Before our recent lunch, the last time I had seen Mike D'Antoni was on the afternoon of March 11, right after an embarrassing 106-94 home defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers. Linsanity had gone quiet, the New York Knicks had lost eight of their last 11 games and their hold on the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot was growing ever more precarious.
"You've been having a better time with prostate cancer," D'Antoni said to me, referencing a now-resolved health issue, "than I've been having coaching this team." He was only half-kidding.
Three days after that, on his way to a noon shootaround before a home game for the 18-24 Knicks, D'Antoni suddenly decided he was going to resign. Thinking it and doing it are two different things, but he did it. I'd like to say that I saw it coming, but I figured, like most everyone else, that D'Antoni would hold on, get the Knicks into a first-round series, lose to the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat, and say all the right things when his contract was not renewed, bringing to an end a four-year, $24 million story that had both ups and downs.
Since he left, D'Antoni has gone underground. There have been periodic "sources say" stories about him, but the man has stayed quiet, not an easy thing to do after you've been in the middle of a maelstrom, which is the lot of anyone who blows a whistle, fills out a lineup card or strategizes a line change in New York City.
"I expected to see you with long fingernails and a beard, kind of like Howard Hughes," I told him when we met recently at his house in the northern suburbs of New York.
"It's not like that," he said. "I'm not a hermit. I get out."
But not as much on the golf course as he had intended -- two aching knees are interfering with his swing. He spent several days in West Virginia raising money for his alma mater, Marshall University, but most of the time he's been at home, digesting the nightly NBA doubleheaders, driving himself half nuts watching news and political shows (he's a moderate Democrat), carting around his son, Michael, a high school junior, and in general playing the role of house husband.
"I just haven't felt like talking," he said. "Tell you the truth, I don't feel much like talking to you." He was smiling. Sort of.
So let's get this out of the way: D'Antoni talked but not about what everyone wants to hear. He would not roast the Knicks as a franchise or any player in particular. He left a lot unsaid, of that there can be no doubt.
As a further disclaimer, it is difficult for me to write objectively about D'Antoni, whom I consider a friend and whose 2005-06 Phoenix Suns team was the subject of a book I wrote. Journalism is a strange business: The closer you get to someone, the more you find out, which is a major part of the game. But the closer you get, the less likely you are to write about the subject candidly. You might excavate details that other don't get, but how do you handle them? And if you were somehow able to write forthrightly, how would the reading public take it because of the understandable perception that your objective filter is in the "off" position?
So right after D'Antoni resigned, I decided not to spring reflexively to his defense or write one of those predictable "the-inmates-are-running-the-asylum" columns. I continue that stance here and offer only this opinion: D'Antoni will get another job, perhaps not next year but sometime in the near future. As for the Knicks, they should be better with a full season under probable coach Mike Woodson, who guided New York to an 18-6 record and five-game, first-round loss to the Miami Heat after D'Antoni's departure. But they are still a dysfunctional team that must figure out a way to win with a superstar in Carmelo Anthony who is, and apparently always will be, what he was called by his coach (George Karl) in Denver --"a ball-stopper."
Our conversation took place at an Italian restaurant in Port Chester, where we were joined by Mike's brother, Dan, who was a Knicks assistant coach until Mike's resignation.
SI.com: So, according to various sources, you're staying home next season, going after the Orlando Magic job, or staying local and saving the Brooklyn Nets. I even saw that written once. What's the truth?
Mike D'Antoni: The truth is, you can't win when those stories come out. Nobody has called me about the Orlando job. When I saw those stories, I immediately texted Stan [Van Gundy, the then-Magic coach] and told him it was bull----. [Editor's note: Orlando fired Van Gundy and parted ways with general manager Otis Smith on Monday afternoon.]
If I even answer the question, somebody will say, "Well, hell, nobody offered it to you, so why are you talking about it? They have a coach." And that would be correct. But if I give an unqualified "no," and something happens later, then I look like a liar.
SI.com: So you are still interested in coaching?
M.D.: Yes. I'm not making a secret about that. I want to get back. But nothing is going on now, and the smart money says that I will hang out here [at his suburban home]. Michael will be a senior and to let him finish and graduate would be one good reason to stay here for a year.
SI.com: It was pretty consistently reported that you quit and were not fired. But there is still some doubt because what you did was unusual. "Quitting" almost always means "fired." So which is it?
