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Mike D’Antoni is to Italy what Michael Jordan is to America.
But in America, D’Antoni is known as the coach of the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns that promised to shoot the ball in seven seconds or less.
D’Antoni is also sometimes referred to as the man who couldn’t save Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks, or the person who failed to lift Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard (and a broken-down Nash), and the conflicted Los Angeles Lakers.
And only the die-hards know D’Antoni once coached the Denver Nuggets. That was where D’Antoni got his NBA start, in the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99. He lasted just 50 games.
Today, D’Antoni is back in the NBA, trying to revive James Harden and the Houston Rockets with a brand of basketball that encourages running and gunning and having tons of fun.
Before any of it, though, D’Antoni was a basketball player, a man who followed the game from the mountains of West Virginia to the rolling hills of Italy.
And in Italy, just his name has caused fans to stand at attention.
“I was Mike’s teammate in Italy in 1984, and we used to take trips to Venice,” said former NBA forward and general manager Wally Walker. “People would just genuflect when they saw Mike coming. It was pretty funny, definitely something to see.”
D’Antoni is a native of Mullens, W.Va., a small coal mining town in the southern part of the state. Yet he somehow became Italy’s favorite son.
A BASKETBALL JOURNEY
D’Antoni’s story goes like this:
— He was Kansas City’s first pick (20th overall) in the 1973 draft as a guard out of Marshall University. He bounced around the NBA and old American Basketball Association, before getting cut by San Antonio in 1976. After that, he took his game overseas.
— He spent 13 years playing for Philips Milan of the Italian League. There, D’Antoni flourished as a ball-handling wizard and high-scoring point guard. In 1990, one basketball magazine named D’Antoni the best Italian point guard of all-time. Others christened him, “Italy’s Michael Jordan.”
— He retired from playing in 1990 and immediately started coaching. He first led Milan to an 86-34 record in seven seasons. He then coached Benetton Treviso for three years, leading the team to the Italian league championship in 1997.
D’Antoni made a lot of American friends in Italy. Most were guys like him — players who couldn’t quite cut it in the NBA, so turned to the better opportunities (and dollars) overseas. Others were former teammates during his brief run in the NBA. Allan Bristow was one such player.
Later, Bristow became GM of the Charlotte Hornets.
“Allan called and said he wanted me to work with him in Charlotte,” D’Antoni said. “I had always wanted to come to the NBA, but I had just signed a new contract with Treviso. Still, I was intrigued by the idea.”
Mike D’Antoni truly is a product of Italy. His grandfather settled there as a 19-year old to work in the coal mines.
But it was D’Antoni’s parents who mostly helped shape him as an athlete.
Lewis D’Antoni, Mike’s father, was a multi-sport athlete at Concord (W.Va) College, setting several school passing records in football. After that, he spent a few seasons playing minor-league baseball.
“When his football and baseball careers ended, my dad became an accomplished marbles player,” said Mark D’Antoni, Mike’s brother and the youngest of four kids. “Then dad got really good at pitching horseshoes. And to show you how athletic our bloodlines really were, my mom was a wonderful tennis player.”
Betty Jo D’Antoni was also extremely bright, according to her sons. Her maiden name was Bailey, as in Baileysville, W.Va. – a town founded by her great-grandparents. Her intelligence rubbed off on her children, as Mark became an attorney and daughter Kathy became the state’s director of education.
Meanwhile, Mike graduated from Marshall with a 3.62 grade-point average.
“He studied a lot,” said Dan D’Antoni, the eldest of the D’Antoni kids and the current head coach at Marshall. “One time I said to Mike, ‘You must really like studying.’ He said, ‘I hate it.’ But he hated one thing more — the idea of someone else getting a higher grade. Our mom had a lot to do with that.”
Betty Jo died of a brain hemorrhage in 1997, never getting to see Mike coach an NBA game.
“She did so much for us,” D’Antoni said. “She really taught me a lot about how to believe in myself without being cocky. That’s a tough thing to do sometimes. But my mom had it down pat.”
When he wasn’t studying, D’Antoni was bouncing a ball. Sometimes, the ball would only stop bouncing just long enough for him to hit the books. Then the ball bounced again.
“When it came to basketball, I was a fanatic,” D’Antoni said. “I started to focus solely on basketball the summer before my freshman year in high school. I worked on my shooting in the driveway, drawing up charts where I recorded each day’s performance. I spent hours working alone on ball-handling. I ran five miles a day and played games against my friends.
“Eating was just something I had to do to stay alive. The rest of the time, I worked on my game.”
Following a stellar high school career, the game took D’Antoni to Marshall, then the Kansas City Kings. After two years in the NBA, he moved over to the ABA with Spirits of St. Louis. Then the ABA folded.
“After that, I went to San Antonio, and hurt my foot almost immediately,” D’Antoni said.
He was quickly cut.
“I thought I was a far better player than many of the guys the Spurs kept,” D’Antoni said. “Either way, I figured I was done with basketball. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what I would do. Basketball had always been my obsession.”
Just when it seemed like D’Antoni couldn’t feel any worse, Italy called. Or more precisely, the call came from the Italian club in Milan.
“They called me out of the blue,” D’Antoni said. “I figured, ‘Why not?’ I had always wanted to see Europe, and what better way to see it than to spend a year there playing basketball?’
One year turned into 13, as D’Antoni surprised even himself with his success.
“He wasn’t the quickest point guard, even by Italian league standards,” said Walker. “But he was an extremely smart player, a coach on the court. His game was well-rounded. He understood how to run a team. He had the ball in his hands and you wanted it there.”
PLAYER TO COACH
After his coaching run in Italy, D’Antoni returned to America for his first shot at the NBA.
Bristow had left Charlotte for Denver, calling D’Antoni again in 1998. This time, Bristow offered D’Antoni the job of director of player personnel with the Nuggets.
“I thought it was time to make a move back to the U.S., and Denver seemed like the perfect opportunity,” D’Antoni said.
He found it to be far from that. What seemed to be about a whole five minutes after D’Antoni took the job, an ownership change led to a shakeup of the front office. Bristow was fired qand replaced by Nuggets legend Dan Issel.
Initially, Issel was hired as both the GM and coach. But the new owners eventually told him to pick one role. He chose GM, and eventually fired his coaching replacement, Bill Hanzlik. Issel offered the job to D’Antoni.
“I didn’t need to put much thought into that one,” D’Antoni said.
It was there that D’Antoni first learned NBA coaches are hired to be fired. Issel put himself back on the bench at the end of the season — and D’Antoni was again looking for work.
“I’m not trying to say everything went smoothly, because we lost a lot,” D’Antoni said of his quick run with the Nuggets. “And losing brings out the worst in everybody. The coach isn’t sleeping, the players are bickering. It can get ugly. But Dan wanted so much to coach again. That was the only reason given for his decision to let me go.”
D’Antoni was shocked.
“I felt as if I’d been blindsided,” he said. “Then I get mad, really ticked off.”
He swore he would coach in the NBA again, and shortly after losing the job in Denver, he was right.
He returned to the sidelines with Phoenix, then with New York, then LA. After being fired with the Lakers in 2014, D’Antoni “sat and stewed” before returning to the game as an associate head coach with Philadelphia last season.
Now, he’s back as the man in charge, trying to revive a Rockets franchise that made it to the Western Conference finals two seasons ago. But last year, the Rockets were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
D’Antoni is in his 14th NBA season, entering the year with a 457-427 overall record.
He may not be Michael Jordan in America, but Mike D’Antoni believes he can be a head coach who can win and win a lot.
And he will tell you the bouncy road that led him here is a major reason why.