Recess over for Sonics

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Tuesday, November 28, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

I had just begun a column on the need for a Sonics coaching change.

The last line I had written: The Sonics need new leadership. They need a man the players respect. They need Nate McMillan.

Then the phone rang.

It was the Sonics. They were holding a press conference in an hour. Paul Westphal was out as coach. Nate McMillan was in.

Right then the alarm went off on my watch: It was High Noon.

In the movie by the same name, sheriff Gary Cooper defended his town against a gang of thugs on his wedding day.

In the real life version of High Noon, you could compare the hiring of McMillan to a school hiring a tough new principal to put some discipline back in the student body.

Recess is over on the Sonic playground. Now the hard work begins.

Nobody will invest more effort to restore order on the Sonics than the new head coach.

And it is order that needs to be restored.

It begins with Gary Payton shutting his mouth and just playing basketball. It begins with Vin Baker bringing some conscientiousness to a job that is paying him $87 million. It begins with 12 very well paid athletes showing up every night ready to play hard for however many minutes they’re on the floor.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

People will put the Westphal firing on Payton. The fiery guard certainly had something to do with it. When the coach and the star clash, as they did last week, something has to give. And since fans pay to watch Payton play and not to watch Westphal coach, it was only a matter of time before Westphal would be getting paid to play golf and not to diagram offensive sets.

Sonics general manager Wally Walker called it an “accumulation” of things that led to Westphal’s firing.

You know the bottom line, of course.

“We’re 6-9,” said Sonics reserve Emanuel Davis.

Promoting McMillan, who spent his entire 12-year playing career with the Sonics, earning him the nickname “Mr. Sonic,” made perfectly good sense. A savvy point guard as a player, he knows the game well and he is able to explain it. The Sonics won’t have any difficulty understanding him.

Another perception: He’s a careful listener. You notice this in interviews. He concentrates on what you ask him. His eyes aren’t roaming around the room, nor does he spew out the rote reply. Nate McMillan thinks before he speaks.

McMillan was a self-motivated player. Nobody needed to ride him to get his work done. When he was on the floor, he infused energy into his team, and it often began with a pass leading to a basket or a steal leading to a fast break. Even after Payton became the starting point guard, you could feel a surge of energy from the home fans when McMillan came in off the bench. It was as if they knew that something good was about to happen. And it often did.

For all the uplifting visuals of McMillan as a player, there is a melancholy one that sticks out in my mind. It’s the sixth game of the 1996 NBA Finals in the United Center in Chicago. An ailing McMillan is on the bench getting treatment from the trainers. He so wants to get back in the game, but he can’t. And this inability to help his team stay alive is so agonizing that … tears stream down his face.

That’s how much the game meant to Nate McMillan. That’s why George Karl loves him so.

“He’s probably my favorite player,” Karl, the ex-Sonic coach, said Tuesday from Miami, where his Milwaukee Bucks played the Heat that night. “I love him as a player and as a person.

“(I love his) his total commitment to the success of the team, his leadership, his winningness. He’s one of the few players who made people better every night. You can’t say that about too many players today. The (John) Stocktons and the McMillans are a part of the game we’re missing.”

McMillan’s willingness to do whatever it took to win made the coach’s job easier, Karl said, and that extended beyond the court.

His last couple of years with the Sonics, Karl recalled that if a guy was not doing his job, players such as McMillan, Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf would already have “gone after” the guilty party by the time the coaches got to the locker room at halftime. That way, Karl didn’t have to spend time managing egos rather than coaching.

As he reflected briefly on the ‘96 championship round, Karl couldn’t help wondering “what if?”

“If you go back and look at the series, Nate played nine quarters and we won seven of them,” he said. “If Nate were healthy … “

If McMillan had been healthy, the Sonics might have won the thing, life might have been a little smoother for everyone involved (including owner Barry “Where’s my ring?” Ackerley) and Karl might not have gotten the boot two years later.

And McMillan wouldn’t be the coach today.

But he is and Karl thinks he’s a good choice.

“A team needs to respect their coach and Nate is respected,” he said. “His knowledge is first class.”

So is his character.

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