One-on-One with Dan D’Antoni
Posted: July 28, 2005
It should come as no surprise that Suns new assistant coach Dan D'Antoni was a point guard. Or that he is a coaching lifer. Or that he will fit in perfectly assisting his younger brother, Mike, as the Suns look to build on last season’s successes.
A lifetime goal was fulfilled when Dan was named to the staff last month. A goal the two brothers from West Virginia have been planning since their youthful days on the Mullens playgrounds. The father of three sons, all point guards, of course, Dan amassed over 500 victories over his 30-year career coaching high school basketball in South Carolina, a position he’d held since 1975 before retiring last year.
Suns.com caught up with the elder D'Antoni as he prepares to make the move to the Valley and spoke at length about family values, Mike’s successes and what Dan hopes to bring to the Suns' organization.
Suns.com: How did you wind up as an assistant for the Suns?
Suns assistant coach Dan D'Antoni: Well, Mike asked me (laughs). I’m not sure; you’d almost have to pick his brain for that one. We’ve always been real close and we’ve conferred basketball-wise for the last 25 years. I coached him, too, in college, so we always referred to each other with (respect to) basketball and always have since he began coaching, even as a player.
I have three boys and he was in Italy, and it never worked out (before). We’d always talked about finding a college that we would both go to. We’d say, “You go get one or I’ll get one.” We were always trying to find a way where we eventually would team up. I think the opportunity came as he began winning, the last of my three sons just graduated and I retired here. I think it was a combination of desire and timing. This is really the first time the timing has allowed us to do what we’ve always wanted to do.
Suns.com: What will your role be on the coaching staff?
D'Antoni: From what he tells me – and I’ll do what they tell me to do – it is to help as an assistant coach. I’ll be on the floor behind the bench during games and be on the practice floor. He and I have similar thoughts. We’ve both coached the game the same way for years; probably just another couple of eyes to look the way he looks at things. I might help him confirm some things that he already knows and if I can see a couple of things he doesn’t, I’ll be surprised (laughs).
Suns.com: What was it like for you to watch him coach last season?
D'Antoni: Any coach understands that you’re only going to be successful in opportunities to be successful. In Denver, it just wasn’t right for him to be able to show his talents. I think once he got into Phoenix and got the type of players around him – that was really the first season that he’s ever had players through the pre-practice season. At Denver, it was a short (lockout) season and they really just started playing, and getting (instruction) in while you’re playing, that’s difficult to do.
I think when he came back this time and got the full month prior to the season, I knew that they would do well. He’s an outstanding coach. He puts a lot of trust in players. I think both of us understand that players can make great coaches and it’s very difficult for coaches to make great players. It’s very easy for great players to make great coaches. I don’t want to undersell coaching. There’s a role that you play, but I don’t want to overstate it at the same time. I think you have to have the right opportunity and the right situation, and this was a good one. Once you see that the point guard kind of had his mentality, he’s got finishers around him; he’s got one of the better finishers ever in the middle with Amaré (Stoudemire). It was exciting.
When you’re watching it, you’re nail-biting at first because you realize he hasn’t established himself and you want people to see the talent that you know that he has. Then it gets to be exciting and then it gets to be jubilation that he experienced such a great year and became the NBA Coach of the Year. I almost forgot my situation when I was coaching (laughs). I was staying up until 1:00 in the morning (watching Suns games) and then talking to (Mike) after the games. I’m going, “Get to the east coast or something. You’re killing me here.” But it worked out great.
Suns.com: What are your impressions of the relationship between Mike and Steve Nash?
D'Antoni: A lot of it is similar to what I’ve experienced for the last 12 years seeing as I coached my sons, who were all point guards. You were able to relate because they understand. They grew up with it, they know the game. Steve knows the game. He understands. He’s one of the best, if not the best in the NBA. So, (Mike) had a player who understands the game and it’s so easy to have confidence in him. You give him the reins. With a player like that, you give him the confidence to finish his game and allow him to innovate on the floor. Steve Nash made Mike D'Antoni a great coach, but I think Mike D'Antoni allowed Steve Nash to become one of the best players in the NBA, if not the best. It’s always a combination. You can do only so much as a coach without the right combination of players and at the same time, I’ve seen the right combination of players not be successful because of the coach. This was a great scenario and I think it worked out well for Phoenix, and for Mike and for all the players.
