ADHS 2007: Family Matters
Lewis D'Antoni (right) and Don Nuckols were the two most influential people in Suns Head Coach Mike D'Antoni's life and career.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE Photos)
By Steven Koek
Posted: Feb 11, 2004
Two basketball lifers sat in the first row of the Suns' practice court balcony observing every move of Head Coach Mike D’Antoni as he led his Phoenix team through a rigorous workout in preparation for another grueling battle that makes up the NBA regular season schedule.
Both white-haired coaching legends with distinctive Appalachian accents followed the club's mid-season coaching replacement as he put the team through its paces. That is nothing new for these two gentlemen. In fact, they have been following D’Antoni’s career literally all his life.
Mike’s father, Lewis D’Antoni, and his grammar and high school coach, Don Nuckols, are not your typical snowbirds that come to the Valley just to get away from the cold for a few weeks. These two arrived in Arizona with a purpose. They came to see the fruits of their labor after coaching, teaching and, in the elder D’Antoni’s case, raising Mike from a promising young point guard in the small town of Mullens, West Virginia, to the head coach of an NBA team.
“This is the climax of my life to be here to see this,” Lewis D’Antoni said with a sparkle in his eye reserved only for that of a father speaking about his son. “I knew that he had it in him all along. He’s had such a great career in Italy and everything. He was such an outstanding coach out there. I figured if he ever got a chance in the NBA he’d be a good coach here.”
While the Suns record since Mike took over as head coach last December hasn’t had the Hall of Fame calling for plaque specifications and induction date confirmations, Nuckols, who coached Mike in 6th grade and then again as a senior in high school, is impressed with what he has seen so far.
“I took a real good look at Mike (during a recent game),” the Mullens native said. “The thing that really impressed me was the way (the Suns) play defense. I was just so proud, it was unbelievable.”
According to this pair of admittedly biased observers, the calm and collected demeanor of the current Suns coach took shape as a youngster. Despite his early displays of promise on the basketball court and acumen in the classroom, Mike has remained grounded and humble in becoming one of the most famous and successful athletes to come out of the state of West Virginia.
“He’s a type of guy that if you’re any kind of a player or any kind of a person, you could play for him,” said Mike’s dad, a coaching legend in his own right. “You’d be happy to play for him because he’s the type that’s easy going. But if you get a little out of line, he’s not afraid to straighten you out. He really does have a good balance.
“I think we’re a whole lot alike. I was easy-going on the bench, too. I was sort of a quiet type and I think Mike’s sort of like that.”
Nuckols knew early on that Mike had the characteristics that lend themselves to success on and off the basketball court.
“Mike D’Antoni was a great kid,” he said. “He was never a troublemaker. I don’t guess that he’s ever done one thing wrong all through his school days to cause a problem. Never a problem for any teacher or any other student. Everybody liked Mike. The teachers, the entire faculty, all the student body liked Mike. He was always a humble person.
“We’ve had numerous all-staters in Mullins in the history of Mullens all through the years, but we never had anybody that came through there that was as good a ball player as Mike was, or was as humble and a great a guy as he was. He’s just an outstanding individual, a tremendous student.”
For a town of about 2,500 people in a basketball-crazed part of the country, having someone from their community hit the big time as Mike D’Antoni has is something extra special.
“I knew that if we had anybody that could move on up to that level that Mike would be it,” Nuckols beamed. “But to say, ‘Hey, this guy’s going to go to the NBA,’ that’s a dream. That’s something that’s hard to even imagine somebody from a little, small community as we are, making it in the NBA and becoming a coach there. So everybody in our town is just so proud of Mike, it’s unbelievable.”
The senior D'Antoni has gone down as one of the greatest coaches in West Virginia history and will be inducted into the state's Sports Hall of Fame this May. While he made his own mark in the coaching profession, including guiding Mullins to the 1952 state championship, Lewis realizes the impact his son is having on the community of Mullens and beyond.
“It’s not only in Mullins,” the proud papa said. “It’s the whole state of West Virginia, especially the southern part of the state. My daughter works in Charleston and they’re just tickled to death down there about it. So, it’s not just the town of Mullens, it’s the whole state.”
Lewis D’Antoni has obviously had a tremendous influence on the type of person his son has become and the paths he has followed to get where is today, and while he has shared his opinions over the years, Mike’s ascension to an NBA head coaching position has Dad thinking the student has surpassed the teacher.
“We talked a lot and I’ve criticized a lot,” the 90-year-old coaching legend said. “I think I’ve helped him some. He’s so far ahead of me now; I have no idea, really, of anything I could help him with. I just hope the best for him.”
With the lifetime of training and guidance he has gotten from his father and high school coach, the best is expected from the Suns’ 10th head coach, and there is no place they would rather have been the past month than watching Mike’s head coaching career take shape right before their eyes.
“It’s the thrill of my life to come here and to watch Mike coach like this,” Nuckols beamed. “I told Mike that if I had a chance to go anywhere in the world, I'd be coming right here to see him. This has made my whole career. If I had a chance to go anywhere, right here’s where I’d be.”