The hardest thing was putting on the shirt. Many years ago, en route to cover a Celtics game at the old Boston Garden for Sports Illustrated, I realized I was wearing green, the home team's color. I jumped out of a cab, ran into a department store and bought a different shirt. That's the extent to which a journalist will go to keep his professional distance. ¬∂ But there I was on Phoenix Suns Media Day, Oct. 3, at America West Arena, sporting a black polo shirt adorned with the team's logo. Six weeks earlier the Suns had agreed to let me serve as an assistant coach in training camp, and now I had to dress the part. Over the next five days I attended every coaches meeting, every two-a-day practice, every team meal and every bleary-eyed, pizza-chomping film session. I spent 12 hours a day with coach Mike D'Antoni and his five assistants, and during that period they asked to go off the record only a half-dozen times. I chased down shots for 2004-05 MVP Steve Nash, got slapped in the face during a drill by a disturbingly gleeful Shawn Marion, lost $20 betting against Amaré Stoudemire, heard myself introduced as an assistant coach in front of 7,000 fans, charted plays from the bench and developed an even deeper love of basketball-the result, no doubt, of walking into a gym every day with guys who live it 24/7.
In the end my lone disappointment was that much of the play-calling and terminology remained tantalizingly beyond my grasp. I came in knowing Basketball 101 and left as a first-year grad student, but the NBA is coached at a Ph.D. level. Suffice it to say that nothing you will see from the Suns this season sprang from the mind of McCallum.
THE HOBO AND THE KANDI MAN
The first day of practice at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, is three days away, but D'Antoni and his assistants-Marc Iavaroni, Alvin Gentry, Phil Weber, brother Dan D'Antoni and Todd Quinter-have been meeting on and off most of the summer, and at least one assistant was always present when players worked out at America West Arena. The addition of free-agent guard Raja Bell ratcheted up the intensity of pickup games. "We now have three stormers," says Weber-that is, three players who will storm off the court if the team loses, Nash and Stoudemire being the others.
During the season NBA assistants spend as much as 18 hours a day together. They are by nature intensely competitive, but they have to find a way to get along, to consider one another's opinions and still be assertive enough to gain traction within the organization. The Phoenix assistants seem comfortable together, their lingua franca a combination of insults and hoops jargon.
Iavaroni will probably be a head coach someday; he was interviewed for the Portland Trail Blazers' job during the summer before they hired Nate McMillan. He's sober-minded and skilled with X's and O's but also quick-witted and friendly. Gentry has run three NBA teams, and though he may never get another head coaching job, his knowledge and professionalism practically guarantee him employment as an assistant.
Weber is a skilled clinician who, as the lone unmarried assistant, is known for his Peter Pan lifestyle and for impeccable standards in female companionship. Quinter, the team's chief scout, is gone much of the time during the season and thus is more of an "assistant assistant." He's the ultimate Suns insider, though; he has been with the club since 1986 (he started as video coordinator) and has served under nine head coaches. Quinter doesn't get too involved in the game plan, but when he says something-"That's the way the Spurs run it" or "The Sonics started doing that in February"-the staff listens.
I bond instantly with Dan D'Antoni. In a way we're both outsiders. After 30 years as a high school coach in South Carolina, Dan knows basketball inside and out but not the NBA; after covering the NBA for 20 years, I know the league reasonably well but not basketball inside and out. While Dan has integrated himself into the group, it's impossible to forget that he is Mike's big brother, four years his senior.
If you came to the team with no knowledge of the pecking order and sat around for a few minutes listening to the Phoenix coaches lob insults at each other-as they are on this day in the main basketball office-you would have no idea which one was the boss. But after an hour you'd say that 54-year-old Mike D'Antoni, despite his easygoing nature and open-mindedness, is unquestionably in charge.
They talk about the NBA's new dress code, which is aimed at cleaning up the league's image. By and large the Suns are a dapper bunch, though Nash, their leader, perpetually looks as if he were headed for a Green Day gig. The respect and affection the staff has for Nash is endlessly evident: They love his competitiveness, his leadership, his smarts, his sense of humor and his absolute lack of pretension-in short, his ability to look like a hobo and play like a hero. "The bad news," says Mike, "is that Steve will be in violation even when he's dressed up."
