MEMPHIS, Tenn. – In the bowels of an empty arena, the NBA's most maligned coach stood in a long, narrow corridor and clutched a big tub of popcorn. The Los Angeles Clippers' Vinny Del Negro has been a punch line for people, a B-list Hollywood sitcom foil forever on the wrong end of the gag, a former player and front-office executive portrayed as a bumbling sideline caretaker.
Somehow, he's been the coach who gets all the blame and none of the credit. Yes, he understands that's the nature of the business. Only now, Del Negro was leaving Memphis with a Game 7 victory on Sunday, leaving with a berth in the Western Conference semifinals, and a measure of vindication belonged to him. He's been the easiest target in basketball, but people have underestimated his staying power.
In a shortened season with complete roster turnover, several injuries and no practice time, it had been reported that Del Negro lost his locker room two months ago. He was a dead coach walking. He listens to a lot of this, lets most of it go, but that story cut to his credibility and stayed on his mind. In the biggest victory of his coaching career, on his way to San Antonio for the Western Conference semifinals, the mere mention still made him seethe.
"That was a joke," Del Negro told Yahoo! Sports. "That would never happen with one of my teams."
His eyes lit up now, growing wide as a half-dollar.
"Never, EVER happen," Del Negro barked.
"Everybody wants to win, but you've got to know how to win. You're in this league by hiring the right people, supporting people and everybody pulling in the same direction. And when things go bad? That's when I want to see who's standing next to me, supporting me. 'Hey coach, it's OK. Don't worry about it. We'll go get 'em.' But not what happens when you start struggling, and they're like, 'He can't coach. He's an [expletive]. He's stubborn. '
"Well, that's weak. I'm a loyal guy. I don't do it like that. By the way, it's not just my job. It's the organization's job too. You don't just lose a team. That's a copout. It was, 'Oh, they're losing. Let's pick on this guy.'
"And then, guess what we did?
"We won. "
Yes, they did. The Clippers won, and Del Negro is going nowhere but San Antonio for Game 1 on Tuesday.
Against the odds, these Clippers delivered a playoff series victory for only the third time in four decades. And they didn't win because Chris Paul was spry and dominating; his hip flexor severely slowed him down. They didn't win because Blake Griffin did chin-ups on the rim; a sprained knee kept him on the bench for most of the fourth quarter. This wasn't a victory for Lob City, but a validation of a coach who found a way to get these Clippers into the conference semifinals a different way – with toughness, tenacity and ultimately a resolve that also reflects on the coach.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins was a disaster in the fourth quarter, bringing in lost souls and washed-up guards for the most important minutes of the season. Zach Randolph sat on the bench far too long in the fourth, and Del Negro understood he needed his toughest players on the floor and let Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans go as long as needed to secure the victory.
Del Negro hadn't come campaigning for credit, but winning this series earned him it. He's made mistakes as a young coach and he knows that. He still makes them. Sometimes, the timeouts are gone too soon, the plays don't run crisply, the rotations aren't right on defense. Still, the Clippers completely turned over the roster, lost Chauncey Billups to a torn Achilles and had no practice time like everyone else.
Del Negro came to the Clippers with a damaged reputation two years ago, with residue from the way that Bulls management had undermined him. He was a risky hire out of the Phoenix Suns' front office in 20008, but he was the choice they made, and yet the Bulls never fully backed him. Del Negro ended up jacked against a wall in his office because Bulls president John Paxson didn't like how he distributed minutes to Joakim Noah.
"All that [expletive] that I had to deal with John and everything, it was a total cluster[expletive]," Del Negro told Yahoo! Sports. "Listen, I understand the business: I hadn't coached before, and my first job was in Chicago, where I had absolutely no [management] support. Then I came to this situation, where the history spoke for itself. But I knew it was important to keep working at the craft.
"It was about changing the culture and doing things – a lot of things – that I learned in San Antonio, ironically. And that was all especially true in this season, when we revamped the whole roster – which needed to be done. The team is not built the way it needs to be right now, in terms of everything we had to give to get Chris."
As Del Negro shoveled some popcorn into his mouth, he unearthed his BlackBerry out of his pocket. He squinted at the screen, held it up and said, "Fifty-two [text] messages. I bet there are five pro coaches in here."
However the rest of the world sees him, Del Negro refuses to accept that he's still some interloper into the coaching profession, an outsider who didn't pay the proper dues. Opportunities come when they come, and it's what you do with them, how you make the most of them.
He started to scroll the messages, and there was a congratulatory text from Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. "Rick always calls me … and Doc [Rivers] … And Pop … "
He thinks for a moment. "And Mike Fratello, he calls."
He seems to think that would surprise people, but he's trying to say he's never felt he had all the answers, that he's never been timid about reaching out to his peers for counsel. He has gone to the playoffs three times in four seasons, taken higher seeds to seven games, and finally pushed through to the conference semifinals on Sunday.
"They'll talk to me," Del Negro said. "That's what coaches do."
Truth be told, a significant part of the coaching fraternity is much more interested in working the angles to get Del Negro's job for themselves. With Paul and Griffin as cornerstones, the Clippers have turned into a plumb assignment. This is a backstabbing business, and rest assured, there's been a serious scrum to get into position to replace Del Negro. Only, the Clippers can't fire him now. He deserves an extension because this is a results business and Del Negro has delivered historic results for what is still a flawed roster and backward culture.
On his walk to the bus, Del Negro talked about wanting Paul and Griffin to engage him with ideas, with the proper plays to run at the proper moments. Hey, this guy's in foul trouble. Let's attack him with this play or that one. "That's the next level for us," he said. Perhaps people believe he's some lost soul on the sideline, that he's an accidental tourist on this return to his professional roots in San Antonio for Games 1 and 2. Whatever. The fourth quarter of Game 7 belonged to his choices, his inspired players.
"I'm all about winning," Del Negro said. "If that means I've got to get scrutinized for us to win, that's fine. As long as we're winning … "
The Clippers are winning, and so is Vinny Del Negro. Laugh away everyone, but the most maligned coach in the NBA isn't going down easily, if he's going down at all. He started to list the young players who had developed under him with the Bulls and Clippers, the playoff season in Chicago, pushing the Boston Celtics to seven games and pushing past these Grizzlies in a most hostile setting. Yet, he stopped himself, because he knew it sounded too defensive, too self-serving.
Whenever Del Negro's teams have success, people always want to declare it a development independent of the coach. This is a players' league, he was saying, and he's winning because he has good ones, even a great one, with the Clippers.
This had been a historic afternoon for the Clippers, beat up, battered and still standing in these Western Conference playoffs. Finally, Del Negro turned and said, "All this stuff doesn't happen if things are being done all wrong. Could they be better? Of course they could be better. Can I do a better job? Of course, I can do a better job as a coach. But it's not because of a lack of effort, or preparation or loyalty."
He makes his mistakes, and he'll make more. Welcome to the coaching profession. Nevertheless, Vinny Del Negro never lost these Clippers, and that was never so true as in this gallant, galvanizing Game 7 performance.
And whatever everyone says about him – whatever the Bulls did to undermine and chip away his credibility, whatever rival coaches are still fitting his office for new drapes – the NBA's most maligned coach clutched his tub of popcorn in Memphis and apologized for nothing. All this franchise's years, all the Clippers wreckage, and he had come to understand this truth: No one stumbles into success here. Maybe he'll be forever maligned, but Vinny Del Negro is a coach.
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