Kevin McHale walked -- actually limped is the more accurate description -- back into Target Center on Monday morning, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a winter coat, fresh off a two-hour snowy commute from his home in North Oaks.
McHale entered through the visitors tunnel, instead of the opposite end of the court, a path he took hundreds of times as Timberwolves executive and coach. Feel weird coming in that other door?
"I've walked in that end a lot of times," he said. "No different."
OK, what about the emotion of being back inside Target Center, his workplace for so many years, a building he's seen filled with emotion and life but also as dreary as a graveyard?
"Ah, it's been three years," McHale said, clearly not interested in a stroll down memory lane. "There's only one guy left on that team, Kevin Love, from when I was here. I've been in the arena a million different times. Been here for a lot of good times and bad times."
This one was different. He came merely as a visitor and not villain to frustrated Wolves fans. Well, until his name was announced by the public address announcer before tipoff. Then they let him have it.
Back in town as coach of the Houston Rockets, McHale was greeted by loud boos in his first appearance since his 15-year run with the organization ended in 2009. Apparently, fans aren't ready to forgive and forget just yet.
The fact McHale's team left town with a 107-92 victory probably was tough for them to swallow, too. No one really expected a warm embrace, considering the circumstances and decisions that defined McHale's tenure as Wolves basketball boss. He made a few terrific personnel moves (drafting Kevin Garnett and Love), but too often oversaw ones that left him in the crosshairs (Joe Smith's illegal contract, Ndudi Ebi, Garnett trade, draft-day swap of Brandon Roy for Randy Foye, dead-weight contracts, etc.).
No executive's record is spotless, but McHale's mistakes were aggravated by a snowballing perception that he would rather be Up North fishing than committing his heart and soul to every facet of the job. Whether that was actually true didn't matter in the court of public opinion.
If the way things unraveled still bother him, he's not about to share so publicly. McHale sounds content to keep that part of his life in the rearview mirror. He even scoffed when asked if he feels a sense of pride in Love's development, knowing he orchestrated the draft-day trade that brought the organization its future star.
"Pride?" he said. "You don't know me very well. ... I'm happy for Kevin. He's doing it. It has nothing to do with me. He's a hardworking guy. He's just a basketball player. He's just a great tremendous kid."
Though McHale projects an old-school gruffness -- he always noted that basketball "isn't coal mining" if someone dared mention the difficulties of playing on back-to-back nights -- he appears comfortable coaching today's players. He enjoys teaching, developing and maybe imparting some of his basketball wisdom. Mostly, he's happy to taste competition again, which is something he couldn't experience wearing a microphone as a broadcaster.
"Coaching is fun," he said. "There's highs and lows, just like playing. After losses, you just feel terrible. After wins, you're exhilarated. It's sports, it's competition. You've lived your whole life with competition. That's really what you enjoy about it."
That pull was too strong to ignore, which made his decision to return to coaching "easy." He tolerates everything he dislikes about coaching in order to feel the competitive nerves again.
"I hate the travel, I hate hotels, I hate being away from home," he said. "I hate all those things, but I love that two minutes before the ball gets thrown up."
No doubt he felt the same way and then some on Monday. He tried to pass it off as "just another game," but nobody was buying it. He just didn't feel like picking at old scabs. He didn't exactly become weepy afterward either.
"It's as good as the last [win]," he said. "Hopefully, it feels as good as the next one."
McHale exchanged a few high fives as he left the court, but his celebration was mostly muted. He simply limped back through the visitors tunnel.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org