Suns.com: Did you get to see Mike much during his time in Italy?
D'Antoni: Not much as a player. I saw the championship game, I think, when they beat (Manu) Ginobili. His (coaching) style and my style are very similar. We both played at Marshall under the same system. I told him that I could almost get my 2000 team and show you the Phoenix Suns. I had that type of combination of players that he has right now. We played small. We had one big man in the middle and four guards. We played very similar.
I got to see a lot of him. I learned a lot from watching him coach. It’s hard to explain to you the satisfaction. It’s one of those deep satisfactions that you get just being a part of it, being as close as we are, just having a friend and a brother be successful, and see the level of success he’s getting.
Suns.com: Mike has been referred to as an Italian League legend. Can you share any stories of seeing this firsthand?
D'Antoni: We went to the girls’ championship game in a little town outside of Milan. I was with Mike and Laurel. Mike had parked the car, so Laurel and I came in. We came out of the car and walked into the arena. There were about 5,000 to 7,000 there for the game. And if you’ve ever been to the European game, you understand that on both ends, (the fans) just yell at each other. I’m not so sure they watch the game, but they chant at each other the whole game. They look at each other, they yell at each other. This side yells at that side and the people in the middle probably watch a little bit of the game.
Well, Mike walks in. And when Mike walks in the people on the Benetton side see him and they all go, “Mitico, Mike D'Antoni!” They started screaming his name out. As soon as that happens, the other side sees who he is when he walks in and they’re all going, “(censored), Mike D'Antoni, (censored)!” which means not a very good word in America. They’re all giving him that arm movement that Italians do where they top it off. The girls’ game’s going on and no one’s paying attention. They’re all yelling out, “Mike!” The game’s going but the focus is now on Mike. Mike says, “Come on, we’ve got to get a seat real fast.” So we walked up to the top and as we walk all the way up everybody’s still screaming. One side’s going, “Hey, favoloso Mike D'Antoni!” and the other side’s going, “(censored)!” As soon as he sits down it all stops and everybody on both sides get up, and there’s a line that goes all the way up and everybody’s getting autographs. And it goes all the way down the courtside and runs along the court. I just stood there and said, “Is this the same crowd that was yelling, “(censored)?” He said, “Yeah.” I started laughing, it was unbelievable.
Suns.com: What was it like to coach Mike?
D'Antoni: I was just finishing up at Marshall and I was hired as a freshman basketball coach. I had (Mike) and Tyrone Collins, who was a high school All-American. That was about it. Usually we got one or two real quality players at that time for a freshman team. We did well; I believe we were 9-2. It was a situation probably like he’s experiencing with Steve Nash. He and I had played on the playgrounds together forever. Everybody else would leave the huddle, and he’d stay with me and talk like we were playing out in the backyard. It was a great experience. Then, the next year he moved to the varsity level and I was moved as an assistant coach.
Suns.com: Did you two ever fight like brothers can sometimes fight?
D'Antoni: You’re not going to believe this when I tell you this. I don’t ever remember him and me ever arguing. Ever, not on one thing. He was four years younger than me. He always wanted to come up to where I was and I’d always make him go down to the other end and play until I finished practicing, and then we could come together. Even when we played together, I don’t ever remember any arguments at all.
I was kind of the chooser. I was always choosing up the teams and he was four years younger. He would always stay with my friends. As far as athletics go, he was always playing against guys that were four years older. I’d always ask for first pick and I’d always take him over some guys that were probably better than he was; maybe, maybe not. When he got to the age where he could play, the first year I would pick him and they were glad to give me the first pick. But after that I was having to give up three to one. Toward the end, it was like, “You don’t get him, we don’t care. You can take anybody but Mike.”
