA, hopping midnight flights and enduring a lifestyle he always has loathed -- the answer is in these moments of despair ... or in the euphoria of a six-game winning streak that the Rockets have constructed since a 3-7 season start.

He left a cushy job as a gabby TNT studio analyst last summer to succeed Rick Adelman as Rockets coach, returning to a profession that he had only briefly attempted two other times for a total of 94 games with a Wolves team he managed for 15 seasons until his forced departure in 2009.

He's getting paid handsomely -- probably $3 million or more a year -- to do the job.

He is getting the chance to revive an NBA career that paused three summers ago when the franchise he guided out of the lottery abyss -- and eventually right back into it -- finally decided he wasn't wanted anymore, long after much of its fan base came to the same conclusion.

But more than anything, he is back on an NBA bench now that his youngest son is a high school senior because this is who he is, who he has been ever since his older brother told him he couldn't play basketball anymore if he insisted on crying.

He is back coaching a franchise far, far from his North Oaks home because of what he calls the need to "have a dog in the fight."

He will return to a Target Center bench Monday night for the first since time his Wolves lost to Sacramento in the 2009 season finale.

"You love the competition," he said. "Look, the TNT people are phenomenal, but when you don't really care who wins or loses after the game ... you know, you win a game, you're on the top of the world. You lose and you're in the pits. That's why you've been competitive your whole life, that's why you do it. You do enough [television] games, you sit there and you think, 'I really want to be pulling for somebody. I want to feel those feelings again.'

"It's fun trying to put a system in, trying to get the guys to buy in. All the things that go into coaching, I find are really, really challenging. I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it."

Opposites attract

McHale, 54, signed on for at least the next two seasons to coach a Rockets team that parted ways with Adelman in part because management wanted to bring its D League coach onto the big club's coaching staff in an effort to more wholeheartedly develop and nurture a collection of young players that includes recently drafted Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris and Chandler Parsons.

The twist here: Houston General Manager Daryl Morey is a statistician by education and an MIT management graduate. Under his leadership, the Rockets have become among the NBA's pioneers in the kind of statistical-analysis approach to building sports teams dramatized in the recent movie "Moneyball."

McHale needs help to send an e-mail.

"Obviously, we were looking for a head coach, not for someone who has other skills," Morey said.

Morey interviewed Boston assistant coach Lawrence Frank and Dallas assistant Dwane Casey looking for the qualities -- "smart and hard-working" -- upon which he has sought to build the Rockets' front office.

He inevitably chose a guy who learned the NBA game from Red Auerbach, who won three championships with Larry Bird and Robert Parish, who played the 1987 Finals on a broken foot, the evidence of which is that undeniable limp on display nightly as he works the sidelines during this lockout-shortened season.

He chose an old-school guy who still believes in the sanctity of the big man and a knee in the opponent's chest, yet also connects in a sincere way with today's young stars from an entirely different generation. He coached the Wolves for the final 63 games of the 2008-09 season -- moving downstairs from the front office to the bench after firing Randy Wittman -- and was seen more than once in the locker room hugging a player after a tough loss.

"I ain't going to hug my coach," Rockets guard Kyle Lowry said after that tough loss to the Clippers, "not unless I win a championship."

Give him time.

He has played only 16 games for McHale so far.

"He just has a way of letting you know he cares for you," Clippers guard and former Timberwolf Randy Foye said. "If a coach does that to any kid, you can beat them down in practice, you can make them work hard, you can push them on the floor. But afterwards if someone is doing their hardest, doing their best and things don't turn out their way, as a team you still have to be together.

"And that's what he showed us: 'We're still on the same team and I love you guys.' And we all loved him back."

Over, done with that

McHale took over a 4-15 Wolves team that had just lost by 24 points at home to the Clippers and led them to a 10-4 January record before Al Jefferson -- the low-post centerpiece McHale acquired by trading away superstar Kevin Garnett while he wore that general manager's hat for 14 seasons -- blew out his knee in a game at New Orleans.

"I think he found himself those 60 games he coached us," Foye said. "I think he said, 'This is where my heart is at.' You could see he loved being around the younger guys. We were like sponges. The knowledge he gives is just ridiculous."

Without Jefferson, the Wolves went 7-25 the rest of the way and finished their fifth consecutive losing season. Owner Glen Taylor, who had been so loyal to McHale for so long, and vice versa, hired former Indiana executive David Kahn to replace him as general manager.

Kahn had never played for, coached or managed an NBA team before. Poised to disassemble a short, slow roster McHale had created, Kahn decided after some deliberation not to re-sign McHale as coach and hired Kurt Rambis instead.

After 15 seasons with the organization -- two more than he spent playing for the Celtics, the franchise with which he will be forever identified -- McHale was gone without a farewell phone call from the owner with whom he had never had a formal contract.

The franchise's only remaining touchstone from its McHale era is Love, whom McHale acquired in a risky 2008 draft-night trade and whom the team is poised to sign to a maximum-salary contract.

"That was three years ago," McHale said when asked a question about guiding the Wolves for 15 seasons. "I'm over, I'm done with that. I spent two years at TNT. Minnesota, that's a long time ago."

Still the same

His work now is in Houston, where his in-laws also live. It's a long, long way from his northern Minnesota roots and his lake home, where many Wolves fans assumed he would simply go for good when he left the franchise approaching three years now.

"I'm not that old," McHale said when asked why he didn't retire to a life of hunting and fishing. "I'm not going to die. I don't think I'm going to die tomorrow, knock on wood [reaching and thumping a reporter on the head]. I'm going to get a chance to do a lot of that. I just thought this was a good time to do this."

It's a good time now because his children all are grown. It's a good time now, even if the job always will come with late-night flights and endless hotel stays he has always despised.

"I still don't like the travel, still don't like the lifestyle," he said. "I didn't like it when I played. There was one thing I liked when I played: stepping on the court at 7:30 or 7 o'clock. There's one thing I like when I coach: stepping on the floor at 7. Actually, I like practices more. As a player, I wasn't big on practices. As a coach, I actually like practices."

After nearly 30 years spent with just two NBA franchises, McHale now wears a red Rockets vest before games and leads a franchise with which his only association before last May was beating it in the 1986 NBA Finals.

"Basketball is basketball, no matter where you are," he said. "You know what? It's a group of guys and we're all trying to bond together, band together, fight together and learn each other. It's basketball, it's something you've done your whole life. It's hard to explain, but once you get in there and you have a team and you're in there together, it's us-versus-them.

"There's something special about us-versus-them in this world, and I like that. That's what I like."

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