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MIKE DOWNEY

There's No Easy Way for Winner : Barry Melrose Is in Good Company

May 29, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

TORONTO — Barry Melrose didn't step up onto a platform and announce it into a microphone for all the world to hear, the way Paul Westphal did.

He simply said it.

"We're going to Montreal," he said.

No facts. No figures.

Simply a destination.

He repeated it like a mantra. "We're going to Montreal." Not, the Kings will take Game 7 at Toronto. That part was implicit. That part went without saying. "We're going to Montreal," was all Melrose would volunteer. Not once. Not twice. No fewer than three times.

In other words, You figure out the rest. This was one of those read-my-lips deals.

Whereas Westphal, his Phoenix Suns having lost the first two games of a best-of-five basketball playoff with the Lakers, specifically pledged, "We'll win Game 3, then we'll win Game 4, then we'll win Game 5," Melrose was more subtle.

He played it cool. The man does work at a rink.

But inside the locker room after Thursday night's Game 6 against Toronto, the coach of the Kings did the exact same thing that the coach of the Suns did. He didn't say: "We might." What he said was: "We will."

Could this be part of a new trend in management training?

One under the category: "What do I have to lose?"

Coaches never used to make promises. Boxers would. So would people we don't take very seriously, like Presidential candidates and professional wrestlers.

Team athletes? Not often, but now and then. Joe Namath's guarantee before Super Bowl III is the best remembered. Broadway Joe didn't mutter some mealy-mouthed speculation that the New York Jets might-maybe-possibly have a pretty fair 50-50 chance of upsetting the Baltimore Colts "if we stay focused and give 110%."

Un-uh. On Jan. 9, 1969, at the Miami Touchdown Club, three days before the game, Namath said: "The Jets will win on Sunday, I guarantee it."

And oh, what a big deal was made of this. It was as though this was something unprecedented, unheard-of, uncouth. Imagine the gall. Picking your own team .

Responded Colt quarterback Earl Morrall: "Players keep these opinions to themselves. Maybe Namath represents the new breed of athletes, the kind the coming generation wants. . . . I hope not."

What did Namath have to lose?

Lou Michaels, a burly Baltimore defensive end, cornered Namath at a bar and tried to intimidate him. Namath replied: "We're going to beat the hell out of you."

"Suppose we kick the hell out of you," Michaels asked. "What will you do?"

Namath replied: "I'll sit down in the middle of the field and cry."

So what will Barry Melrose do if the Maple Leafs kick the hell out of the Kings tonight?

Sit on a blue line and weep until the ice melts? Apologize? For what? For believing in his team? For motivating it?

The theory seems to be that such a thing simply isn't done . That you don't make promises you can't keep. As though what? The player will be ridiculed? The coach will get canned?

After Phoenix's players put their game where Westphal's mouth was, the Lakers' James Worthy said: "He got away with it. He's a braver man than I am."

Five years before, when Pat Riley pulled the same stunt, Worthy and the other Lakers felt that their coach had put undue pressure on them. At a ceremony to celebrate one NBA championship, Riley promised a second.

One year later, after the Lakers had made good on his promise, Riley rose before a crowd outside City Hall to speak again. But before he could utter a word, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stuffed a towel into Riley's mouth.

In case anyone still wonders, Riley hadn't blurted his guarantee extemporaneously.

"I made a conscious decision to put myself on the line," Riley wrote later in his autobiography. "My players thought I was a little crazy. One said, 'Well, Coach might have had a little too much champagne when you asked him that.' But Bill Bertka, my first assistant coach, gave me a wily look from the corner of his eye that said, 'I see what you're doing.' My statement was well thought out."

As opposed to Moses Malone, who once predicted that he and the Philadelphia 76ers would sweep every playoff series in four consecutive games. Or, to quote Mo: "Fo, fo, fo." Even T-shirts were created that the Sixers themselves wore. They bore the vow: "Fo, Fo, Fo." And, although the team did stumble once along the way, Philadelphia did indeed emerge triumphant, led by Moses the prophet.

Was Mo's statement thought out? No.

And Melrose's?

Who but him knows? He's got a puckish sense of humor. He's also something of a confidence-builder cum faith-healer. Melrose is practically a crusader on the side of self-belief. Wayne Gretzky calls him "the most positive individual I've ever met."

So, every King comprehends why he said what he said. Nobody wants to gag him with a towel.

OK, when Douglas MacArthur left Bataan on March 11, 1942, after it fell to the Japanese and said, "I shall return," maybe it was important that the general kept his promise in October of '44. And OK, when Babe Ruth pledged two homers to sickly little Johnny Sylvester in that hospital before the World Series of 1926, maybe it was important that the Bambino delivered.

But, "We're going to Montreal?"

These are not the bravest words ever spoken.

They were not even as brave as Westphal's words.

But that doesn't alter the fact that Melrose was the only one in the room Friday willing to say them.

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