Mike D'Antoni: "The Great Contrarian"

The Table Brought a Whole Lot to D’Antoni

Published: May 16, 2008

On the day Ethel Kennedy arrived for tea, Mike D’Antoni was a 9-year-old blur skittering through the family kitchen. A West Virginia boy had more pressing concerns than who would lead the free world.

Kennedy had gone to the D’Antoni home — the political hub of tiny Mullens, W. Va. — to stump for her brother-in-law John F. Kennedy. It was a critical time in a critical state for Kennedy’s presidential hopes. Betty Jo D’Antoni, mother of four and dedicated Democratic activist, was hostess for the afternoon.

“I’m sure I ran through it on my way to the basketball court,” Mike D’Antoni recalled. “I didn’t slow down too much to say, ‘How you doing?’ ”

Yet the path that led from Mike D’Antoni’s bedroom to the basketball courts of Mullens, Marshall University and Milan, Italy, to Denver, Phoenix and finally New York, included many, many stops at that kitchen table. In the D’Antoni household, sports and politics were always on the menu. Debates were lively and opinions mandatory.

Betty Jo D’Antoni’s family included a sheriff, a judge and a prosecuting attorney. Mike’s father, Lewis, a highly regarded high school basketball coach, was also the school principal. They were well connected in Democratic circles. The kitchen table was a daily gathering place for policymakers of all sorts. The discussions did not stop until everyone went to bed.

“We were expected to participate and hold our ground,” D’Antoni said. “That was part of growing up.”

When D’Antoni decided last week to leave the Phoenix Suns and snub the Chicago Bulls to coach the woebegone Knicks, the decision shocked everyone — except those who know him best. D’Antoni has made a career of going against the grain and challenging others to prove him wrong.

In the words of one former associate, D’Antoni is “the world’s greatest contrarian.” At the D’Antoni kitchen table, being contrary was as natural as asking for second helpings.

“I don’t want to go with conventional thinking,” D’Antoni said Thursday. “I don’t care if it’s always been done this way. Now, that might be the right way to do it. But that’s not the reason to do it.”

Mike D’Antoni inherited his basketball passions from his father. His mother, an assistant county clerk, valued more intellectual pursuits and wanted him to become a doctor or lawyer, not a basketball player. She might have had a point.

After graduating from Marshall as the career assists leader, in 1973, D’Antoni spent four years as a basketball vagabond: two-plus seasons with the N.B.A.’s Kansas City Kings, 50 games with the A.B.A.’s Spirit of St. Louis, and, finally, two games with the San Antonio Spurs, who cut him in 1976.

Disappointed but undaunted, D’Antoni took his game to Milan, where he became one of the greatest point guards in Euroleague history. It still was not good enough for the N.B.A. — he failed to make the Chicago Bulls in 1978 before returning to Italy.

“It leaves a mark,” D’Antoni said. “I lost my confidence at a couple stops.”

D’Antoni was knocked in the United States as a weak shooter. But he led Olimpia Milano to multiple championships and became the club’s career scoring leader.

“The basket was the same size over there as here,” D’Antoni said.

The experience taught him not to label players — or to place much faith in the labels they already have. Boris Diaw was just another soft foreign player when the Suns acquired him in 2005. In Phoenix, he became the N.B.A.’s most improved player and helped the Suns make the Western Conference finals.

The Knicks won just 23 games this season, but D’Antoni had nothing negative to say about his new players when he arrived in New York. Some will surely be gone by next fall, but the rest will have a clean slate as D’Antoni looks for ways to make them productive.

“That’s a big part of how I try to coach,” he said. “I was a much better player in Europe than I was in the N.B.A., and lot of that had to do with feeling comfortable psychologically and believing in myself.”

He added, “It’s easy to say, ‘This guy can’t do that.’ I think they can.”

This, of course, has been the D’Antoni way. Amare Stoudemire was not a center and Shawn Marion was not a power forward — or so they both said — but D’Antoni put them there and turned the Suns into a sleek, high-speed scoring machine. Even as the Suns averaged 58 victories over four seasons, D’Antoni had to continually defend his run-and-gun style.

“There was the debate that we couldn’t do what we did in Phoenix, it wouldn’t last half a season,” he said. “Then when it lasted half a season, then, ‘You can’t do it all year.’ Then we did it all year. And then, ‘You can’t win in the playoffs.’ Well, we get to the conference finals two years. ‘Well, you can’t win the championship.’ And they’re right so far. It finally got to the point where they’re right.”

The good-natured rant conveyed everything: D’Antoni’s defiance, his contrarian nature and his competitive fire. The last part, too, was learned at the kitchen table. Dan D’Antoni, his older brother, recalls raucous board-game competitions — Monopoly, Risk, canasta, bridge, hearts.

“You had to hold your own there, too,” Dan said. “We kept a list of who wins and who loses.”

Rest assured that Mike D’Antoni does not expect to lose much in New York, despite every justifiable bit of skepticism coming from every corner of the N.B.A. universe. Surely, he is just being contrary. Dan D’Antoni has another theory.

“Maybe that’s just the excitement of seeing a challenge,” he said. “Some people like to climb a mountain. Some people like to sit down and look at it.”