PHOENIX – They called his name and rose as one, more than 18,000 fans cheering for Mike D'Antoni and those six seasons of breathless basketball, those two trips to the Western Conference finals. D'Antoni's face flashed on the overhead video screen, the roar began to build some more and … nothing.
The Phoenix Suns turned out the lights on D'Antoni, drowning the arena in dark, his visage disappearing from the scoreboard only a few moments after it appeared. With one flip of the switch, their old coach faded to black, not unlike his messy exit from the franchise seven months ago.
Among some of these Suns, D'Antoni was gone before he left. His deteriorating relationship with the team's general manager, Steve Kerr, had consumed him, drained him of his spirit. After the Suns lost the first three games of their opening-round playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs, the loathed rival they could never get past, D'Antoni gathered the team for what could be its final practice.
"Well, guys," D'Antoni said, according to a witness, "we basically need a miracle."
Some of the players were stunned. This is how he prepared them for an elimination game? A miracle? Even D'Antoni had stopped believing. Deep down, he knew these Suns had become a mirage in the desert.
For all the nostalgia that swept through US Airways Center on Monday, D'Antoni needed this change as much as the Suns needed it. The New York Knicks handed him a $24 million contract. In two years, they might also deliver him LeBron James. Already, D'Antoni has the Knicks playing fast and hard. If he gets his eight-man rotation into the playoffs, even in the muddled East, he'll be a Broadway star. Wasn't this the best time to take on a new challenge?
D'Antoni concedes only this much: "I think you run your course sometimes."
The same could be said of his seven-seconds-or-less Suns. There's a reason why both D'Antoni and Steve Nash pushed so hard for the trade that sent Shawn Marion to the Suns for Shaquille O'Neal. Marion's moodiness had begun to wear on everyone. The team had gone stale.
Kerr again shook up the roster last week for similar reasons, swapping two D'Antoni favorites, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, for talented swingman Jason Richardson and forward Jared Dudley. Neither Bell nor Diaw was happy playing for Terry Porter, and Nash, having lost his best friend, told reporters this past weekend that "I feel like I've been traded."
"It's not like we were doing something drastically wrong," Nash added Monday morning. "But people got really desperate and greedy for a championship. … Sometimes that pressure pervades an organization and things happen."
Despite Nash's wistfulness, these aren't Michael Jordan's Bulls Kerr is remodeling. The Suns lost in the first round last season and in the second round the year before. Kerr's biggest mistake was not taking the GM job when it was initially offered to him one season earlier. Instead, he inherited a roster in decline.
For now, the Suns figure to remain a work in progress. Already, Porter has had to loosen his reins on the offense and allow the Suns to quicken their pace. On Monday, they nearly wasted a 17-point lead. After the Suns botched one play late, Nash blistered Amare Stoudemire on the court, then again on the bench.
Suns officials insisted they initially wanted D'Antoni to oversee this transition, provided he consent to adding a defensive-minded assistant to his staff. But by the time the Spurs had dismissed Phoenix from the playoffs, D'Antoni had already decided he was leaving. He had tried to talk to management about a contract extension before the playoffs, but was told to wait.
"After the series, he wasn't going back," said one source close to D'Antoni.
D'Antoni felt Kerr, the hand-picked choice of Suns owner Robert Sarver, had undermined his authority since taking over as GM. Early in the season, Kerr suggested the Suns get Stoudemire more post-up opportunities. D'Antoni told him he didn't need help coaching offense. D'Antoni further bristled when Kerr tried to implement some team rules. No longer would arriving late for meetings or practices be tolerated.
"Before," said one Sun, "practice began when everyone showed up."
D'Antoni wanted the Suns to play fast and loose on the court, and he gave them just as much freedom off it. One to avoid confrontation, he spent much of the season simmering that Kerr and his assistant, Vinny Del Negro, wanted to coach. He was right on one account: D'Antoni had no sooner walked out the door than Del Negro added his name to the list of replacement candidates. He eventually took the Chicago Bulls' coaching job.
Even after the Suns gathered momentum entering the playoffs, winning 15 of their last 20 games, the success did little to mask the tension swallowing the organization.
"You had the GM and owner on one side and the coaches on the other," said one player. "We were in the middle, and we didn't know what to make of it."
Once the Spurs won the opening two games against the Suns – the first coming when Michael Finley forced overtime with a 3-pointer following a defensive lapse – D'Antoni became even more sensitive to public criticism that he believed management was directing. One of the most engaging coaches in any sport, he grew increasingly agitated with reporters' questions. He didn't see the finish of the Suns' lone victory because he was ejected for chiding the officials even though the game's verdict was no longer in doubt.
Figuring D'Antoni already had one foot out the door, more than a few of the Suns became particularly upset after the Game 3 loss. After the series, Bell openly talked about their inability to make the necessary counters to the Spurs.
Kerr has wondered why he and D'Antoni didn't forge a better relationship, and confesses he should have handled some things differently. "There was a lot of pressure on our team that factored into the equation," Kerr said.
D'Antoni has also admitted to making some mistakes. His stubbornness has served him well as a coach, but no longer did it help him with the Suns.
"There was a lot of frustration from losing to San Antonio," he said Sunday. "Maybe I didn't handle it right. Maybe I should've stepped back and let it settle down."
Not all the bitterness has subsided in the seven months since. As reflective as D'Antoni was during his two days in Phoenix, he complained about Kerr just last week in an interview with the New York Post. And when D'Antoni was introduced on Monday, Sarver couldn't bring his hands together for a single clap.
Instead, the Suns turned the lights off, leaving their old coach standing in the dark. He deserved better, but was thankful for the applause he did get. Even D'Antoni knows this much: He was gone from these Suns way before he left.