The following is a transcript of the eulogy that I delivered last night at 3 a.m. outside of a locked MSG Training Center in Westchester, N.Y. Other than a few confused squirrels – and an ornery security guard who threatened to phone the local constable – no one else showed up to pay their respects to the dearly departed former Knick coach.
It is with great sadness that I stand before all of you now in remembrance of a man who has been taken from us far too soon. Tonight we say say goodbye to Michael “Mike” Andrew D’Antoni, “Coach,” to those who knew him best. The world will long remember the original Italian Stallion; a hoops-beacon of hope for those who had none, a man whose 167 losses with the Knicks are mitigated by the 167 roster moves made during his Big Apple coaching tenure.
But those of us who loved him, and ache with his passing, know Mike D’Antoni by the other titles he held: Father. Brother. Husband. Offensive genius. Mustache aficionado. Mike was a sunny, joyful soul who bore the brunt of Gotham’s media and fan ire, but quickly learned how to brush it off. When the immortal Stephon Marbury said he “wasn’t comfortable with the situtation,” Mike let him rot on the bench. When Stephen A. Smith screamed “Y’all don’t play no defense!,” Mike gave him another Mike, of the Woodson variety. When everyone said “Seven Seconds Or Less” could never work in New York, Mike gave them Linsanity.
It was his spirit of resilience and good humor that would see Mike through more pain and tragedy than most of us will ever know. He endured the aforementioned Starbury’s vaseline-induced shenanigans. He saw management purge roster-assets like Bernie Madoff shreds financial records. He said goodbye to his beloved compagno, Danilo Gallinari. He narrowly survived a first-round playoff ouster against Boston and later watched his two “superstars” struggle with their overinflated egos and woefully inadequate basketball IQs. He experienced personal failings and setbacks in the most public way possible.
It’s a string of events that would have broken a lesser man. And it would have been easy for Mike to let himself become bitter and hardened; to surrender to self-pity and regret; to retreat from public life and live out his years in peaceful quiet. No one would have blamed him for that.
But that was not Mike D’Antoni’s way.
Through his own suffering, Mike became more alive to the plight and the suffering of others — from the wheelchair-bound General Manager who couldn’t woo that certain long sought-after free agent, to the oft-scorned, stone-handed Jared Jeffries, who nobody else seemed to want. D’Antoni’s life work was not to champion the causes of those drunk with selfishness or power or special connections. It was to make real the dream of Knicks fans everywhere. Sadly, he was not given the gift of time that some of his predecessors were, but he tried to right as many courtside-wrongs as the years would allow.
I can still hear his voice bellowing through the bowels of Madison Square Garden, mustache shimmering, those seemingly endless sarcastic quips always on tap. And yet, as has been noted, while his foes’ agendas became deeply personal, his never did. While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a lightning rod, that’s not the prism through which Mike D’Antoni saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw Mike D’Antoni. He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of basketball prevented differences of player and coach and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect — a time when adversaries still saw each other as partners in a collective mission more important than their individual needs.
Of course, luck had little to do with Mike D’Antoni’s coaching success; he knew that. A few years ago, his brother Dan told him that he and Isiah Thomas just might be the two greatest coaches of all time. Without missing a beat, Mike replied, “Did Zeke ever have to coach Carmelo Anthony?” (Laughter)
We cannot know for certain how long we have here. We cannot foresee the trials or misfortunes that will test us along the way. We cannot know what James Dolan’s plan is for us.
What we can do is to live out our lives as best we can with purpose, and with love, and with joy. We can use each day to show those who are not named ‘Melo how much we care about them, and treat others not named ‘Melo with the kindness and respect that we wish for ourselves. We can learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. And we can strive at all costs to make this a better world, so that someday, if we are ever blessed with the chance to coach another team; that we made a difference; that our fleeting Garden-presence had a lasting impact on the lives of others not named ‘Melo.
This is how Mike D’Antoni lived. This is his legacy. He once said that he need not be idealized or enlarged in death because of what he was in life. The greatest expectations were placed upon Mike D’Antoni’s shoulders not because of who he was, but because of the circus-like atmosphere which is today’s New York City. We do not weep for him because of the championship(s) he failed to deliver; we weep for him because of how and when he left us, which was too soon and for all the wrong reasons.
Alas, we carry on.
Mike D’Antoni has gone home now – no, not to his Rye, N.Y. mansion, but to that great big hardwood in the sky. At last he is with them once more – Riley, Nelson, Van Gundy, Chaney, Wilkens, Brown and Thomas – leaving those of us who grieve his passing with the memories he gave, the good that he did, the dream he kept alive, and a single, enduring image — the image of a man with a mustache, smiling broadly as he paced on the sidelines, ready for whatever Dolan-created storms that may have come, yet sadly, not the one that ultimately claimed him.
So Arrivederci, Coach. We hardly knew ye’.
In lieu of flowers, please make a contribution to Mustache.org.
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Image: Zuma Press
My sincere thanks to President Obama, whose fantastic eulogy of Ted Kennedy was adapted for this post. If ever there was an orator to model one’s efforts after, who better than POTUS?! Also, as far as I know, D’Antoni is still alive and well. Well, maybe not “well,” per se, but definitely still alive.