When the conversation turns to Stoudemire, whose five-year, $73 million contract extension will be announced on Media Day, the coaches sound more like fans. "Last season he dunked on [the Houston Rockets'] Yao Ming and didn't even look at him," says Weber. "Yao is 7'6". How is that possible?"
"Yao wasn't looking at him, either," says Iavaroni. "He had his eyes closed in fear."
"I'm not sure his best dunk wasn't against Adonal Foyle in the Golden State game," says Gentry.
"The one against [the Minnesota Timberwolves' Michael] Olowokandi was better," counters Weber. "Olowokandi's 7'1" and his wingspan must be 9'6"."
"That doesn't count," says Gentry. "Olowokandi's a pussy."
"That's Gentry," Iavaroni says, turning to me. "G-e-n.... "
GETTING THE DRILL DOWN
It's 1 p.m., and the coaches are on the America West floor. The court had been taken up for a concert, and there are no lines on the concrete surface and no goals. "Stand here," Iavaroni tells me. "We'll pretend Jack is the low block."
Over the next hour I am astounded by the preparation that goes into the drills for the first day of camp. Iavaroni breaks down the specifics of a defensive closeout so intensely-using mincing chop steps to advance toward an imaginary offensive player and yelling, "Hey!" at the top of his lungs-that we all break up laughing, Iavaroni included. It's evident, too, that Dan D'Antoni is more comfortable working through drills than he is theorizing in an office. He suggests to Gentry a wrinkle in the defensive positioning used when shadowing the dribbler as he zigzags up the court. "Guys, I like what Danny just told me," says Gentry. They watch Dan run through it and agree: His way is better. It's a small thing, but you can tell Dan is pleased.
The coaches seem satisfied with a plan for keeping their interior defenders from straying too far from the paint-until Gentry says, "Of course, if that's [San Antonio Spurs marksman] Robert Horry out there, we have to do something different." It's always like that. Just when they agree on an approach, one of them says, "Well, if this is [the Sacramento Kings'] Peja Stojakovic shooting...." or "If we're playing Dallas, and this is [Dirk] Nowitzki...." But they don't want the team to become distracted too soon by these details.
Even within schemes, though, they have to make allowances. When Iavaroni demonstrates the way he will teach how to fight through picks, Mike says that he wants Nash to do something different. "Steve has to keep his hands up to ward off [screeners] before they come at him," says D'Antoni. "I'd rather see him push off and go behind the screen than try to squeeze through."
"You're right," says Gentry. "They come after him then."
"That's how we lost him last year," says Mike, referring to Nash's left thigh injury, which he incurred while fighting through an Indiana Pacers' pick. "We lost him for three games. And-what do you know?-we lost those three games."
TIME TO MEET THE PRESS
The players officially report to America West today, and suddenly there's an intensity in the air. Over the summer Phoenix dealt three-point bomber Quentin Richardson to the New York Knicks for veteran power forward Kurt Thomas; shot blocking reserve center Steven Hunter, a free agent, defected to the Philadelphia 76ers; and most important, the Suns chose not to match a front-loaded $70 million offer by the Atlanta Hawks to restricted-free-agent swingman Joe Johnson. Instead, Phoenix worked out a sign-and-trade with Atlanta for 6'8" backup Boris Diaw and two conditional first-round picks. Replacing Johnson's across-the-board production-17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, as well as 47.8% three-point shooting-will become the coaches' biggest concern during the preseason. (Until, that is, Stoudemire starts limping.)
The coaches lounge in their office while the players are in the locker room getting their physicals. "Do we run more double drags because we have Kurt and Amaré?" wonders Mike D'Antoni. (A drag is one of the keys to the Suns' transition offense; typically, Nash will be dribbling ahead of the pack and someone, often Stoudemire, will veer toward him, set a pick on the move, and then either roll to the basket or flare to the side for a jumper. A double drag would involve another pick being set a split-second later.) "Or do we run Kurt like we ran Shawn [Marion] last season, to the wing or short corner?" (The short corner refers to a spot on the baseline halfway between the basket and the corner.)
"I like double drag with Kurt being the last guy," says Gentry.
"Maybe then Kurt is free and can watch Amaré and play off him," says Mike. "Either [Kurt] gets in the drag or he runs to the wing."