M.D.: I absolutely resigned. I was in my car driving to shootaround and it just came to me. That's it. It's inevitable. I have to resign. We're not going anywhere. I made the decision then and there. I called Glen [Grunwald, the Knicks' general manager] and told him that I was coming in to do it. Then I called Laurel [his wife] to tell her. Glen called in Mr. Dolan [Knicks owner James Dolan] and I met them after shootaround and told them that I was resigning.
SI.com: But Dolan didn't exactly get on his knees and beg you to stay, right? You were at the end of your contract and it probably wouldn't have worked out for another one.
M.D.: I'd say that's accurate.
SI.com: Quitting must've been very hard since ...
M.D.: Could you use the word "resign?" It hurts when I even hear the word "quit."
SI.com: [Directed to Dan D'Antoni] What did you think when Mike called you?
Dan D'Antoni: Hell, I didn't even find out from Mike. I was getting ready to go to the game and Glen called me.
M.D.: The hell I didn't call you.
D.D.: The hell you did. [He was laughing but he was serious.] True, you called me later, but I got that first call from Glen. I asked him, "Well, is there anything you want me to do? You want me to come down there?" And he told me that they were letting Phil [Weber, another assistant] and me go because we were too close to Mike. So that was that. One minute I'm going to the game, the next minute I'm out of a job.
SI.com: What did you think of Mike's decision?
D.D.: It was his and his alone. I'm just thankful for the opportunity he gave me.
SI.com: [Back to Mike] Why didn't you go to the Garden and have a press conference? It must've hurt you not to tell the players in person.
M.D.: I just thought it would be better if I didn't show up. I wasn't going to coach them anymore, so why complicate it? I ended up talking to most of the players anyway. Many of them called me.
SI.com: Which ones didn't? And which ones haven't you talked to?
M.D.: I'm not getting into that.
SI.com: Did you watch the game that night [a 121-79 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers]?
M.D.: No. I got into my pajamas and didn't get out of them for a month. You know those people who deliver the food from Meals on Wheels? They were the only ones who saw me.
SI.com: Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor.
M.D.: Who says I'm kidding? Seriously, resigning hurt. It hurt a lot. It still does.
SI.com: The widest-held theory is that you couldn't get along with Carmelo Anthony, that any schism on the team, the report that you had "lost the team," came from ...
M.D.: I'm just not going to get into specifics. It came to the point that I had to resign, that's all. It was time. We weren't going anywhere and I was the coach.
SI.com: All right, a theoretical question. You're a coach who likes an open floor, an active point guard, quick shots, pick-and-rolls, "dribble-ats," lots of movement. Carmelo is a post-up player who needs the ball and demands the ball. He's great but he kills the clock. Can that ever work? Was it doomed from the beginning?
M.D.: Look, I've coached players who post up. Heck, Amar'e [Stoudemire, a Knicks forward] has been a post-up player. We used to post up Boris Diaw a lot in Phoenix. There are always things that can be done by mixing it up. Now, was it the best situation for my coaching philosophy? No. But there's never one answer for why things don't work out.
SI.com: When you decided to go to Jeremy Lin as your point guard, did you ever think he could be that good? And as it was happening, did you guys whisper among yourselves, "Man, this can't go on forever"?
M.D.: Anyone who claims they saw this in Jeremy is kidding himself. But we liked him. We thought he could be good. And, then, when he started to be real good ... of course it was surprising ... but it somehow made sense. The things he does -- he can get into the lane, he can shoot, he's tough, he's athletic, his confidence was growing and growing. It became almost logical that he was that good during that time.
D.D.: It comes down to this: Jeremy ran what Mike teaches really, really well.
SI.com: Was the experience of coaching in New York more difficult than you thought?
M.D.: I'm not going to do any woe-is-me. There's a lot of pressure but that's why they pay you. It's still a great job, and I think Woody [Woodson] will do a great job. It got to the point where we had problems, we could not solve them, and an obstacle had to be removed.
SI.com: One more thing: What was your wife's reaction when you told her you were quitting?
M.D.: She told me I should stop at the store on my way home because we were out of milk.
SI.com: Don't rule out a future in comedy.
M.D.: I haven't.
Jack McCallum is the author of the forthcoming Dream Team, a book about the gold-medal-winning 1992 U.S. Olympic team led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird . Read an excerpt at jackmccallum.net.