Mike D'Antoni's Lakers have failed to meet expectations, but… (Ronald Martinez / Getty…)
It is the chant that has defined the season, yet somehow has not defined the man.
The most amazing thing about the derisive jeer that has rained upon Mike D'Antoni's slumped shoulders for the last six months is that not once has he jeered back.
"We want Phil," scream the fans.
"I understand," says the coach who is not Phil.
Before the Lakers take the Staples Center court Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs in probably the last game of the most disappointing season in franchise history, perhaps it is time to consider the fortitude of the man who has borne the wrath of that shame.
For being the most disliked figure in Los Angeles sports, Mike D'Antoni sure does like to smile.
"I hear the chant, I'm human, you hate it," he said Saturday. "But I understand why it's happening, and it only makes you more determined to get it done."
For someone whose arrogant stubbornness wasted the first half of the Lakers' season while he futilely tried to squeeze an aging team into a youthful system, he sure doesn't mind admitting he blew it.
"Looking back now . . . (long pause) . . . I would have made some different moves if I'd known guys better, if I went through a training camp with them," he said. "Once we found it didn't work, we changed it, and that's fine, I'll coach another system."
For someone whom everyone wants to run out of town, he continues to hang around without cynicism or complaint.
"This has been my worst year, by far," D'Antoni said. "But if you love being a basketball coach, even a bad year is still a good year."
From the moment he hobbled into the Lakers' practice facility last November with one bad knee and zero championship credibility, it has been written here that D'Antoni was not the right coach for this team. Even though the Lakers eventually rebounded to record the league's fifth-best record during the second half of the season at 28-12, and even though General Manager Mitch Kupchak has given him a vote of confidence, it still feels as if he's not the right coach. Dwight Howard seems to agree with that, and if the Lakers re-sign Howard, D'Antoni soon could be gone.
But his time here should serve as a lesson in uncommon grace. D'Antoni doesn't teach or lead like Phil Jackson, but, thrust into an impossible situation by Jim Buss, he kept his composure in Zen-like fashion, with a quick laugh and disarming grin that nightly put a calm face on unbearable circumstances.
"I couldn't say anything to anybody, I just had to go through it," D'Antoni said. "I'm smart enough to know that saying something doesn't help anyway. I'm not crazy."
For support, he has phoned his 99-year-old father, Lewis, a former high school coach who has lived in the same Mullens, W.Va., home for nearly a century.
"He's followed every one of my games this year," Mike D'Antoni said of telecasts during which he's been frequently criticized. "Good thing about being 99, he probably doesn't hear."
For inspiration, just before some games he would sit in his Staples Center office and watch streaming videos of his son Michael's high school basketball games in Rye, N.Y.
"I do not regret taking this job for one minute," D'Antoni said. "The only thing I regret is not being there with my son all the time during his senior year."
There have been other regrets that he has viewed simply as challenges. Because of injury issues, the team's projected starting five played only seven games together. Because of credibility issues — D'Antoni had never even coached in the NBA Finals — he struggled to earn the veteran team's trust.
Buss snubbed Jackson and basically gave D'Antoni a three-year, $12-million contract to fail. And that's exactly what he did, initially, forcing his fast-paced, quick-shot system on a team that became exhausted and confused and totally unconcerned with defense. Yet with every misstep, he eventually attempted to right himself, as epitomized by his treatment of Pau Gasol, whom he publicly ripped and refused to play at the same time as Howard, then came to appreciate and rely on after realizing he was wrong.
He said if he does get another chance to coach here, he would continue learning and adapting and changing the system to fit the roster.
"It took me awhile to learn the players," he said. "The last 40 games, we've played to these guys' strengths, and if that's who we have next year, we'll figure out what's best for them; I have no problem with that."
Who knows whether he will get that chance. The only thing certain is, he will work Sunday with fans above him chanting for another coach, and he will hear them, but he will not listen.
"We're not giving up here," says the coach whose city has long since given up on him. "We're never giving up."