"I can see Kurt in some quicks, too," says Iavaroni. In Phoenix's set offense a quick occurs when, as Nash dribbles above the top of the key, a player races to the corner to set a screen, freeing up a teammate to receive a quick pass from Nash for a shot. Last year both Marion and Richardson scored on countless quicks.
Many conversations come around to the faith that they have in Nash and Stoudemire, a tandem that is effective on the run and in the half-court. But, being coaches, they even worry about those two players. "They were so good last year because they relied on each other," says Mike. "If they stop realizing that, we're lost."
Some of the players stop by Mike's office to say hello. It's like the first day of school. When Stoudemire sticks his head in, Mike says, quietly and firmly, to the coaches, "Fellas, give me a few minutes with Amaré." (Later, Mike tells me the talk was pro forma: Make sure we're on the same page, let's have the same goals as last year, etc.)
Media Day passes uncomfortably for me; wearing the team logo, I try to avoid most of my colleagues in the press. Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune spots me and asks, tongue-in-cheek, "What do you hope to bring to the Suns?" Tongue similarly placed, I answer, "I think they should slow it down this year. Nash and Stoudemire are out of control, and I want to rein them in."
A COLD SLAP IN THE FACE
My first official coaching duty at training camp in Tucson is pulling up the tape that the Arizona women's volleyball team has used to outline a court for their practices. "This is nothing," says Dan D'Antoni, pulling along with me. "As a high school coach I swept the gym and kept count of every time I did it. I still remember the number-20,152."
"You're a long way from that now," I say.
"Apparently not," says Dan, ripping up another piece of tape.
Minutes later the Suns hold their first meeting at the McKale Center. Mike's opening remarks should be piped into locker rooms throughout the NBA, which has grown tedious from too little fast-breaking and too much play-calling. "We're in the entertainment business," D'Antoni tells his players. "Our fans came out last year because we were exciting to watch. The NBA wants an up-tempo game because they can sell it better. And when you start cutting up the pie, it's a lot bigger when the fans respond."
He goes over the offensive goals, one of which I find particularly interesting. The Suns were seventh last season in fewest turnovers committed, but he would like them to be in the top three. Running at breakneck speed would seem to induce a high turnover rate, but Mike doesn't see it that way. "We only make two or three passes a possession because we're looking to score quick," he tells his team. "So we should be real good in that area."
Assistant video coordinator Noel Gillespie has several fast breaks cued up. Mike provides the commentary. "Now, watch [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas on this play," he says, referring to the Cleveland Cavaliers' center. "He gets a dunk on us and, hell, he's feeling good. Next thing you know Ilgauskas is.... Oh, s-! There goes Amaré pounding up the floor, right by his sorry ass, for a dunk on the other end." Everyone laughs. "Fellas, you have any idea how that frustrates a team? We have got to keep running."
Out on the court, in the first of the two daily practices, Dan's zigzag variation goes well. It's time for Iavaroni's closeout drill, which calls for the coaches to work the ball around the perimeter, catching and pivoting as players chop-step toward them. It's much more intense than that, though. The players wave their arms, yell and, on occasion, take physical liberties. "The main reason Mike was happy to get the head job," Weber tells me, "was that he didn't have to be in any more drills."
I watch a couple of reps, and then Quinter signals for me to replace him. Before I know it, Marion is running toward me like a madman, yelling, to the extent I remember, "Hey! What you got! Where you going!" To punctuate his enthusiasm, he whaps me across the mouth with an open hand. The next few times I get the ball, I pivot more aggressively, holding my elbows out.
During a break I ask Dan, who has also just finished his first NBA drill, what surprised him. "The speed, size and quickness of the players," he says. "You get the ball, they're on you. The court seems small."
Later I ask Marion if he hit me on purpose. "Nah, man," he says with a smile. "It's just part of the drill. Coaches get hit."
NOTHING LIKE A MASSAGE
On the way to McKale, I ask if I can borrow one of the coaches' rental cars after practice. "I have to find a Radio Shack," I say. "My phone's not taking a charge."
"Well, that's familiar territory," says Mike. "Nobody on our team takes a charge."
Phoenix's players and coaches don't like to hear criticism about their porous defense, but among themselves they joke about it all the time. It's human nature: We can tell you how bad we are, but don't you tell us how bad we are.
At practice the eternally upbeat Weber says to forward James Jones, "The word for the day is serendipitous. You know what that means?"
