By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE – One of Nate McMillan’s first acts as Seattle SuperSonics head coach was to change the team’s starting lineup.
One of his next acts was to change the decor.
In a move that was equal parts practical and symbolic, McMillan ordered the removal of bleachers along the sidelines of the team’s Seattle Center practice facility. The bleachers had been installed to provide spectator seating in the large gymnasium, but were used more frequently by players who wanted respites during team workouts.
Enough of that, McMillan said.
McMillan replaced Paul Westphal on Nov. 27, and the Sonics played a game at Portland the next night. When the team returned to practice last Wednesday, the bleachers were gone.
Along with tossing out some furniture, McMillan has implemented a new practice ideology. Whereas Westphal permitted some players – most notably, All-Star guard Gary Payton – to sit out the most strenuous segments of a practice, McMillan expects total participation.
Injured players are excused, of course. “But if you’re just sore and tired, well, everybody is,” McMillan said. “I don’t think it’s fair” to let some players relax while others are laboring, he added, “and I don’t think you’re sending a positive message to the team.”
Now, an important point. Westphal did not tolerate goofing off. He was simply trying to give leeway to athletes who are logging big minutes in games. Alas, in this and other decisions, Westphal was sensitive and compassionate – perhaps to a fault – with his older veterans.
McMillan has scotched that approach. As a general rule, lolling is out.
Tuesday’s workout, in preparation for tonight’s game against the Detroit Pistons, was an example of what McMillan wants. Payton and Patrick Ewing, the two fellows most likely to sit out a Westphal practice, were racing up and down the court until the end.
“I think they want it and I think they understand that they need it,” McMillan said. “And if they really need a day off, I can look at them and get a feel for if they’re really sincere about what they’re saying. And maybe they do get a day off. … But (for a coach) just to come in here say to players, ‘You’re off (from practice) and you’re off, but you have to work,’ I don’t think that’s right.”
Human nature being what it is, “there has to be resentment” when some players are allowed to repose at practice, he said.
According to associate head coach Dwane Casey, no one is grumbling about the new edict.
“Gary has been great, Vin (Baker) has been great, Patrick has been great, and the young guys have been great,” Casey said. “And Nate has done a great job of creating an atmosphere that this is a house of work and nothing else. We’re trying to establish that atmosphere, and I think guys want that. Gary, deep down, wants that. Patrick’s used to it, having played for Pat Riley (with the New York Knicks) and John Thompson (at Georgetown University). Vin is probably the only (veteran) who hasn’t played in that type of system, but he needs it and deep down he wants it.”
The decision to remove the bleachers, Casey went on, “was great. Now, we do understand that guys are going to sit down sometimes (after all, there are a few chairs remaining on the sidelines). But we want guys standing up and paying attention. A lot of times the coaches are out here talking and there might be guys over on the bleachers talking about what happened the night before or what they’re going to do after practice.
“But when they’re standing, they’re naturally going to listen more. So that’s big, having everybody either on the court practicing or standing up on the sideline paying attention. We’re not trying to be taskmasters or drill sergeants, but we want to accomplish what we need to do. We want it to be fun, but fun comes through hard work.”
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