Sunday, January 1, 2012

Momma, There Goes That Man

Dear Coach Jackson,

I always felt respectful indifference towards you as a player (except for some mild curiosity about your free throw routine), but after you teamed up with Van Gundy in the announcing booth a few years ago, I started feeling real affection for both of you guys, the same kind of affection I felt for, say, Coach Taylor and Buddy Garrity in Friday Night Lights. The network you worked for, ABC/ESPN, produces the single most boring halftime show in the history of televised sports, but listening to you and JVG (and Mike Breen) during games was truly a pleasure. I mean that. When you guys were announcing together, I enjoyed blowouts nearly as much as close games, because Van Gundy would go off script even more than usual and start talking about the Royal Wedding or something, and then you'd respond with feigned incredulity and exaggerated disapproval to whatever he said. It was great. (It's always fun--and moving--to watch two characters on TV hide their affection for each other underneath gruff exteriors. When one of them finally shows their true feelings, if only for a brief moment, it's hard not to get a little teary, there on your couch). Jeff Van Gundy's a smart and hilarious dude--something I didn't fully realize when he was moping around Houston as our coach, with bags under his eyes from watching too much tape--and you were his perfect straight man. You guys were much better than any Buddy Cop movie combo of the past decade; I'd much rather watch you two than the guys in Cop Out or that movie with Samuel L. and the dad from American Pie, which didn't even seem like a real movie, or even the combo in The Other Guys. (And I'm sure you're like me, Mark, and you pretended to like The Other Guys as you left the theater, so you wouldn't hurt anybody's feelings or feel like you wasted ten bucks, but cards on the table: that movie wasn't funny.) The point is, I loved the dynamic between you two, loved for instance that one time during a Suns game when Van Gundy started talking about how he'd gone to Spring Training that week with his parents and how his mom and dad had been kind enough to pay for his hotel room and you said, "You let your parents pay for your hotel room? You're a grown man." I also loved the tone you used every time you addressed Van Gundy as "Coach," the real respect and history in your voice, a tone similar to the one I expect President Obama's former body man (and former Duke basketball player) Reggie Love will use whenever he says "Mr. President" many years from now, as they play golf. I also loved that whenever you made an astute basketball observation, Van Gundy would say, "Somebody give this man a head coaching job!" Watching at home, we could sense that you really did want a coaching job, and that Van Gundy was sincere in promoting you. Which is why I was excited in June when you got the Golden State job (even though you've never coached at any level) and why I'll be cheering for you this season. We've grown to know and love you and Van Gundy. I'll be rooting for you to surmount any obstacles in your path during this new spin-off with the Warriors.

With that in mind, let me suggest a few things.

I coached a freshman high school team for one season, so I have a little more coaching experience than you. Whenever a team struggles, coaches fall into one of three categories: those who reflexively blame themselves, those who reflexively blame their players (codeword: "execution"), and those who pretend to do the former while really doing the latter ("I'm the head coach, so I have to figure out a way to get these guys to start making easy shots"). Mark, be the guy who always takes the blame in public. Don't be like Mike D'Antoni, to give just one example, who after the Knicks game Thursday said, "The Lakers are good and we're awful. We didn't play well. We didn't make shots." And the day before, when they lost to you guys, said: "The whole game our offense was awful. We weren't in sync, we didn't make shots, we turned the ball over and we gave them layups. Whatever kind of mistakes you can make, we made. It was awful." Awful is not a good word to use in reference to your players. These dudes are sensitive. And conversely, when things are going well, give them all the credit. I noticed that after your first win as a coach, where Stephen Curry scored 21 and had 10 assists and held Derrick Rose to 13 points, you said, "He was in attack mode against arguably the best point guard and the MVP of the league. He did a great job of being an extension of me on the floor." I know point guards are supposed to be extensions of their coaches, but that sounds an awful lot like you're trying to take some of the credit for his performance, like Steph Curry is your remote-controlled car or something. You're better than that, Mark.

My other piece of advice is this: pay no mind to the present. In sports and politics we give way too much credence to the present and forget that the present almost always becomes obsolete after it becomes the past. Really. Ask the columnists who complained about how bad the Cardinals were when they were ten games back at the beginning of September. Ask former Republican frontrunner and author of This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, Herman Cain. As I write this, you're 2-2 as a coach: that means very little. You beat the Bulls: that means very little. The T-Wolves haven't yet won a game: means very little. (They're pretty good.) The Lakers lost their first two and the Celtics and Mavs both lost their first three: I'm telling you, this all means very little. Please remember this when you guys go on an inevitable losing streak. And when that time does come, I give you permission to quote this paragraph to your players.

There's one thing that I have no advice about: your other great young guard, Monta Ellis. What does a coach do when one of his best players loses his beloved grandmother on Christmas Day and then gets accused of sexual harassment by a former team employee that same week? This is something that I never had to deal with as a freshman coach, something even Coach Taylor never had to deal with on NBC/DirectTV. You can't just make a guy run laps for texting a female employee pictures of his penis. This is serious, real serious. (Again, ask Herman Cain.) And then when we add the grief element: it's tricky. I don't think we'll ever realize how many strange and difficult dynamics you NBA coaches have to deal with behind the locker room doors, but the Monta Ellis situation gives us an idea.

Your Warriors are one of the teams whose box scores I find myself checking for the first time in many seasons, after having ignored them for years (see also: the aforementioned T-Wolves and Knicks, the Grizzlies, the Pacers, and the Clippers, of course). But all the blowouts this week and all the back-to-backs are worrying me. I'm nervous that this season might end up like a great family-style Chinese or Indian meal with like twelve or fourteen amazing dishes, but then you and your friends eat everything way too fast because the restaurant gave you only a limited amount of time to eat and thus a great meal is ruined. And you all end up struggling in your respective bathrooms the next morning, wishing you'd have had time to enjoy the meal properly. I hope this doesn't happen to your team, Coach, and I hope it doesn't happen to those of us who consider ourselves NBA fans.

Happy New Year,

Burke Nixon