"Not exactly," says Jones, "but I saw that movie Serendipity. That the same thing?"
"Just about," says Weber.
A former Indiana Pacer who was acquired over the summer in a sign-and-trade, Jones came from a system with many set plays. Like fellow newcomers Bell and Thomas, he is having difficulty learning how to read and react on the fly. "By this time last year [Pacers coach Rick] Carlisle would have put in maybe one tenth of his playbook," Jones tells me, "and that would be a hundred plays."
I ask if this is more fun. "Oh, definitely," he says. "Coach Carlisle is a great coach, but it's all about efficiency of possessions. He doesn't run that much, because he worries that it puts his defense out of position. He would rather have a 24-second violation than try something with the shot clock running down."
I relate that to Mike D'Antoni. "Most coaches believe defenses are more vulnerable late in the shot clock, that you can get them out of position with a lot of passing," he says. "We think defenses are most vulnerable before they get set."
I tell Quinter (who 25 years ago was an outstanding high school basketball player in Nazareth, Pa., where I covered him for a small daily newspaper) that I need some more reps today. We trade spots on Coaches Shell, a defensive drill in which the coaches make passes around the perimeter and sometimes cut through the pack without the ball. It doesn't sound like much except that, per Iavaroni's orders, the defense is charged with "tagging" the cutter, or more euphemistically, "massaging" him. I get massaged on all sides and put one hand up in front of my face for protection. I am once again overwhelmed by the size and strength of the players. "With a hand in front of my face, I wouldn't have been in real great position to catch a pass," I tell Quinter.
"Don't worry," he says. "Wasn't much chance of you getting one."
At lunch Mike goes over Three-on-Three Convert, an exhausting fast-break drill he wants to use in the evening session for his regulars. The coaches are told to keep the bottom three players in the pecking order-forward Lucas Tischer, swingman Dijon Thompson and guard Anthony Lever-Pedroza, all rookies-from getting too many reps.
"We'll put Jack in charge of them," says Dan.
"Take them off to the side and play around with the heavy ball," says Mike. "That'll screw 'em up good."
That night, though, the three participate as much as anyone else. "We didn't have the heart to keep them out," Iavaroni tells me. "That's what you were supposed to do."
We gorge at a pizza joint, and everyone just wants to go to bed. But it's back to Mike's room for one more meeting.
After the usual wisecracks the mood turns somber.
"Amaré was a little out of it today," says Weber.
Mike nods. "Yeah, he was hurting a little. The knee."
The left knee. He began complaining about it during summer workouts but, when pressed by the staff, insisted it was O.K. But the intensity of two-a-days has clearly made it worse. This won't be the last we hear about the knee.
SINCE WHEN DOES STAT HIT THREES?
Each day the coaches go a little harder on the players. They are pleased with their pace and effort but not necessarily with their execution. The fast break, for example, looks good in five-on-none drills but ragged against opposition. Mike knows that running is risky with so many new players, but he's adamant that the Suns have to score to win and have to push the tempo to score. "We've got to find a way to get to 110," he says. (Phoenix averaged a league-leading 110.4 points last season.) "We don't score 110, we're Dallas." He means a good but not great offensive team doomed, in all likelihood, never to get out of the Western Conference.
Some of the new players feel like they're racing around without a destination in mind. "Coach, you have to help me out there," Bell says to Dan during a break. "I feel like I'm speeding. I need to find some focus." While Dan is pleased that Bell has put his trust in him, the coach at times feels overwhelmed himself. "We always ran in high school, but not with athletes like these," Dan says. "They get up and down so fast that it's much more difficult to break down what happened. Plus as a head coach I always watched the ball, and now I've got to train myself to watch off the ball. That's where an assistant can really help."
Even within my limited duties things sometimes move too fast for me, and the intensity is too great. On this day Iavaroni and I have backups Thompson, Tischer, and 6'11" Pat Burke with three balls in play at a side basket for a shooting drill, the results of which will factor into how many down-and-backs this group will have to run at the end of practice. Coaches have to rebound or chase balls that roll away, then toss one to a passer, who then feeds a shooter. It's a bit of a juggling act and, during one particularly manic sequence, I turn into a clown. I get rapped in the head by a few shots and throw a couple of balls to the wrong player. "Come on, man," Thompson says after I throw a pass at him as he's shooting.
