The former Sonic struggles with the abrupt end in Portland, but stands by his coaching beliefs and hopes for another chance.
After the 42-point loss in New York, Nate McMillan didn’t sleep. He flew with the team to Chicago, got to his hotel and went to work on a game plan to fix the Portland Trail Blazers and upset the Bulls.
Every good coach believes he can discover a path out of the darkness. He can find a way to win. Coaches are fixers.
McMillan was thinking about the speech he was going to give to the team at practice that morning. He was planning lineup changes and alterations in substitution rotations. Outside his hotel the sun was rising.
But then the phone rang. Blazers president Larry Miller was calling. McMillan was fired.
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“I’ve never been fired. I’ve never been cut, and this is the first time that I have been without a team,” McMillan said by telephone from Portland late last week. “I’m out of the NBA. I’m not in the NBA anymore. There’s a lot of firsts in my life here with this firing.”
The Blazers had lost seven of nine. They were falling out of playoff contention, and on March 15 they decided to tear the team apart. They made trades that were designed for the future. They released the league’s No. 1 choice in 2007, Greg Oden. They fired McMillan.
“I’ve never been out here before where I’m not working,” said McMillan, 47. “I don’t have a job. It’s not so much a fear, but you wonder, ‘Where do I go next?’ To get fired, that word is just hard to swallow. It’s a tough word to hear.
“They’re telling you that you’re no longer wanted, or needed. But you still feel for your team because they’re still going through this, while I’m removed from it. The thought that the Blazers and coaches have to go through this rebuilding and these tough times, and there’s nothing you can do to help.”
It’s a shock to the system. The Blazers’ losing streak had been consuming McMillan. And then, in one phone call, their problems no longer were his problems.
“It was numbing to hear it and to actually experience it,” he said.
After five seasons as the Sonics’ coach, and a playing career so good his No. 10 was retired in Seattle, McMillan came to Portland. He was given the job of rehabilitating the “Jail Blazers.” He came so close. They won 54 games in 2008-09 and 50 games in 2009-10.
But Oden never stayed healthy. All-Star guard Brandon Roy’s knees gave out and he announced his retirement. The lockout came this season and ruined McMillan’s preparations. And the Blazers slumped from a team on the rise, to a team needing more rebuilding.
They started the season winning seven of nine, but McMillan and the Blazers were snakebit.
“The night before we begin training camp,” McMillan said, “I get the word that my All-Star (Roy) is going to retire and our lottery pick (Oden) has had a setback and he probably won’t play again this year. And then our young player who had the potential to be an All-Star, LaMarcus Aldridge, had a heart ailment and wouldn’t be with us for the start of training camp.
“When all of that is happening, the organization has to decide, really in a day or two, how much money are they going to have and can they go out and get a few players in the next day or so. They were in a tough situation.”
After Miller’s phone call, in the privacy of his hotel room, McMillan allowed himself a few tears, a few moments to mourn his loss. Since then he has assessed the season and critiqued his performance and followed his former team.
“I always look at myself daily, during the season and during the offseason, trying to find ways to improve,” he said. “I do believe in what I do and how I think about the game and what has to be done and what’s important.
“That’s teamwork and playing together and being the hardest-working group and everybody believing in one common goal. It’s not about you and it’s not about Nate McMillan. I believe in that, and that won’t change wherever I go.”
He admits that most mornings now, when he wakes up, his first thought is about the day’s practice or the night’s Blazers opponent. Then he realizes that this phase of his career is over.
“You wake up in the morning now with not a lot to do,” he said. “You think, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I’ve had even more sleepless nights now than I did during the season. My mind is just constantly going. I still think about the Blazers, the team. I’ve watched all of their games since my firing. I kind of feel like I’m still in it, but I know I’m not.”
For the second consecutive Olympics, he will be an assistant coach with the U.S. team. McMillan joked that the coaching staff in London should have some interesting discussions when they reconvene.
In one infamous week, McMillan’s firing was preceded by U.S. assistant coach Mike D’Antoni’s resignation as the coach of the New York Knicks.
And the day after McMillan was fired, U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke team was upset in the NCAA tournament by Lehigh.
McMillan wants another team. He wants back into the league.
“I’m going to certainly look,” he said. “I definitely want to coach again.”
Nate McMillan is too good a coach, too good a man, too valuable a resource to be out of the NBA for long. He will be back.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|McMillan’s coaching career|
|Nate McMillan coached the Sonics for five seasons. He also played here from 1986 to 1998, averaging 5.9 points per game.|