SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Lakers Court Coach K

You know, if you think about the name of the team it's somewhat comical, isn't it. The Los Angeles Lakers. It's not as bad as the Utah Jazz, because the last big city in America where you'd expect to find jazz haunts is Salt Lake City. But still, how many lakes are in Los Angeles? Perhaps some decorative koi ponds in the back yards of multi-millionaires, but they're still looking for that elusive lake.

So, somewhere on the continuum of things that don't go together are Coach K and the Los Angeles Lakers. Sure, Coach K won't have to worry about recruiting, and that is a plus. Especially when the Duke mentor is seeing something happen today that he didn't see ten years ago. Not only are some of his kids leaving early (see Luol Deng), they're also not showing up in the first place (see Shaun Livingston). So, if you leap to the NBA, coach, you'll get to coach a lot of precocious kids. Coaching prodigies is never a bad thing, is it?

Except when they're spoiled brats who pout when they don't get what they want or when they act like babies who want to pick up their ball and go home rather than share it with the other kids. Which is what Coach K might find, in droves, in the NBA.

SportsProf recalls being at a dinner honoring Rollie Massimino after the 1985 NCAA hoop season when Villanova upset Georgetown to win the NCAA title game, shooting something like 80% in the second half to do so. Massimino was the hot commodity, and he was on the verge of signing a lucrative contract with the New Jersey Nets. At that point in time the Nets were the NBA's version of Boys Town, and his friends at this roast were ribbing him but good. "Have you ever been to Lovetron?" joshed his friend, Billy Cunningham, who apparently had to take one trip there too many when trying to deal with former 76er and then-Net Darryl Dawkins. The jokes were very funny.

If only they were just joking. After the dinner, Cunningham and Jim Valvano (and others) took Rollie to the bar at the Philadelphia hotel where this dinner took place. . . and talked Rollie out of going to the NBA! The press conference was scheduled for the next day! Rollie might have been out of place in the NBA, probably because he wouldn't have had the absolute authority he enjoyed at Villanova. Plus, he had just won the NCAA title (as it turned out, given his rocky departure at 'Nova, his troubled tenure at UNLV and then his mediocre run at Cleveland State, perhaps he should have gone). He was on top of the world, and there was no reason to jump from a great situation to a lousy one. And money might have been a consideration for him (as it shouldn't be for Coach K, who not only has a good deal at Duke, but also from Nike).

So fast forward to 2004, when you have Coach K considering the NBA and the Los Angeles Lakers. There is precedent in 2004 for jumping from a secure college perch at a revered academic institution to the NBA -- see Mike Montgomery's leap to the Golden State Warriors. But Montgomery never won an NCAA title, and perhaps he figured that without Josh Childress it would have taken a while for him to get back to a Final Four, and, like Coach K, he's in his late 50's. Fine.

But Coach K? Did you drink the same Kool-Aid that Coach Montgomery did? Is there the same lemming-like mechanism in your brain that apparently is in Coach Montgomery's? What can you possibly be thinking?

SportsProf holds Coach K in high regard, although he confesses he's not the biggest Duke fan (for the same reason he's not the biggest Yankee fan, even though he respects the Bronx Bombers and Joe Torre). It's just hard to fathom why the most revered coach in college hoops would want to jump head first into the bubbling cauldron that is the Los Angeles Lakers. Your star center wants to be traded, your start shooting guard is on trial, wants to be the centerpiece and opted out of his contract, and your two Hall of Fame senior citizens are at a career crossroads. If all hell breaks lose on the trade front this summer, you could end up coaching Pavel Podkolizine at center, the Mail Man, on his gimpy knee, at forward, Devean George at small forward, Antoine Walker at two guard and Gary Payton at point (and he needs roller skates). With the defensively challenged Luke Walton as the sixth man. Remember, you're a basketball coach, not Harry Potter. Even Nike can't make a magic wand for you.

Why are you interested? SportsProf might be more understanding if the team you went to was the Clippers, because you coached some of them in college and their talent more resembles some of your Duke teams. And, if the Lakers get depleted, the Clippers would have more talent for the first time than the time with which they share a building. But what challenge would be to coach a Lakers team that would be rebuilding at best?

Sure, it's L.A., and it's one of the NBA's most storied franchises and perhaps the glitziest. Jack Nicholson goes to the games, and so does Dyan Cannon. They sit in prominent seats. The Laker girls are cute, and the Lakers have a great tradition. And they'll throw big bucks at you too. And, yes, they hope that if you come Shaq will cool off and Kobe will stay. Very tempting.

Just remember one thing, though, Coach, and you don't have to be an alum of the U.S. Military Academy or Duke to know this gem: All that glitters isn't gold.

Because perhaps the gold that you seek you have already found. On Tobacco Road, in North Carolina. They worship you there, and they might worship you in Los Angeles when you get there. As the savior, as the man who will make things right.

But then teams with more talent than a Shaq and/or Kobe-less Lakers team will beat you more often than your team beats them, and your team then finishes 35-47 and out of the playoffs. And then you're no longer the revered Coach K, but the Coach K who was a great college coach who just didn't do it in the pros. And then all of a sudden those who wanted you there so badly will wonder what the fuss was, why they had deluded themselves into thinking that a bad team with a great coach could ever beat good teams with coaches whose names you'll forget within a year after they're out of the league. The talk shows will burn the airwaves, and even the print media, yes, even in mellow L.A., will wax skeptical. They'll wonder why they thought you had a magic wand, why you thought you could have made a difference.

And, the thing of it is, so will you.

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