I must be thinking like a coach, because the Mustard Man (remember, his first name is Dijon) is starting to get on my nerves. A second-round pick out of UCLA, Thompson doesn't always work hard and has an I-don't-need-any-help attitude. I'm not the only one who notices, which is bad news for him. "That's why he's going to be in Albuquerque," Gentry says later, referring to Phoenix's National Basketball Developmental League affiliate. "He should study Raja Bell. Raja's got $24 million in the bank, and look how hard he plays."
One of the positive signs has been the blending of Nash and Thomas. The former Knick isn't nearly the runner and jumper that Stoudemire is, but he knows where to go on the break, and Nash knows where to find him. I mention that to Dan.
"No question," says the older D'Antoni. "But I worry if we start going too much away from Amaré." Dan has already learned one verity about the NBA: Behind every silver lining is a cloud. One player's touch is cause for another's unhappiness. The ingredients that go into team chemistry are forever flammable.
Concern over the condition of Stoudemire's knee has grown. He practices only sporadically, and then seems a little mopey when he's on the sideline. "Come on, STAT, get in here," Marion yells when the team huddles after practice. Stoudemire ambles over and puts his hand in the circle. STAT, by the way, stands for Stand Tall and Talented, a nickname Stoudemire gave himself. The acronym appears as a tat on his right biceps.
The coaches, and Stoudemire himself, have been going on about his increased shooting range. I'm in a wagering mood, so I bet Gentry $20 that Stoudemire will make fewer than 5 of 10 from three-point distance. I tell Stoudemire the bet. "O.J. will take the other side of the action," I say. Stoudemire calls Gentry O.J. believing the coach looks like the celebrated white Bronco passenger. (The other coaches don't see the resemblance but are happy to use the nickname just to ride Gentry.)
Stoudemire makes two in a row, goes cold, makes two more. If he hits the last shot, I lose. As Stoudemire prepares to shoot, Gentry grabs the ball out of his hands. "All right, just pretend I'm Steve Nash," says the coach, dribbling to the foul line. Gentry licks his fingers and brushes imaginary hair behind his ears, replicating the Nash tics, then fires a pass to Stoudemire in the corner. Stoudemire drains the shot. He hit only 3 of 16 three-pointers last season, and he nails this one.
"Some guys are money players," says Gentry. "You put it on the line, they come through. Amaré's one of them." As Gentry takes his $20, I still feel pretty good. Perhaps I've made STAT stand a little taller or a little more talented. Or perhaps he'll spend the season bombing ill-advised treys.
After a team dinner at a nearby restaurant, the staff heads to Mike's suite at the Westin. The reviews of practice and the strategizing for the next day's sessions have become more specific; the coaches have to get certain things out of each player. At practice I've been studying them all, trying to see what they need to work on, and sometimes I think I have it figured out. But I'm amazed at the awareness of my new colleagues. At root coaching is the same at every level. It's a matter of reading the team, motivating the players who are short on drive, propping up the ones who lack confidence and challenging the ones who are too self-assured.
Mike: "Guys, we have to watch James Jones a little bit, keep his confidence up."
Weber: "He was shooting before and after practice."
Mike: "I know. Sometimes when you're working that hard, though, it's because your confidence is down."
Weber: "He shot 40 percent on threes last year. There's a certain level of confidence that comes with that."
Iavaroni: "Emphasize the right things with him. That's because he's not going to come to you. You've got to give it to him."
Gentry: "But I do think he believes he's a good player."
Iavaroni: "Absolutely. Let's just make sure he knows we know that."
Mike: "I'd just like to see him get a little more aggressive. A little more vocal. A little more, Hey, I belong here."
Mike gets a phone call from general manager Bryan Colangelo. He takes it in his bedroom and returns looking glum. "Amaré's going to get another opinion on his knee," says Mike. "We know he can't keep playing like this."
SHOOTIN' THE BREEZE
The best thing about this coaching gig is walking into a gym every day. There is a giant rack of perfectly inflated balls and a half dozen baskets. Alone, you shoot around or maybe just dribble up and down the floor a few times, get loose. Gradually the players come out. You toss a ball to one of them and assume a rebounding position, for this is their game. The ritual takes on a comfortable, familiar rhythm. Pass, shot, rebound. If a shooter comes into the lane, you offer some token defense, then box him out, all of it at half speed.
