Kevin McHale missed the intensity of NBA competition and the Houston Rockets offered an ideal opportunity for him to plunge back in.
Houston officially introduced the 53-year-old McHale as its new coach on Friday to replace Rick Adelman, who parted ways with the team after four seasons.
McHale has been working as a television analyst and hasn’t coached since finishing the 2008-09 season in Minnesota. But he missed the camaraderie of the locker room and never lost his desire to return to the sidelines.
”There’s nothing like being in the fight,” McHale said. ”There’s something about being in the game that’s really fun, and I really enjoyed that.”
McHale’s salary was not disclosed, but he has signed a three-year contract with a team option for a fourth year. He said he’s spoken to most of the current Rockets and is just starting the process of evaluating and contacting potential assistants.
A seven-time All-Star, McHale helped Boston win three NBA championships during a 13-year playing career. Ex-Celtic players Danny Ainge (Boston) and Larry Bird (Indiana) are now NBA executives, and McHale is eager to lead his new team against them and other former teammates working as coaches.
”I was one of those guys that, if you have on the other colored jersey on that I have on, I don’t really like you very much that night, and I want to beat you,” McHale said. ”That’s the fun thing about basketball is that you want to step out there with that feeling, with a bunch of guys together. There’s something about that that you can’t replicate in anything else you do in life.”
After his playing career ended, McHale worked 16 seasons as an executive with the Timberwolves, including two stints as interim head coach. His career coaching record is 39-55, but Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said coaches shouldn’t always be judged by their win-loss total.
”We’re all evaluated on wins and losses, that’s how it should be,” Morey said. ”But when you look at a coaching record, you’ve got to look deeper. You’ve got to look at when Kevin took over for those franchises, they did better with him than the person he took over from.
”Every good coach in this league, I challenge you to find one that hasn’t been a sub-.500 coach at one point or another.”
Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said he found the ”perfect fit” in McHale, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player in 1999.
”Kevin McHale is the perfect fit for this team at this time,” Alexander said. ”You have to have somebody who’s a great leader, a great communicator and understands how to use his staff and the players at all times, and will take input and work with people to make us a great team.”
McHale will start a season as a coach for the first time, and says that’s a huge difference from his previous stints. He guided Minnesota to 19 wins in the last 31 games of the 2004-05 season after he fired Flip Saunders, then won 12 of his first 16 games after succeeding Randy Wittman during the 2008-09 season.
”If you take over a team in the middle of the season, believe me, the submarine is taking on water,” McHale said. ”You’re not taking over a team ’cause they’re playing great. I was very proud of the fact that I was able to take both teams and turn them around.
”I wanted to try to start fresh, without a bunch of water in the submarine, going the wrong direction.”
The Rockets have missed the playoffs the last two seasons. They played most of that time without injury-plagued All-Star center Yao Ming. Yao’s contract is up and his future with the team is one of the most pressing decisions facing McHale and Morey as next season approaches.
”We’d all be really happy if Yao comes back to play, and I hope he can,” McHale said. ”I think he’ll give it his best shot. His body is going to dictate if he can come back and play. That’s all going to be laid out in the future.
”But who wouldn’t like Yao Ming, a big guy who can really make shots, just a huge force in the middle? That’s out of my control. We’ll see where that goes.”
McHale is the 12th coach in franchise history, and the third since Rudy Tomjanovich stepped down after the 2003 season for health reasons. Jeff Van Gundy coached the team from 2003-07, taking the Rockets to three playoff appearances. Adelman went 193-135 in his four seasons, the highest winning percentage (.588) among the franchise’s full-time coaches.
McHale set a return to the postseason as the immediate goal, even though Houston lacks a true superstar.
”They have pieces in place here that are very good pieces that can be part of a championship-type team,” McHale said. ”Our goal is to make the playoffs next year, that’s just what it is and that’s going to fall on me to do it. If it doesn’t get done, it’ll be on me.”