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.
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.