As they fire and you rebound, there's conversation. Over the week I heard swingman Jimmy Jackson and Dan talk about a high school game that Jackson played against former NBA point guard Kenny Anderson's team more than 15 years ago at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. I heard Nash, as he sank baseline jumper after baseline jumper-17 in a row by my count-talk about how his brother and sister were better athletes than him but that they didn't have his drive to succeed. I heard Marion discuss the house he built for his mother in Las Vegas. I heard Lever-Pedroza, a point guard on Mexico's national team, talk about his dreams of playing for an NBA club in a city with a vibrant Hispanic community. His mother is Mexican, his father is Lafayette (Fat) Lever, an Arkansas-born former All-Star guard for the Denver Nuggets.
I'm rebounding for Thomas, who smiles and glances toward the sideline. "You see that man?" he asks, pointing at John Shumate, a former Notre Dame star who's now a Suns college scout. "He was the coach at SMU, where I really wanted to go. But he thought I should go to junior college for a year because I hadn't played much high school ball. [Instead Thomas went to TCU, where he led the nation in scoring and rebounding as a senior.] I tell you, every time we went up against [SMU], I just played my butt off." The memory pleases Thomas.
"Hey," he says to me. "You want to shoot some?" It's one of the things that will stick with me: You want to shoot some?
The teams for tomorrow night's open scrimmage at the McKale Center were set a couple of nights ago. Nash, Jackson, Jones, Thomas, Burke, Lever-Pedroza, Tischer and guard Leandro Barbosa make up the White team to be coached by Iavaroni, Dan D'Antoni and, well, McCallum. Stoudemire, Marion, Bell, Diaw, Thompson, center Brian Grant and guard Eddie House are on the Orange team to be coached by Gentry and Weber, who are at each other all the time but like to be together. Mike D'Antoni will sit at midcourt and evaluate screwups by players as well as coaches. Since then, however, Stoudemire has been pulled because of his aching knee. Mike is talking on his cell to assistant general manager David Griffin, who has to finalize the rosters for the scrimmage.
"Without Amaré, the Orange needs another guy," says Mike. "We'll give them Tischer."
Gentry shakes his head. "Lucas Tischer for Amaré Stoudemire," he says. "Now there's a trade that will go down in history."
On the bus from the hotel to McKale, the radio pumps out classic rock, but the coaches' mood is dark. The results of a second opinion on Stoudemire's knee are in: The injury is much worse than expected and could keep him out for up to nine months. (Four days later he would undergo microfracture surgery to repair a lesion, and his projected return was sometime in February.) Mike has already uttered what will become the Suns' mantra: "We just have to make the playoffs." He brightens briefly. "I coached them last year when we won 62," he says to Iavaroni and Weber. "It's on you now."
The coaches kick around how to compensate for Stoudemire's 26.0 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. "Shawn's just got to be a monster," says Mike, "and he has to understand we need him at the four spot." Though he made the Western All-Star team last season by playing mostly power forward, the 6'7", 215-pound Marion has continually expressed a desire to play small forward.
"We've got to get one more runner to join the pack," says Weber.
"No use looking to make a deal," says Mike. "There's no big men around like Amaré."
He claps Gentry on the back. "All right, Alvin, you coached the Clippers," Mike says. "What do we do now?"
At the arena Mike gathers the team around. His speech is breezy but direct. "I guess most of you guys know about Amaré," he says. "Looks like the best it can be is that he's out a month. Or he could be out six months. So we just have to band together and get it done another way. I don't have any doubts whatsoever. Just make sure you take care of yourself. Get in your extra shooting, talk to Aaron [trainer Aaron Nelson] right away if something comes up medically. Because you know what? We have to find a way to score 110 points. We have plenty here to do it, but we've got to find a different way from last year. So let's band together and go bust somebody's ass and get it done."
Practice is spirited but, again, ragged. The question hangs in the air: How will they get 110 a night without Amaré? The best answer to that-Marion-is the subject of the nightly meeting in Mike's suite. Though he makes spectacular plays and is a tenacious rebounder and defender, Marion is hard to read and to reach. The coaches are also concerned that he is doing too much bitching about others' mistakes.
