FOR A FEW DAYS there, George Irvine was my favorite guy in sports.
He was a head coach who didn’t want to be head coach. A guy in the corner office who dreamt of returning to the office pool.
The Pistons asked him to take the reins after Alvin Gentry was fired in March. Most assistant coaches would be wiping the drool from their ties. Not George. His response was more like that of a first-grader being asked to eat broccoli.
“Aw, do I have to?”
Irvine had his fill of NBA head coaching with the Indiana Pacers back in the
’80s. He did two stints, and neither was a great experience. His losses more than doubled his wins.
He soon came to realize that his happiness lay more in the wings than on center stage, an assistant coach, maybe a front office guy — not Dion, just one of the Belmonts.
It wasn’t that he hated basketball. Heck, he loved basketball. He loved coaching. He loved the pros.
But he hated coaching pro basketball. For him it was like loving peanut butter, pasta and pineapples. Wonderful individually, but the combination could make you sick.
“One of the worst jobs I can imagine,” he once said of being an NBA head man. Too much stress, too many people tugging at you. When the Pistons all but begged him to do it — just the rest of this season, George, 24 games, maybe a few playoff rounds …– he agreed with the enthusiasm of a shotgun groom.
And I liked that. I’m tired of slick, back-stabbing assistants, who lobby the press and lick their chops when another coach gets booted. How refreshing to have a guy who saw no allure in power.
As late as four weeks ago, I asked Irvine, “Is there any chance you’d consider taking this job long-term?”
And he said — and I quote — “No.”
Gotta like that clarity.
Pistons dangle the fruit
Only now, that clarity is blurring.
The Pistons are reportedly dangling the permanent job in front of Irvine, who won 14 of his 24 regular-season games.
(By the way, they offered the job to assistant Gentry after Doug Collins was fired, and to assistant Ron Rothstein after Chuck Daly was let go, and to assistant Don Chaney after Rothstein was axed. This means either the Pistons hire the most promising assistant coaches in the NBA, or they are too lazy to interview anyone who doesn’t already have a parking space.)
Either way, what distressed me wasn’t that the Pistons are considering Irvine, but that he was considering them.
“You told me last month there was no way you’d take this job,” I mentioned to Irvine on Monday, as he prepared for the second game of the first round of the playoffs, against the Miami Heat.
“Well,” he said, “it is more appealing than it was a few weeks ago….”
NO! NO! NO!
That’s how it begins, George. You win a few games, you exceed the low expectations, next thing you know, you’re cutting a deal with Armani.
“What’s making it appealing?” I asked.
“The players,” he said. “They’ve made it enjoyable. They’ve taken the honest approach. We’re on the same page. I like that.”
Somewhere, in the distance, I see a serpent and an apple.
A good story going bad
Now, it’s not for me to tell Irvine what to do. I cannot know a head coach’s future.
But I know a good story when I see one. And Irvine, 52, with his “I’m just here for the matinee, folks” approach — well, that was a good story.
Here’s why: Because he didn’t care about getting fired, Irvine could say whatever needed to be said. Because he wasn’t concerned about locker room popularity, he could criticize Grant Hill or Jerry Stackhouse.
Because he had no designs on the future, he could make whatever adjustments were necessary in the present.
But when you take the job long-term? All the “big picture” stuff starts piling up. So does the stress. So does the frustration. And when the players grow weary of you — and they grow weary of every coach — you’re stuck in the same trap as your peers, waiting for the ax, looking furtively for another opening somewhere else.
A few weeks back, Irvine, who recently bought a waterfront home for his retirement years, sounded like the rare guy who knew this. He said he was too old to get in the rat race that leaves a guy like Jeff Van Gundy looking as if he sleeps in a coffin.
Now, however, Irvine is waffling. He says, “I can assure you this: If I did come back, I would not change my coaching style.”
Only his mind.
Ah, well. Everyone has a sports fantasy. For me, it’s a man who reaches the top, shrugs, and says, “No thanks.”
But if Irvine somehow guides the Pistons past the Heat in this first round, let’s face it, the job is his for the taking. And it’s probably dreaming to think he’d leave it on the table.
Then again, it’s probably dreaming that the Pistons win the series, so why not?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).