May Column: Ainge explains McHale’s return to coaching


By Peter May

They all come back. Whether it’s the money, the desire for competition, the lifestyle they thought they missed, they all come back.

Kevin McHale is only the latest to leave the security of the broadcast booth to take a coaching job in the NBA.  Leaving aside the question of whether the Houston Rockets know what they’re doing, the average person has to ask: what is he doing?

Why would anyone want to get back to those long days, the unending travel, to players who make more than they do and often don’t listen, and everything else that coaching embodies? Especially when you’ve got a cushy gig working a couple nights a week?

Most of these guys don’t really need the money, unless they put their life savings in the hands of Bernie Madoff or Enron stock. McHale certainly doesn’t. But here’s why McHale decided to go for another coaching job, leaving the comforts of TNT, where he had, to no one’s surprise, acquitted himself quite well.

“I think he enjoyed his television experience,’’ McHale’s close friend, Danny Ainge, said this week. “But it’s just not the same, not caring about who wins and who loses every night . . .  Everybody is competitive. Everybody wants to win. We’re no different than anybody else.”

That’s really what’s it all about. As longtime players and competitors, the wins and losses have defined their adult lives. They miss that. It’s why broadcast Hall of Famer Doug Collins gave up his gig at TNT, and his comfy, non-basketball, golf-friendly life in the Southwest, to accept the thankless job of coaching the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s why Doc Rivers gave up an even better gig with ABC-TV, where his work drew universal acclaim, to take over a then-mediocre Boston Celtics team.

Ainge can relate. He, too, was a terrific television analyst for TNT. But when the Celtics came calling in 2003, he needed a nanosecond to uproot his family from the warm Arizona climes and move back to Massachusetts. And he did it to take a front office job, where the responsibilities are even more demanding than those of coaching.

And in the beginning, there were a lot more losses than wins for Ainge. Fans brought ‘Trade Ainge’ signs to TD Garden after he acquired Ricky Davis. When asked if he missed his life as an analyst in the wake of everything he has endured in Boston, Ainge cracked, “I’ve wondered that sometimes.”

But, in his mind, the passion that drove those fans to make those signs makes it all worthwhile.

“It’s not the same intensity (on television),’’ Ainge said. “Kevin missed that. Kevin really has a hunger to get back into the game. He still has the passion. And his wife has family down in Houston, so I think it’s a perfect fit for them to give his coaching a full go.”

Those of us who covered McHale as a player were borderline stupefied to see him express a modicum of interest in coaching. He wasn’t quite the kid who threw spitballs at the teacher – but he was pretty close. When McHale decided to replace Flip Saunders in 2005, I remember calling his first coach in Boston, Bill Fitch, and his last coach in Boston, Chris Ford, to get their reactions.

It was basically the same reaction you get from your parents when they tell you they can’t wait until you have your own children.

McHale didn’t exactly put up Auerbachian numbers in two separate stints with Minnesota. With the 2004-05 team, he went 19-12 over the final 31 games. But the team which had made the Western Conference Finals the year before failed to make the playoffs. They haven’t been to the playoffs since.

In the 2008-09 season, McHale sacked Randy Wittman and, at the “request” of owner Glen Taylor, coached the team for the remainder of the season. He was 20-43 with a bad team.

But he apparently caught the bug. The television job put him back in the picture. The departure of Rick Adelman (who, irony of ironies, will take over the Timberwolves) left a vacancy in Houston.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey cut his NBA teeth in Boston when Ainge was busy fleecing McHale when the two ran their respective teams. (Note to Morey: Do not let McHale make any trades! In the space of 18 months, he took virtually all of Boston’s junk – Marcus Banks, Mark Blount, Ricky Davis, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair to name more than a few – in two trades while surrendering the two best (at that time) Minnesota players ever in Kevin Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak.)

He inherits a Yao-less Rockets team. It would have been interesting to see McHale work with Yao on low-post moves. But that won’t happen. The Rockets didn’t make the playoffs last season, so there is, as they say, a lot of upside.

Ainge thinks his buddy is up to the task.

“He did a good job coaching in Minnesota,’’ Ainge said. “And, I think late in his career, he felt he was really good at that. I think he is, too. I think he’ll do a great job.”

But whether he does or doesn’t is almost beside the point. McHale got what he really wanted, something that had been missing in his TV life – the competition and the results-oriented job that analysis simply doesn’t provide.

Peter May is a regular contributor to His columns will appear every Tuesday.

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