| This is for all the lonely fired head coaches, thinking that NBA life has passed them by. |
Nate McMillan proved why you never give up.Believe whatever you want, but when McMillan told the world Wednesday night he was turning down the four-year, $18 million offer from the Seattle SuperSonics to accept what is believed to be a five-year, $30 million deal to move down I-5 to coach the loathed Portland Trail Blazers, it was not just about the difference in money.
It was about respect, or a lack thereof from the Sonics.
Sure, his heart is in Seattle, just not with the Sonics.
|With Nate McMillan now in Portland, the Northwest Division is full of coaches with former ties to the Sonics. (Jeff Reinking / Getty Images)|
McMillan and his wife Michelle became adults there. Drafted in the second round of the 1986 draft, it's the only NBA organization he has worked for — 12 as a player, the last seven as a coach. And it's been the last four-plus seasons as head coach that the bitter reality of having to leave sunk in.
It came to a head on media day last October before the 2004-05 season would begin. It was a season with a virtual lame duck team — starting with general manager Rick Sund, the entire coaching staff and eight players, including superstar Ray Allen. But it had begun 19 months earlier when his former teammate and friend Gary Payton was traded with Desmond Mason to Milwaukee for Allen, Kevin Ollie, Flip Murray and a first-round draft choice.
It ended up being a good trade, but it was the beginning of mixed messages that nearly destroyed a first-time head coach in McMillan. The move transformed the Sonics from a defensive-oriented team to no identity at all, with this lack of direction at the heart of why they had missed the playoffs four out of six years — their worst run in 30 years.
So when owner Howard Schultz and team president Wally Walker had the gall to tell the media they expected to be in the 2005 playoffs with this lame duck team that was virtually unchanged from the 37-45 group of the previous season, McMillan knew he was being set up. His associate head coach, Dwane Casey knew it too. This came a few months after the drafting of high school center Robert Swift, whom they had never even seen play.
It was not lost on McMillan nor Casey, both of whom are African-American, that the Sonics had just had four No. 1 picks over the past three drafts in the top 14. All four of those picks were white players.
"I just feel bad for Nate," Casey said at media day. "He doesn't deserve this."
Trumpeted as "Mr. Sonic," by the Sonics marketing department, his No. 10 jersey in the rafters, it was a horrid time for McMillan. When approached by the cameras and throng of reporters, he said he was going into the season with the idea of making the playoffs too. But his eyes told a different story for those who know him well.
Minutes later, he had to leave the gym and get some fresh air.
He was hot — physically and mentally.
"Can you believe that bleep?" McMillan said. "I guess I should at this point. There is no trust at all."
He already knew it, though. That just happened to be the day it became public and McMillan began preparing himself to leave the Sonics.
It made him sick the way Payton — a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and best player in franchise history — was run out of town by ownership with rude commentary to the media. The makeup of the team was changing so fast, along with marching orders regarding whom to play; he lost his sense of balance. Often times during the 2003-04 season that ended with their worst record in 17 years, you could even see it on Michelle McMillan's face.
"This is just killing Nate," she said. "I don't know how much longer he can do this."
He contemplated resigning, but McMillan, 40, is anything but a quitter. Not the guy who played on horribly arthritic knees his entire career. So on this unseasonably warm October day outside the Sonics practice facility, McMillan put his jacket back on, stuck his chin out and marched back in.
Eight months later, he had coached the Sonics to a 52-win season, a Northwest Division title and into the sixth game of the conference semifinals with a physically fractured but mentally tough team against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
He didn't prove ownership to be right about the team. He proved them wrong about himself (finishing second in coach of the year vote), Casey, and what the future would hold. Midway through the extraordinary season that shocked the NBA, the front office started making noise about a contract extension.
That was a laugh.
Oh, now they want an extension.
His agent, Lonnie Cooper, said thanks but no thanks. Funny how quickly the tables had turned. He knew teams would line up after the season was over. The buzz was out there quickly from Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, the Los Angeles Lakers, just to name a few. And all the while Blazers owner Paul Allen was sitting in his Lake Washington compound — some 15 minutes from KeyArena — watching this happen to McMillan up close while rebuilding his young team.
But Walker wouldn't give McMillan permission to talk to anybody until just a few days before his contract ended June 30. Meanwhile, they did allow Casey to interview in Portland and Minnesota, and the Timberwolves hired him. Not incidentally, Casey took another top Sonics assistant, Dean Demopoulos, with him.
None of it mattered to McMillan. On the night of the June 28 draft, he played it cool. With most of Seattle convinced his heart and inherent loyalty would prevent him from leaving, there was something about his demeanor. He wouldn't talk about his coaching status as he was hustled in and out of the media room.
He just winked in a stolen moment and said, "You never know."
When Allen agreed to a five-year, $80 million deal Tuesday, most assumed that McMillan's deal was done too. Not so. They were always mutually exclusive. The two respected each other as a coach and star player, but there was frequent friction over a number of issues. Besides, Allen is an offensive player. McMillan is grounded in defense. They never quite clicked.
But that's not why Wednesday night the Sonics began their hunt for a new coach while McMillan was preparing himself to be introduced Thursday in Portland's Washington Park. Whether the Sonics hire Marc Iavaroni, Terry Porter, P.J. Carlesimo or somebody else, doesn't matter. Ironically, Casey was his logical successor and now he's in Minnesota with Demopoulos.
And that's why this story isn't about money.
This is about how NBA teams, circa 2005, don't respect their coaches.
This is about how coaches too often take the fall for spoiled star players.
This is about how coaches are hung out to dry by upper management covering their posteriors.
This is about how the Sonics will have a new coach facing in his own division: McMillan in Portland, Casey in Minnesota and that's not to mention Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, who was also run out of town in an unkindly fashion by Walker.
It won't be pretty.
In other words, hail to the legion of NBA coaches. They deserved this and a lot more.
Veteran NBA writer Mike Kahn is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.