"Shawn'll be all right," concludes Mike. "We don't need to worry about him."
OF THE ORANGE AND THE WHITE
The morning practice passes quickly, and families and friends of the Phoenix coaches and players start arriving for tonight's scrimmage. Managing partner Robert Sarver, whose ownership group bought the Suns last year for $401 million, has proclaimed this Family Day and invited the public to spend the afternoon with the team. McKale has been transformed into a street fair with basketball clinics, raffles and photographers, along with appearances by the team's dancers and longtime mascot, The Gorilla. Mike D'Antoni tells the players, "You know you have to hang around a little while. Smile, say hello, sign some autographs and get out of there nicely."
It falls on the upbeat Weber to conduct the clinics for the kids. (The coaches call him Drill Phil.) As I leave the gym, I spot the D'Antoni brothers standing together, watching their children-Mike's 12-year-old son, Michael Jr., and Dan's eight-year-old daughter, Morgan-dribble upcourt together under the tutelage of Weber. I'm not even sure the dads appreciate what a fine scene this is.
Five hours later I walk back into the gym for the scrimmage. There are already a couple of thousand people in the stands. The pep band is warming up. Reporters are lounging on press row. I walk back to the locker room. The guard is unsure whether I'm legit, but the team shirt gains me access without question. Old school rap is playing loud. I wander back out and think, Man, this would be a great way to make a living.
The White team coaches-Iavaroni, Dan and I-huddle on the bench. We seem to be taking it more seriously than our counterparts in orange, probably because two of us are rookies and Iavaroni is, well, Iavaroni. He wants Dan to chart the offensive plays and me to chart the early offense (how many times we shoot within seven seconds) and deflections (steals, blocks or just getting a hand on the ball). "Uh-oh," says Quinter when he sees me, "Marc has you doing deflections? You know, he's going to go back over the tape and see if you screwed anything up." He's kidding. I think.
As the lineups are announced, I hear "... and coaches Marc Iavaroni, Dan D'Antoni and, from Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum." I look over at a smiling Quinter. Tell you the truth, it felt good.
Iavaroni gathers the team around and shouts instructions: "O.K., we're blacking on the side. We'll gold when there's not an overload. And on offense we want to start with a drag." Incredibly, I know what this means. He wants to force everything baseline when the ball is on one side of the floor (black), wants everyone to front his man (gold) unless double-teaming help is warranted and wants the first offensive set to be a pick-and-roll (drag).
"The last time I was sitting on a bench," I say to Dan before tip-off, "I was coaching the Bethlehem Hurricanes in the Lehigh Valley Knee-Hi Basketball League."
He claps me on the knee. "In a way," he says, "this is no different."
On our first possession Thomas hits a jumper off a pick-and-roll, just like we drew it up. (All right, just like Iavaroni drew it up.) The game is a blur after that. Hands move fast and deflections are hard to calculate. I get so involved watching the symmetry of fast breaks that I almost forget to note a quick shot. My colleagues are immersed in the game; they have gone into a third gear of competitiveness.
"No way we should only be up two," Iavaroni says angrily in the second quarter. "We take [Nash] out and everything goes to s-." He sounds like it's June and the conference finals.
White is ahead by eight at halftime. Mike gathers both teams in the locker room and makes some general comments. "We're putting on a good show," he says. "We're running. We're playing some defense. We've had some lapses, but that's going to happen. At the end of the day what we're looking for is scoring more points than the other team. We were plus-seven last year, second best in the league to San Antonio. Good teams outscore their opponents by a big margin on average. That's what we want to do."
He is unremitting in his message: Run. Score. Keep running. Keep scoring. Put on a good show.
Marion hits four shots in a row for Orange to open the second half, and suddenly we're on our heels. Timeouts take on new importance when you're a coach, but Iavaroni can hardly make himself heard with the background cacophony. The Gorilla is normally a pleasant diversion; now I want him to sit the hell down so the crowd will shut up.
Over the week certain relationships have developed between player and coach, none closer than the one between Barbosa and Dan. The head coach will do most of the communicating with Nash, so Dan has taken it upon himself to work with Nash's backup. "Way to be, LB!" he says in a piercing drawl. "Good positioning, LB!" Barbosa listens, wide-eyed, to everything Dan says; the 22-year-old from Brazil is grateful for the attention and picks up a lot.
