Reporting Fred Davis
When one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history makes a point to school you, you listen. There’s no offense taken, no hurt feelings or even the thought of a retaliatory piece in print – electronically of course – or a long-winded rant defending your position on air as to why the Rockets can’t seem to get it done on defense consistently.
You just stand there and take it like a man and soak every bit of knowledge you can with a smile on your face.
That’s what happened to me on Wednesday morning after the Rockets shootaround as they prepared for their matchup Wednesday night with the Utah Jazz. It’s a must-win for both teams, and for the sake of argument, every win for the Rockets from here on out is must-win as they try to maintain their playoff spot in the Western Conference. They sit in the seven spot as of Wednesday night with Utah and the Lakers 2 games and 1 game back respectively.
After Sunday night’s shellacking to the Warriors, 108-78, I asked the second year Rocket coach whether this team can improve defensively over the next 15 games leading into the playoffs. McHale said defense is something that can always be improved and “guys have to individually take the challenge of keeping guys in front of them more. We have to get our guys better at calling out coverages, getting tighter. We have to do a better job of knowing what the guy you’re guarding is going to do.”
And in what might have been an attempt to get his team’s attention through the media, the Hall of Fame big man and former defensive stalwart in his own right called some players out for their lack of defensive ability.
“We don’t have a whole bunch of what you would call defensive-minded guys,” he said.
So on Wednesday, with those nuggets in my back pocket, I was poised and ready to see if the defensive jabs on Sunday had paid off and the team would bring a different defensive mentality in tonight’s game.
“How important is it you set the tone defensively tonight?” I asked.
And McHale, all 6-10 of him, looked down on all 6-1 of me, standing to his right, and replied candidly, “that’s every night, I don’t think things are going to change tonight. We have to do that every night.”
Now, that’s a simple enough response, generic, but it makes sense. But I pressed, “so how do you do it, because you haven’t done it the last few nights.”
This is the part where McHale looked at me and probably wanted to slap me. But he’s a professional, he spent time in Boston and I’m guessing has had questions asked of him that were far more difficult or patronizing to answer than what I asked him.
Yet he just stared at me. The wheels were turning in his head. I’m almost positive he wanted to rip me a new one. I just started going to Rockets practices. This was my first face-to-face interaction with him. He peeked at my shirt, and noticed the “Sports Radio 610” emblazoned in red and white on the left breast of my polo.
“How do you do it?” He asked almost mockingly, “you mean what switch do you push?”
“It’s a myriad of things,” and with that, McHale explained how you can’t guard every team the same, you got to keep guys out of the paint ultimately and even gave me a homework assignment after explaining how you wouldn’t guard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the same way you’d guard Mark Eaton, two of the big men he battled against during his hey-day in the 80s.
“Go look those guys up and you’ll know what I’m talking about,” he said, and then patted me on the shoulder.
After a couple more questions, the impromptu Q&A was over, and McHale began to walk off. Ironically, I mentioned Mark Eaton on a show the other day, and as somebody who fancies himself a hoops guy, I wanted Coach McHale to know that. So I told him.
He mockingly raised his right arm as to symbolize, “hey, this dumbass kid knows who Mark Eaton is.”
But I wasn’t finished. I wanted Coach to know that I wasn’t trying to undermine his basketball intelligence; rather I wanted to get to the crux of why this team isn’t playing any defense despite having an experienced coaching staff.
Now, McHale could’ve insincerely humored me and given me coachspeak; he could’ve screamed at me and told me to get lost; or ignored me and went about his business.
Instead he gave me a tutorial on basketball that you’ll never get on NBA TV, TNT or ESPN. He was blunt, honest and annoyed all at the same time. I won’t share everything that I was privy to, but the man made a lot of good points and it’s easy to see why he’s had practically every major job the NBA offers – superstar player, executive, coach and TV analyst.
The man has forgotten more about basketball than most will ever know.
He’s a teacher first and foremost, and he cares about the game. He cares about this team and for anyone who thinks he doesn’t have this team working to be a better offensive and defensive basketball team is nuts. He has too much respect for the game not to teach ever y facet of the sport I grew up watching and playing as a malcontent in Topeka, Kansas.
McHale also understands the NBA is a much different game now than it was when he played during what really was the Golden Age of the sport. Hall of Famers on almost every roster, guys that knew the fundamentals, role players who actually enjoyed being role players and rookies who came into the league with three to four years of college experience under their belt.
This isn’t the NBA McHale grew up in. This isn’t the NBA where playing good defense was a badge of honor and a 15-foot jump shot off a pick and roll was as standard as today’s Iso game where guys just get out of the way and let one guy create.
It’s a different league. It’s a different game.
McHale is in charge of the youngest roster in the NBA. Remove Francisco Garcia and Carlos Delfino, legitimate role players during their seven year careers, and you’ve got eight guys logging 10 minutes per game or more with three years or less of NBA playing experience.
Yet somehow, and of course having a James Harden doesn’t hurt, this team is 36-31 with 15 games left to go in the season and clinging to the seventh seed in the West.
For 15 minutes, Kevin McHale, whether he meant to or not, gave me an unfiltered look at the NBA, his team and why certain things work and others don’t. It’s a process he said, getting this team to buy in to playing defense. They didn’t learn it in college, because most of these guys left early. The point he made though was simple, that every day, the work was being put in. At one point in the lesson, he put his forefinger and thumb together with virtually no space between the two and said “you see this? How much is that?”
“Not very much,” I said.
“It’s just a little bit, and that’s how much we try to improve every day,” he said. “I didn’t start shooting jumpers at 21, I started shooting them at 12, and I shot ‘em everyday,” referencing his own basketball skills, and the work it took to hone them to the Hall of Fame level they eventually became.
“This isn’t going to happen overnight.”
He said his “head was spinning” when he concluded talking to me, and I don’t think he meant it in a good way. However he smiled anyway and walked off with that awkward gait that’s the byproduct of a gangly frame banging nightly for 82 games a year – plus the playoffs – for 13 Hall of Fame seasons against some of the greatest bigs to ever play the game.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to look up exactly who those bigs were he was talking about.