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Fran Blinebury

Kevin McHale
New Houston coach Kevin McHale is starting a coaching gig from scratch, for once.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

After TV timeout, McHale back in his element back on bench

Posted Jul 29 2011 11:22AM

HOUSTON -- There was plenty about the TV gig for Kevin McHale that was free and easy and relaxing.

And empty.

"There's no pressure when you can just walk into an arena every night and not care about who wins and who loses," McHale said. "Hey, it's not a bad life."

Trouble is, it's not nearly as much fun.

Not when you carved out a Hall of Fame career alongside Larry Bird and Robert Parish at the pinnacle of the game for Celtics. Not when you've played in The Finals, felt the pressure of Game 7s sitting on your shoulders and thrived in knowing that every play means something.

"It's just different when you're vested in the game," said McHale, who spent the past two season as an analyst for Turner Sports and NBA TV. "It's the disappointment when things don't turn out right. It's the joy and the satisfaction that comes from winning. Maybe there was a time when I didn't think I'd feel this way. But I wanted to have my hands back on the game rather than just watching it."

As the new boss of the Rockets, replacing Rick Adelman, McHale continues a coaching career that began with two stints in Minnesota. With the Timberwolves, he stepped out of the general manager's office when Flip Saunders and Dwane Casey were fired. McHale posted a 39-55 record with the Wolves.

But it's also an entirely different situation in Houston. This time the emergency sirens aren't blaring as he prepares to settle down on the bench.

"No question, this is much more enjoyable to come into a situation and be able to do everything from the ground up," McHale said. "You pick your staff, the guys you feel comfortable with and want to work with. You can come in and start off with some offensive and defensive philosophies and talk about how you want to set a tone early.

"Look, I've got news for you. When you come out of the GM spot to take over coaching, you're not taking over a team that's on a 10-game winning streak. Normally you're taking over a team that's taking on a lot of water and your first 10 days to two weeks is just spent pretty much pumping the water out. You're trying to get the guys above the water line, get them playing again, getting their motors going and get them re-energized. You can't underestimate the work that goes into doing that, trying to get a team thinking good about themselves again. You barely have time to think. That's why this is nice to start from scratch. You can gather your staff, listen to all the different ideas, find your common grounds and decide your priorities. You can make plans."

McHale's staff consists of lead assistant Kelvin Sampson, who spent the past two years as an assistant in Minnesota and San Antonio following his college career, Chris Finch, who guided the Rockets' NBA Development League team Rio Grande Valley (Texas) for two seasons, J.B. Bickerstaff, who spent the past four seasons in Minnesota, Brett Gunning, a holdover from the Rockets, and Greg Buckner, moving over from Memphis as player development coach.

"We're in the stage of learning about each other, really getting to know each other," McHale said. "What you learn when you listen is there are plenty of good ideas coming from different places.

"There are certain things I believe in about how the game should be played. I've believed those since about my second or third year in the NBA. If you want to win NBA games, these are the things you've got to do. So that hasn't changed. These are very important elements to the game that we've got to do a great job of and how are we gonna get our team to excel at what I consider to be critical areas. I've got over 30 years in the NBA, so I've felt there's certain way to do things for a long time."

If you spend more than five minutes with McHale, you'll hear more talk about the paint than in an art class.

"The game has changed somewhat with the move toward a lot of guard play," he said. "But if you control the paint, you still give yourself a chance to win. What has changed is the paint is no longer, post, pick, come across. It's guys attacking the paint off the dribble. But you've still got to control the paint. There's only three ways to get the ball in there -- dribbling, passing the ball and rebounding and you better be winning two of those three. If you're not, you're gonna have a helluva time winning the game."

While he's been watching from the sidelines, McHale has been absorbing new ideas, even one or two that might have repulsed him during his previous stints on the bench.

"I'll tell you what, I'm a big fan of the 2-3 zone and I would not have believed I'd ever say that a few years ago," he said. "I just never was a fan at all. But I went down to Dallas' training camp and they were putting in a zone and coach (Rick) Carlisle was talking about how he wanted to use it. All the time, I'm thinking, 'I'm really anti-zone. I'm not a big fan of that.' But I think that Dallas' zone saved their bacon in six or eight regular season games last year and probably two or three playoff games. I'm like, 'Hey, if it works, I'm not that damn dumb not to do it.' "

He rubs his hands together as his voice grows more excited. Even in the middle of summer, that's the spark that was missing sitting on the sidelines.

"I can guarantee you there will be more than a couple of times when I'll be saying, 'What in the heck am I doing here?' " McHale said. "You lose a couple in a row and all of a sudden you're miserable and everything else.

"[But] that caring deeply is part of what made you good. It was because you cared. Not caring is just very odd. I'm looking forward to doing it again."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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