In the third quarter Barbosa takes a quick jumper and misses. "I don't like that one shot and out," says Iavaroni.
"Hell," says Dan, "that's the way we play."
Late in the third quarter Nash sits down for a breather. He looks at my pad. "I'm charting deflections," I say, "and I note that the 2005 MVP doesn't have any." A few minutes into the fourth Nash has three. "Did you get them?" he asks during a timeout.
With about 1:10 left, Sarver, the managing partner, hollers down the bench. "Mr. Iavaroni," he calls, "would you take a timeout, please." It's not a request exactly; more like a gentle order. "He's not going to pull a Nixon and send in a play, is he?" I say to Dan. Iavaroni obliges, and Steve Kerr, an Arizona legend who is now a Suns minority investor and adviser, walks to midcourt. He thanks the fans and the university for the hospitality it has shown the team during camp. A nice moment.
With 24 seconds left, the score is tied at 83 and we have the ball. "At the risk of demonstrating my genius," I say to Dan, "I think we should run something for Nash."
"You'll be a head coach someday," says Dan.
Nash, guarded by the tenacious Bell, dribbles down the clock and gets a screen from Thomas on the right side. Bell fights through and leaps at Nash as he takes an off-balance jumper. No good. "What! No foul?" I hear myself scream when I transcribe the tape later. I don't even remember yelling it, nor was it anything but a terrific defensive play by Bell. Typical coach. The scrimmage ends in a tie.
Afterward the Phoenix staff is reasonably happy. As we screen a tape of the scrimmage in Mike's suite, I am astounded by the almost total recall the coaches have of every play. As one sequence unfolds, Iavaroni says, "This is a basket-cut layup right here. Jimmy [Jackson] doesn't get over." That's exactly what happens.
Everyone agrees that Bell (24 points, four threes, flypaper defense) was the star of the evening, a gutty and confident team player who has fit in perfectly. "So, Mike, who do you like better," says Iavaroni, "Quentin Richardson or Raja Bell?" It's a rhetorical question. The coaches appreciated the three-pointers and the swagger that Richardson provided last year, but they are enamored with Bell's versatility. Alas, that's not the issue.
"What we have to do," says Mike, "is get Raja up to Joe Johnson numbers."
BUT I KNOW THE INBOUNDS PLAYS AND ...
It's 9 a.m. in the Westin lobby. Weber has his Diet Coke. The D'Antonis work their crosswords. Gentry reads the paper. Iavaroni peruses his defensive statistics. Camp breaks today, and the Suns will return to Phoenix. I'm saying my goodbyes. Everyone slaps me on the back as they leave. Dan gives me a quick hug.
I drive to a nearby Starbucks, wearing the last of my clean shirts with the Suns logo.
"Um, are you with the Suns?" a young lady asks me.
"Well, sort of, yes," I say. It's just too complicated to explain.
"Are you, like, a coach?" she says.
"Well, sort of, sure." I feel kind of proud until she gets to the essence of the conversation.
"Do you, like, know Steve Nash?"
Next time, I come back as a player.
To see a video of Jack McCallum coaching the Suns, go to SI.com/nba.
I CAME IN knowing Basketball 101 and left a week later as a first-year grad student, but the NBA is coached at a Ph.D. level.
When a reporter asks me what I'll bring to the Suns, I tell him, "Nash and Stoudemire are OUT OF CONTROL, and I want to rein them in."
If you heard the coaches trade insults for a few minutes, you wouldn't know who was boss. But after an hour you'd say, MIKE D'ANTONI.
On what it's like to go against NBA players in a drill, a fellow assistant says, "You get the ball, THEY'RE ON YOU. The court seems small."
Replacing Johnson's production is the coaches' BIGGEST CONCERN. (Until, that is, Stoudemire starts limping.)
Though he makes spectacular plays and is a tenacious rebounder and defender, Marion is HARD TO READ AND TO REACH. The coaches are concerned that he is doing too much bitching about others' mistakes.
I developed an even DEEPER LOVE of basketball, the result, no doubt, of working every day with guys who live it 24/7.
Photographs by John W. McDonough
In keeping track of deflections during Phoenix's intrasquad scrimmage, McCallum (left) prodded Nash (center) to pick up his defense.
Photographs by John W. McDonough