HOUSTON (AP) — Kevin McHale’s stride is painful to watch.
His limp is so pronounced it induces his 6-foot-10 frame into an odd bobbing motion with every deliberate step. And it tells a powerful story.
The awkward gait for the Houston Rockets’ coach is the product of 13 punishing NBA seasons, including the 1987 postseason when he played on a broken foot.
“If you watch him walk, you know he laid it on the line,” said Larry Bird, who won three titles alongside McHale in Boston. “So as a player you look over and say: ‘Oh, my coach did it and he’s telling me to do it. I’ve got to do it.'”
McHale is the ultimate player’s coach, and his style has worked well for Houston all season. It will be tested Monday night when the Rockets try to avoid a sweep in the Western Conference finals against top-seeded Golden State.
Asked about McHale’s best quality as a coach, Houston center Dwight Howard pointed to his Hall of Fame playing career.
“He played in the league and he has a couple of championships,” Howard said. “He understands the game. He understands how tough it is to win a series, how tough it is to win four games and that no matter what the situation is you need to stay together and not have any negative energy and anything is possible.”
McHale spent his entire career in Boston after he was the third overall pick in the 1980 draft. The power forward helped the Celtics win it all in 1981, ’84 and ’86. The two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year was named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players in 1996 and was inducted into the Hall in 1999.
After his playing career, he spent several years as an executive with the Timberwolves before coaching the team for parts of the 2004-05 and 2008-09 seasons after coaches were fired. But his first real shot at coaching came when he took over the Rockets in June 2011.
He has a 189-123 regular-season record in four seasons in Houston, leading the Rockets to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. He signed a three-year extension last December.
The old-school coach works for Daryl Morey, a Northwestern and MIT-educated general manager who relies heavily on analytics.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition that raises questions of how the pair mesh.
“We get along great,” McHale said. “I think there’s a place for analytics, you learn a lot through analytics but there’s also times where you learn a lot more by looking in a guy’s eyes and seeing what kind of determination he has, what kind of guts he’s got. Is he going to fight in tight spots? There’s no analytics for that stuff. So it’s always going to be a blend of both.”
His work in leading the Rockets to the second seed in the Western Conference has drawn raves across the NBA. When he finished sixth in Coach of the Year voting, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said he thought people underrated what McHale did this season.
“Losing Howard for so many games and still getting the second-best record in the West is an outstanding job,” Carlisle said, “and I am not sure why it slipped under the radar the way it did.”
McHale cares deeply about his players and has a relatable manner that works up and down the roster. Houston star James Harden said he felt comfortable with McHale from the moment he met him.
“I felt like I was talking to an actual player,” Harden said. “Obviously he’s won championships so he knows what he’s talking about. So my ears are just locked in and focused in on what he’s saying.”
But the gruff 57-year-old McHale isn’t one to show his emotions, and he recently got a little testy when he thought questions were veering too much into a touchy-feely zone.
Before Game 3 on Saturday night, a reporter attempted to ask him about his relationship with the front office and he cut the man off before he could even finish the question.
“This is like the third relationship question,” McHale barked. “Is this like Oprah?”
He interrupted another query on Sunday when someone dared to ask how he felt.
“You know what, this is no time for — there’s no feelings,” McHale said. “There’s no feelings. I don’t understand feelings. You’re playing basketball. You’ve got to play with force and you’ve got to play harder.”
Bird says that is just McHale being McHale. He doesn’t have time for ancillary chatter or discussing things other than good, old-fashioned basketball.
“Kevin feels good being around the gym, I know that,” Bird told The Associated Press. “That’s where he feels the best. He likes to be in the locker room, he likes hold court and he likes to tell stories.”
Howard agreed and poked fun at McHale’s penchant for reminiscing on the good old days with Bird and Robert Parish.
“He’s big on talking about his Boston days with old Birdie and the Chief (Parish) and all those guys,” Howard said chuckling. “So yeah, we know all the stories.”
That’s one thing that hasn’t changed with McHale since he was roaming the court for the Celtics.
“Back in the day when I played with him we couldn’t get him to shut up,” Bird said laughing. “He was always talking. Kevin was a good talker.”
Howard said the tales of his playing days are inspirational, even if they’ve heard them a few too many times.
“After a while you’re like: ‘Uh, Coach, you told that story a week ago,'” Howard said. “But he’s great. He puts you in that place where you feel like anything is possible because he’s went through it.”
So even if the mostly 20-something players roll their eyes when he starts another story with “Back when I was playing,” they still respect his words because they know just how difficult it is to win one title, much less three.
“He’s going to push these guys and try to get the most out of them and he ain’t going to have them do anything he wouldn’t have done as a player,” Bird said.
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