Mr. Sonic looks at the bigger picture in Portland
Editor's note: Mr. Sonic is returning to Seattle for the first time since taking over the coaching duties for the Portland Trail Blazers. Frank Hughes, who covered Nate McMillan from 1997 to 2005, talked to the former SuperSonics player, assistant coach and head coach about his Seattle exit, his new gig and more.
Q: What do you think the response is going to be when you return to Seattle for the first time?
A: You know, I don't know what to expect. I am pretty much prepared for any and everything.
I know in this business everybody doesn't love you. Even though I had that title of Mr. Sonic, I know there were some people who weren't fans of mine.
I know what I tried to do for the city; I tried to give my best and be successful and I think I did that. It was a situation that was really good for me both as a player and as a coach and I gave all I had to the organization.
Q: Do you think people understand why you left?
A: No. I think if you ask people the reasons, they are all across the board. I think most people are not listening to what I was saying. That is, basically for me it was time to change and it was for a number of reasons. Sometimes you need to change.
Q: I think a lot of people wonder why you left to go to a team that is developing when you didn't enjoy developing players in Seattle.
A: I didn't struggle with developing young players. I jumped on board with developing when it was told to me. If the boss wanted to do it, we would do it.
Rick Sund said it at the time: "It will be tough. You don't know what you are getting into. Are you sure you want to do this?" He was asking questions to Howard [Schultz] and Wally [Walker] for me because he had been through it before.
It wasn't that I couldn't develop. I didn't want to lie. And when we were losing and nobody from that front office or ownership or management was stepping up to tell those fans what we were doing, that is when it bothered me. Because then I have to go out and explain it, but I have to watch my words because we have to sell tickets. That's not what we said at the beginning of that year.
So the first thing I said to Mr. Allen is, we are going to tell the fans the truth. We are not going to sit here and say this team is a playoff team when we got three kids here who are under 20. You are telling me about developing. I have heard this before. What are you going to tell the fans? That's what I want to know. Because if you don't tell the fans the truth, I will.
Q: Earlier this season, you were criticized by some of your former players for your tough-nosed approach. What did you think when you heard the criticism?
A: It is blowing me away that they looked at it like that. It wasn't about that.
As a coach, like any teacher or any parent, you try to get the most out of your students. You push them. And sometimes it is tough love.
We had success. And all of us prospered from it. Imagine the number of people who got jobs because of my move. My whole staff got jobs. [Dwane] Casey's whole staff got jobs. Bob Weiss' assistants all got jobs. Two third assistants [Jack Sikma and Dean Demopoulos] are now No. 1 assistants. Rick [Sund] got a three-year deal. I got a five-year deal. Ray gets $80 million. Rashard became an All-Star. Vladimir [Radmanovic], Reggie [Evans] and Ronald [Murray] didn't get what they wanted, but they had options. Jerome [James] and AD [Antonio Daniels] got $60 million between them.
The big thing is we won the Northwest Division. There is a price to pay for success.
Q: Did you feel vindicated when Bob Weiss got fired?
A: I believe you pay a price for success. What that team did last year, they worked hard. And they paid a price. But the reward for what they did was they won the Northwest Division when no one expected them to.
I think they felt they could change and do it a different way and they found out that to be successful there is a price you have to pay. Now they are focusing on working harder than they did.
Q: What did you think when they started out the season the way they did?
A: Really, I heard about the style of play and some of the comments that were made. It bothered me -- some of the comments that were made about what I did there and how I coached there -- because basically what I was doing was what was asked of me and what was expected, to take that team and get into the playoffs. When the division and the Western Conference was as tough as it was, we had to push those players and work as hard as we did to, I feel, be competitive. Not so much win the division, because I don't think anybody thought we could win the division.
But to compete, we had to work hard like that. I thought those guys responded. They worked hard, they were together, they did things the right way, they supported each other, they shed blood, sweat and tears over the years and they finally were rewarded. To hear some of the comments from some management and players was surprising.
Q: When you looked at the standings last week and you were only one win behind Seattle, did you feel validated in your approach because not a lot was expected out of the Blazers this season?
A: My thing was I know the big picture here. I am not looking so much where we are now but where we want to be.
Not really comparing myself to Seattle because Seattle is a different team; that team won 52 games last year and this team won 27, so it is two totally different clubs with different directions. They had a plan up there for five years to be competing for a title. We are in Year 1 of doing something similar to that. The fact that we are behind them by only a few games, of course I am sure everybody is surprised by that. But for me, I know the big picture here.
Q: Has it been harder or easier than you thought it would be this year in Portland?
A: It has been a challenge, but again, I know the big picture. I know this year and the next year or two will be building years for us. And it is going to take some time. It hasn't been anything I didn't expect.
Q: What have been the positives? What have been the negatives?
A: The positives are I enjoy what I am doing, I enjoy the teaching. I know that we have to improve and we have to get better.
The negative is you always want to win games, and I know we have to be patient. Fourteen wins at this point in the season, I have never experienced that. That is the tough part about it.
A: What I am dealing with here, I think most teams go through a lot of the same thing, where you have players where you have to put out a lot of fires. What I am doing here is no different than what I had to do up in Seattle for a number of years. I went through this in Year 1 with Gary [Payton], and some situations with Vin [Baker] and some situations with Danny [Fortson].
All teams go through that. Some teams are able to keep some things a little quieter than others. I hear even Seattle now is going through some stuff. That is on every team.
Q: Are you looking forward to coming back?
A: Yeah, I want that day to come and go. Because of all the attention that it is getting, and the fact that this will be my first time coming back. It will be like the first time I saw those guys [in the preseason], that was a little strange. The first time back in the Key, and being there, is probably going to be as strange as seeing those guys play on that floor with another head coach on the sidelines.
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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