As one Toronto Raptors fan said leaving Philips Arena in Atlanta Wednesday night, “Hey things could be worse, you could be Tiger Woods.”
I guess that’s one way of looking at it but to tie the Tiger theme in and coin a Verne Lundquist phrase, I will ask, “In your life?” The answer is no, well at least not since March 13, 1998 when the Los Angeles Clippers hung up 152 against Toronto’s fair squad. Atlanta’s 146-point total is the second-most ever scored against the Raptors in franchise history. You know it’s another bad night when an opponent reaches into your media guide with an eraser and a pencil and changes some of the numbers in the record section.
But it was the venting and frustration that boiled over after the game that sent a message of “Get tough to everyone!” and it seemed like the message was going every which way and nobody was spared.
“I’m not putting any of this on one person, it’s a collective effort,” said an exasperated Jarrett Jack. “We should be embarrassed: us, coaches, everybody who was involved in this game should be embarrassed.”
Late in the game Jack was visibly distressed during a timeout and said it was just his own discouragement.
“I was upset that we don’t buy in on the defensive end of the floor,” Jack explained. “Every time something happens it’s, ‘It’s OK, it’s alright.’ It’s not alright. We are just letting problems go by without attacking them or challenging them or bringing to them to the forefront and not getting them solved. We just can’t keep putting them to the back of the bus and just saying, ‘That’s OK’”
“Everybody can’t walk on eggshells around here and just act like we’re playing good basketball. We’re not. We’re playing terrible and that’s just the bottom line of it. Anybody who thinks otherwise, they can come and talk to me and try to convince me of anything else but we’re just playing bad basketball and we’re a better basketball team than this.”
Jack’s quotes bring up an issue. In professional sports, you can’t be worried about having your feelings hurt as a player. If you are, then you’re in the wrong business. Although you may not hear it, you may soon see if the comments are taken to heart. It sure sounds like some of the players will start delivering messages to teammates without fear of collateral damages.
There was a reunion of sorts last night as Antonio Davis was in the back area of Philips Arena to chat with his old teammate Alvin Williams. Raptor fans always look back at Charles Oakley as one of the toughest Raptors, but how many remember that ‘Tone’ was one of his running mates on the court and together they showed Raptor fans what being tough was all about. Think back to the season that Toronto actually won a playoff series. Remember how well Davis played with a shoulder injury in the seven-game series against the Philadelphia Sixers? The former all-star is now doing some work for NBA TV in Atlanta.
Oh yes, there was another former Raptor sighting last night in the hotel lobby after the game as Kevin Willis was hanging out waiting for Williams as well. Willis, who has always kept himself in good physical condition, still looks like he could take the court right now. He is running a clothing business and says he will be in Toronto in the next week or so as part of the 15th anniversary celebrations. Trust me folks, he still looks like he can play.
Before we put last night to bed, how about Mike Woodson? Not sure what to make of things in Atlanta and the front office’s thinking. Here’s a guy, as I said yesterday, that has had his team improve every season he’s been there, and it’s not like they have gone out and bought him talent. True, former general manager Billy Knight missed out on drafting both Deron Willams and Chris Paul, choosing Marvin Williams second overall instead. But undeterred Woodson has kept working at it and moved his team forward with youngsters like Josh Smith and Al Horford getting better each season. Think of all the reasons that Woodson doesn’t have a contract for next season and let me know when you find a valid one, because I can’t think of any right now.
As some of you may have heard, former Raptor head coach Sam Mitchell lives in the Atlanta area and was at the game last night. It was exactly a year ago that Mitchell was shown the door in Denver after the team’s shoddy performance. Mitchell is a regular at Hawks games sitting in the second row across from the visitors bench but the tickets are season seats of his close friend, Marc Upshaw, who Sam credits with teaching him how to play on the dirt courts in Georgia. Upshaw saw a promising NCAA career taken from him at the University of Rhode Island by a knee injury and is now a successful business man who also lives in suburban Atlanta.
It was a relaxed Mitchell that sat in a private lounge area just under the lower bowl seats sipping an adult beverage in a small glass with some ice as he chatted with a few members of the Toronto media. He exited just before the end of the first half to talk with two members of the print media and when I arrived, at halftime, the conversation was well underway.
Mitchell talked about what he is doing now, his occasional work at NBA TV and his business interests away from basketball before reflecting back on his time in Toronto. He was his usual gregarious self, discussing how proud he was of the team the year he won the Coach of the Year Award preferring to call it the “team of the year.” If you recall the night the award was presented to him, he motioned for the entire team to come forward as he accepted the award.
“Not only did I do my job (that year), my assistants (did theirs), the organization, but the players (as well),” exclaimed Mitchell. “I had players overachieve that year.”
“As a coach, isn’t that your job? To get a guy to play a little bit better than what he’s capable of playing (just) to make him believe. That’s what a coach is supposed to do.”
In the end, it was the Coach of the Year Award that raised the expectation level for the team and the fact that they could not make the jump ultimately cost him his job.
“Were we really disappointing? Or are those teams just waiting for you (the next year)?” asked Mitchell. “All of a sudden those teams we beat last year, they are waiting for you when before, nobody was waiting on us.”
He looked back fondly on his time in Toronto, discussing his own growth as a coach as well as the players that were there with him while he went through his personal development. Mitchell laughed, in retrospect, at how tough he was on the players and commended Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon — who says he still speaks with on occasion — for their toughness as they absorbed both good and bad from the unpolished, neophyte coach.
“Those guys helped me get to where I (was),” said Mitchell.
“Jose and Chris mean a lot to me because we built that team around Chris and the reason why I love Jose and Chris is that people don’t understand how relentless I was on Jose. Jose and Chris, I cut them no slack. Jose and Chris got me when I was learning how to coach so they got the rough part of it. But I think we all kind of grew together and that’s why I think we respect each other and like each other.
“I always have a special place in my heart for those two guys because they kind of grew with me and stayed with me,” concluded Mitchell.
And fittingly as the team allowed Atlanta to score the second-most points in franchise history, the same type of performance that was Mitchell’s last on the bench, there he was, sitting in his seat right until the bitter end taking it all in.
Once a coach, always a coach.