When Indiana coach Bob Knight took command of the U.S. basketball team at the 1979 Pan American Games, he quickly singled out two whipping boys: Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale. "We shared the same doghouse," says Thomas. "Me because I was a high school kid committed to Indiana, and Kevin because he was Kevin."
McHale was a gangly forward at Minnesota with a barrel chest and a loose tongue. He spent most of his spare time trying to convince Thomas that Knight was a tyrant and that Thomas should immediately transfer to Minnesota. That didn't happen, but the relationship the two players forged more than 17 years ago survived heated Big Ten battles and then Hall of Fame NBA careers that pitted McHale's Celtics teams against Thomas's Pistons teams in one of the bitterest rivalries of the '80s. At the height of the NBA rivalry, both men admit, they tried to keep their friendship a secret. And yet when the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game 7 of the '84 NBA Finals, there was Thomas—as McHale's guest—standing in the Boston locker room, watching the winners swig champagne. In 1988, when the Pistons finally knocked off the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, McHale ran across the court, embraced Thomas and implored him to beat L.A.
When Thomas retired in 1994 and assumed control of the Toronto Raptors, his first phone call was to McHale, then an assistant general manager with the Timber-wolves. Thomas asked McHale to be his coach. McHale declined, and one year later he was named vice president of operations for Minnesota. So the two men remain opponents, only this time they are linked as former hotshot players who made the leap into management, a development that has generated a mix of envy and disdain from rival general managers. "I assure you," says McHale, "there are lots of guys hoping we fall flat on our faces."
It hasn't happened yet. Despite their paltry win totals this season (Minnesota had 25 victories through Sunday, Toronto 19), both men have impressed their peers with their guts. Thomas has drawn praise for choosing point guard and likely Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire with last year's seventh pick and for resurrecting the career of veteran 2 guard Alvin Robertson, whom Thomas signed after playing pickup ball with him last summer.
McHale chose high school phenom Kevin Garnett with the fifth pick and has successfully guided the 19-year-old through his first NBA season. McHale also has helped the difficult but talented J.R. Rider, who has averaged a solid 19.8 points and generally stayed out of trouble.
Both men know their hardest work is ahead of them, but neither will be bashful about making tough decisions. Thomas, sources say, will look for a new coach because he has been displeased with Brendan Malone for not giving his bench players the minutes they need so they can be evaluated for next season. McHale, meanwhile, has already changed coaches, replacing Bill Blair with Flip Saunders in December after the team got off to a 6-14 start. The Wolves have gone 19-36 under Saunders. Now McHale is searching for a point guard, and he has zeroed in again on Rod Strickland, whom he nearly acquired in February. Could be that he learned the importance of a good point guard by watching his old pal Isiah.
Clipping His Wings
No one ever said being a Clipper was easy. Brent Barry stole the show on All-Star weekend in San Antonio with his no-look dishes in the rookie game and with the high-flying jams that won him the slam-dunk contest, but all of that failed to generate a single endorsement dollar for him. "I might have drawn more attention if I played for Phoenix or Chicago or Orlando," says the reserve guard, "but I don't mind. I'd hate to think winning the slam-dunk competition will be the pinnacle of my career."
It's doubtful it will be. Barry has averaged 10.0 points and 2.9 assists in 23.7 minutes a game for the Clippers and has been one of the top rookies this season. But that hasn't stopped coach Bill Fitch from continuing to push him. While others lauded Barry's skills in San Antonio, Fitch reminded his player that it was his turnover that cost the West the rookie game.
Fitch was all over Barry again last week. At a team shootaround in Toronto, Barry admonished teammate Brian Williams during a foul-shooting drill for hitting only four free throws instead of the required five. When Barry persisted by asking other players how many Williams had made, Fitch walked over to his rookie, pushed him and then complained loudly that Barry's head had swelled since his All-Star success. "It wasn't a big deal," Barry insisted afterward, even though sources say he was upset by the incident and informed his agent, Arn Tellem, that he was weary of Fitch's browbeating.