The hardest thing was putting on the shirt. Many years ago, en route to cover a Celtics game at the old Boston Garden for Sports Illustrated, I realized I was wearing green, the home team's color. I jumped out of a cab, ran into a department store and bought a different shirt. That's the extent to which a journalist will go to keep his professional distance. � But there I was on Phoenix Suns Media Day, Oct. 3, at America West Arena, sporting a black polo shirt adorned with the team's logo. Six weeks earlier the Suns had agreed to let me serve as an assistant coach in training camp, and now I had to dress the part. Over the next five days I attended every coaches meeting, every two-a-day practice, every team meal and every bleary-eyed, pizza-chomping film session. I spent 12 hours a day with coach Mike D'Antoni and his five assistants, and during that period they asked to go off the record only a half-dozen times. I chased down shots for 2004-05 MVP Steve Nash, got slapped in the face during a drill by a disturbingly gleeful Shawn Marion, lost $20 betting against Amar� Stoudemire, heard myself introduced as an assistant coach in front of 7,000 fans, charted plays from the bench and developed an even deeper love of basketball-the result, no doubt, of walking into a gym every day with guys who live it 24/7.
In the end my lone disappointment was that much of the play-calling and terminology remained tantalizingly beyond my grasp. I came in knowing Basketball 101 and left as a first-year grad student, but the NBA is coached at a Ph.D. level. Suffice it to say that nothing you will see from the Suns this season sprang from the mind of McCallum.
THE HOBO AND THE KANDI MAN
The first day of practice at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, is three days away, but D'Antoni and his assistants- Marc Iavaroni, Alvin Gentry, Phil Weber, brother Dan D'Antoni and Todd Quinter-have been meeting on and off most of the summer, and at least one assistant was always present when players worked out at America West Arena. The addition of free-agent guard Raja Bell ratcheted up the intensity of pickup games. "We now have three stormers," says Weber-that is, three players who will storm off the court if the team loses, Nash and Stoudemire being the others.
During the season NBA assistants spend as much as 18 hours a day together. They are by nature intensely competitive, but they have to find a way to get along, to consider one another's opinions and still be assertive enough to gain traction within the organization. The Phoenix assistants seem comfortable together, their lingua franca a combination of insults and hoops jargon.
Iavaroni will probably be a head coach someday; he was interviewed for the Portland Trail Blazers' job during the summer before they hired Nate McMillan. He's sober-minded and skilled with X's and O's but also quick-witted and friendly. Gentry has run three NBA teams, and though he may never get another head coaching job, his knowledge and professionalism practically guarantee him employment as an assistant.
Weber is a skilled clinician who, as the lone unmarried assistant, is known for his Peter Pan lifestyle and for impeccable standards in female companionship. Quinter, the team's chief scout, is gone much of the time during the season and thus is more of an "assistant assistant." He's the ultimate Suns insider, though; he has been with the club since 1986 (he started as video coordinator) and has served under nine head coaches. Quinter doesn't get too involved in the game plan, but when he says something-"That's the way the Spurs run it" or "The Sonics started doing that in February"-the staff listens.
I bond instantly with Dan D'Antoni. In a way we're both outsiders. After 30 years as a high school coach in South Carolina, Dan knows basketball inside and out but not the NBA; after covering the NBA for 20 years, I know the league reasonably well but not basketball inside and out. While Dan has integrated himself into the group, it's impossible to forget that he is Mike's big brother, four years his senior.
If you came to the team with no knowledge of the pecking order and sat around for a few minutes listening to the Phoenix coaches lob insults at each other-as they are on this day in the main basketball office-you would have no idea which one was the boss. But after an hour you'd say that 54-year-old Mike D'Antoni, despite his easygoing nature and open-mindedness, is unquestionably in charge.