#NashROH: An Interview with Mike D’Antoni

by Ben York

On Friday, October 30 [limited tickets still available], Steve Nash will become the 14th member of the Suns Ring of Honor joining Alvan Adams, Charles Barkley, Tom Chambers, Jerry Colangelo, Walter Davis, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Connie Hawkins, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, John MacLeod, Joe Proski, Dick Van Arsdale and Paul Westphal.

In recognition of Nash, Jon Bloom, Greg Esposito and Tim Kempton hosted “A Night for Nash” on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. The trio caught up with former Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni to discuss Nash’s place in Phoenix Suns history.

Jon Bloom: It’s a fun night to talk about what Steve did on the basketball court and off the basketball court for this community and I know you had as good of a view of it as anybody. At what point in time did you feel this guy was going to become the maestro of the Phoenix Suns?

Mike D’Antoni: Probably when we started off 31-4 [laughs]. I remember walking into Bryan Colangelo’s office after we were 31-4 and just started laughing. We thought we could be pretty good and try to make the playoffs, and we start off 31-4 and took the town and NBA by storm.

Tim Kempton: When you have a player like Steve and you get off to a great start like that, is it difficult or easy to coach a guy like Steve Nash?

Mike D’Antoni: I think coaching Steve Nash is easy no matter if it’s a good or bad start. We were playing in a new system, “small ball,” where we spread everybody out. If that would have gone bad, it would’ve been a slow start. Some of the players might not have had the confidence we had after we were 31-4 and beating everyone by 20 points. But Steve was just an amazing player I liked to coach. He loves coaching. He kept getting better. His whole focus was on making the team better and whatever he could do to help out he was willing. You don’t get a chance too many times to coach people like him.

Greg Esposito: In your playing career and coaching career, did you ever see anybody else that played like Steve Nash and was able to do the kind of things that Steve was?

Mike D’Antoni: No, I don’t think so. It’s funny. Everybody has their style, but Steve was arguably the best shooter the game’s ever seen. When he stands out is off the floor what he does for the team or even in timeouts when he’s patting everybody on the rear or giving high fives. He was a very selfless player; it’s not rare but there’s not many of them.

Tim Kempton: When you get off to a start like that and you fall short that first year, did you think about the longevity of what you were trying to accomplish with Steve in that situation because it was so good, so quick?

Mike D’Antoni: A lot of thoughts go into it. As a coach, you’re worried about everything. You worry about his health. You worry about getting over the hump. We were kind of swimming upstream for a long time because no one really believed in us playing that way. We had to battle players’ confidence because you hear all these voices. Steve never wavered. He thought that was the way to play and that was the way he was playing. With him being the leader, it made my job a lot easier. He held true and, again, to coach him was truly a blessing.

Greg Esposito: Do you have a favorite memory that stands out whether it was on or off the court?

Mike D’Antoni: I have about four years of them. How long is the show? [laughs] On the court, there were a couple battles with Jason Kidd – the one in New Jersey. That was an unbelievable battle. What he did at Dallas the whole series, his second year where he didn’t have Amar’e. He just was incredible. There are so many memories on the court. The best part about Steve was off the court and on the sideline. I remember we were going to Toronto and it’s freezing as usual, probably January. It was two o’clock in the morning and with a boom box from Walter McCarty they’re back there singing Motown songs. Steve was singing louder than anybody. The bus driver came to me after and said, “I’ve been driving 35 years and I’ve never seen a team this happy, this close.” It was due to the way they played, the way they played together and shared the ball, the way they felt about each other. There are a lot of moments like that. In Italy when we were there in the preseason going to soccer games together and singing all night – it was a great feeling to be around a bunch of guys like that and Steve was obviously the leader.

Jon Bloom: Let’s talk about the implementation process of this offense. When people talk about Steve in Phoenix you’re in the conversation. It goes hand-in-hand because of the philosophy you instilled in that team. When you were going through training camp, what was it like seeing these guys receive the information and then go and perform the way they did?

Mike D’Antoni: It was terrific. It was something we wanted to do and the organization was behind us. When we went after him and he signed, we said, “This is the piece right here. We can play the way we envisioned.” Now, we had no idea it was going to be that good. In training camp early we saw it and we could expand on it. Looking back now, I probably could’ve gone a little further in how we could play; we were still a little conservative compared to how they’re playing now. Now we’d be in the middle of the pack on three-point shots; we would’ve even be an outlier. It was exhilarating. I remember driving to the arena and I couldn’t wait to see the team perform and what they came up with next because it kept getting better, the ball kept getting shared. I could not wait to see what they did the next day.

Greg Esposito: In terms of his discipline, were you thoroughly impressed with how he was able to keep himself healthy? When he got older, [it seemed like] he got better.

Mike D’Antoni: Yeah. I’m impressed he could sit in a tub of ice up to his neck after every game. [laughs] I would’ve retired at age 15 if I had to do that. He would get other players to sit in there. The only one he could never get to sit in there was Raja Bell. He just kept getting better at his diet and his discipline. There were times in the first year that he had his trainer come down in March right before the season was over and he would do three weeks of two-a-days by himself. We would have our normal practice, but he would do two hours by himself going through a grueling schedule. He would do it before practice sometimes and players would see him out there just going crazy and working hard. Things like that are just invaluable. His leadership wasn’t spoken. He never got upset or yelled at anybody. Maybe one or two times he lost it, but his leadership was by doing it, by showing it, slapping hands and going out to dinner – that was his type of leadership.