LOS ANGELES- So here I am, the Welcome Wagon, the first media guy in Los Angeles talking to Mike D’Antoni and he’s not quitting.
I thought I would be spending the day genuflecting in front of the Zen Master again, but by the time I’m finished with D’Antoni I’m thinking, “Phil who?”
It may be April, May or, for his sake, June before we find out if D’Antoni is the right choice to coach the Lakers.
But I can tell you in the meantime folks here are going to fall hard for his self-deprecating humor.
He talks funny, some kind of West Virginia thing, but that’s worked here before. And he’s willing to poke fun at himself.
“I’ve got some really close friends who are Laker fans,” D’Antoni says. “And they were disappointed I got the job.”
He talks about family, his father, who will be 99 on New Year’s Eve, and his fondness for people. He’s human, so we can already see the differences between him and Jackson.
He’s scheduled to arrive Wednesday in Los Angeles, meet the team on Thursday, and he’s pointing to the weekend - most likely Sunday - to make his Lakers coaching debut.
“It depends how I feel,” he says. “I think miraculously I’ll start feeling better when Steve (Nash) is feeling better. I’ve already tried coaching without him and that didn’t work out too well, so I’m thinking I’ll be smart this time.”
D’Antoni is two weeks removed from having his right knee replaced. He’s down to one crutch or a cane, having left the hospital shortly after Sandy passed through and took away the electricity. It forced him to take a room in a retirement home.
“Here I am retired, in my 60s, wondering what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. My wife is thinking I like board games and Jello and I’m worried when the electricity comes back whether she’s going to bring me home or not.”
Then he gets a phone call from the Lakers. Leave it to Jim Buss, as the criticism will go later if this doesn’t work, to find the replacement for Mike Brown in a retirement home.
“I’m not drawing up plays or texting anyone because I figure, like everyone else, it’s Phil’s job,” D’Antoni says.
He spends all day Sunday talking to the Lakers while everyone else thinks Jackson’s agent is doing a deal with the team.
So if D’Antoni wasn’t who he is and he was asked who he would hire - Jackson or D’Antoni - never mind, he finds that hilarious.
“Is that a trick question? I’d like to think I’m humble enough to say the other guy because of what he’s done, but you know we’re all dogs at heart.”
He accepts the job with the Lakers’ proviso that he will quickly do a contract.
He takes a pay cut, going from $6 million a year as coach of the Knicks to $4 million with the Lakers.
“Keep in mind I’m unemployed,” he says.
The Lakers are apparently in a hurry to quell the momentum to hire Jackson. I just want to know how a coach like D’Antoni goes from being 121-167 and not winning a playoff game with New York to coaching the Lakers?
“There is a thing called luck in this world,” D’Antoni says.
He says his disappointing run in New York left him with scars. “But if you touch the scars I will laugh because they hurt so much,” he says.
Reminded that the fans in Staples Center have been chanting, “We want Phil,” D’Antoni says, “They can’t chant, ‘We want Mike,’ because they got him.”
D’Antoni’s older brother Dan will join him on the Lakers’ coaching staff, and D’Antoni says he will reach out to the defensive-minded Nate McMillan later.
The only time D’Antoni gets defensive is when defense is mentioned and it’s suggested there is no D in D’Antoni.
“Do you know how old that is?” he says.
“OK, so people say when it comes to defense, your teams are horrible.”
“You’re listening to the wrong guys, so there you go,” Antoni says.
Sorry, dropped the D.
“The D I have right now is Dwight,” he says. “I’ve got Dwight Howard back there and we’ll see how that D helps my name.
“We have great defenders; what am I going to tell them? Not to play defense? We’re going to be good defensively.”
The Lakers say they hired D’Antoni because he’s a better fit with these players than Jackson. It’s ludicrous.
D’Antoni’s style of play might be a better fit for fans tired of the triangle, but the Lakers’ aging roster and shallow bench might not suit his style.
“I’ve always looked at Showtime as the model we would like to pursue,” he says. “And we can run, and push the ball.
“It’s going to be a great offensive team,” he says. “It might not be seven seconds or less. Maybe the next book has to be 20 seconds or less.”
The ball will start in Nash’s hands before he passes it to Kobe. “I’ve got no problem with Kobe going off for 60,” he says. “I know his mind-set; it’s same as mine: Win.”
D’Antoni says, “We’ll put shooters all over the place,” ignoring how shallow the Lakers’ bench is. And he calls Steve Blake “a great shooter,” so we know he’s a dreamer.
He got rid of Jordan Hill while they were together in New York. “Yeah,” he jokes, “we dumped him to make room to maybe sign LeBron James. Sorry.”
We’ve been told he’s close to Kobe, but in the book “:07 Seconds or Less,” about the Suns’ 2005-06 season, D’Antoni mocks Kobe for sharing the ball in the 2006 playoff series.
“Well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” asks D’Antoni in the book. “Now he’s the savior because he’s playing that way? He’s no god.”
D’Antoni laughs. “Did I say that? I’m sure I said that. I’m sure Kobe will beat me up for it too, and he should. But he knows I have the most respect for him of anybody.”
Jackson called Kobe “uncoachable” in one of his books, and D’Antoni has his own experience with Carmelo Anthony.
“Hell, I’m uncoachable at times,” he says. “I’ve never been around anyone with the intensity Kobe has. ...Sometimes he might come off the floor cussing me out in Italian, which is good so people won’t understand. I’m cool with that.”
Jackson has 203 more playoff wins than D’Antoni, but it’s the next set of playoff games that matter.
“And we’re going to be good, he promises. “And have fun along the way.”
Worst-case scenario, he knows a good retirement home.