We’ve always been kind of like that. We’ve always played together. Maybe he can tell you a few times because he was younger and he’ll remember, because I was probably dominating, but I don’t remember really jumping him where he and I went at each other. We’ve never come to blows or anything like that. If it was, it was over Canasta or Risk or Bridge about who gets to play or something.
Suns.com: From Laurel to your father to his high school coach, nobody has told any stories of Mike misbehaving as a child. As his brother, is there no childhood dirt on the Suns’ head coach?
D'Antoni: Probably the story on Mike is that he’s too straight. I asked him one time when he was studying for a class prior to a ball game. He always made straight A’s. I said, “You must love to study.” I couldn’t concentrate like that, I couldn’t even think about it. He said, “No, I don’t.” I said, “Why in the world would you study like you do? You don’t have to make all A’s. Why do you study like that?” He said, “Well, I get in the class and I don’t want anyone to beat me.” That’s the way he is.
He’s always been good to people. He’s as fair a person as I’ve ever seen and he’ll work hard. Growing up as a West Virginian, he always kind of looked up and out at the world. We were all kind of poor and needed help. I think we looked at growing up as wanting to be better than what we had. Although, what we didn’t realize was that we had the best people in the world teaching us to do that. We were very fortunate having the kind of adults around us that molded us the way we did.
For a small community inside the Appalachians, it was super good where we were. We were very fortunate. The pride that this group of people took in this little community in Mullens and what they did for the kids at the time that we were there – there were five or six full playgrounds, there was a Little League, basketball. It was amazing what those adults did for the kids. Not just Mike or myself. There were a lot of successful people from that little area in a short span of time and you can just thank the folks that were there.
Suns.com: When Mike accepted his Coach of the Year award, he was completely composed until he got around to mentioning his family. What is like for you to see the kind of family man he’s become?
D'Antoni: You’re just talking about the very basics of life. I think what we’ve learned is recognition and things like that are important to us – success is important – but it is not the basic premise of why we wake up and go to sleep. It’s the same with my kids, it’s the same thing I have and we were taught. My dad, again if you go back to adults giving to kids, and that’s the way you’re built, that’s the philosophy for your life. So, when you see Mike doing it, it’s very natural for him. It’s not an unnatural thing, it’s not staged. It’s not anything that’s done to impress people. That is really basically the essence of what we have. Our family, from my other brothers to my sister, and my dad and mom, we’ve always been tight. And the love that you give is shared and it’s shared through the entire family. It just makes you proud.
Somebody asked me, “Who would you model yourself after?” I’ve got the best role models inside my family. So I role model myself after them and we’ve always been that way. Maybe it’s the West Virginia clannishness. I don’t know, those mountain clans, they’re tough on strangers, but tight with themselves (laughs).
It’s worked out and it makes you feel good as a person. It’s hard to explain. It’s just satisfying. It’s just a warm feeling you get when you know that as much as goes on in this world, there are still a lot of people like Mike and our family is certainly not the only one. But it is one of the stronger ones. He’ll do anything in the world for you. My son stayed with him in Italy for a year and there were no problems. They loved him like their son. That’s always how it’s been. We’ve got each others’ backs and always have.
Suns.com: What are your plans now leading up to the season?
D'Antoni: Right now, my townhome is under contract. It’s supposed to close on the 10th, if everything works out through the banks. The movers are coming, the place is packed. At night they move everything out. My wife is going to fly out on the ninth. They might have a little thing here for me; I think it’s supposed to be a surprise (laughs). I can’t leave town until the 12th.
It’s funny how it happened, even the sale of this place. About a month prior to Mike asking and saying “You’re coming,” somebody knocked on my door and asked to buy my duplex. It’s funny how things worked out. Everything’s looking good. It’s a great opportunity for me and I just hope I can be a little bit of help to something that’s already successful. If I can just add a little bit, I’ll be happy. I just want to come in there, be excited and help the players in any way I can. Of course, the big load’s on Mike (laughs). I’m going to stand there and be the best cheerleader in town.