HOUSTON — Kevin McHale does not know why he is here. Why today instead of yesterday, or instead of tomorrow? He can’t answer that. Maybe he doesn’t want to think about it.
“I have no idea,” he said. “Are you kidding me? I have no idea.”
Almost a month ago, McHale left Houston to be with his daughter, Alexandra, who had become sick. Her family called her Sasha.
The Houston Rockets kept playing, of course. Kelvin Sampson stepped in to coach, and everybody seems to agree he did a fine job. The Rockets won seven and lost six. James Harden had big nights and bad ones. One night they beat the Lakers.
But for the first time in 32 years, the NBA moved on without Kevin McHale.
Sasha died Nov. 24 after complications with Lupus. She was 23. McHale stayed away to grieve, and Sampson kept coaching the Rockets, and the NBA kept moving on. Around the NBA, there were moments of silence before games. Basketball is a small world. McHale is one of its dearest sons, and he was hurting.
Saturday night McHale returned to basketball, his other home. Just before tipoff, all of the Dallas Mavericks went one-by-one to the Rockets bench to offer a pat on the back, a hug, a handshake. It was a tender moment, and then the game started. Dallas (10-10) won 116-109 at Toyota Center.
“It’s been, needless to say, a terrible month,” McHale said. “But it just felt like the time to come back, get back to work and be around the guys.”
McHale kept in touch with Sampson and the Rockets during his leave of absence, but he didn’t want to speak in much detail about how he split his time.
“With a new team and a bunch of new guys, your first 20 games, I feel bad I wasn’t around to be here and help with the guys — because everything works on the whiteboard when you’re drawing stuff up and then a lot of stuff works in the exhibition season, but then the regular season starts and you’re like, ‘Boy, this doesn’t work as good as I thought it would,’” McHale said. ” ‘We’re going to have to do this or do that.’ So there were a ton of adjustments to be made and I thought they did a really good job.”
The Rockets slipped to 9-10 Saturday. They overcame a 19-point deficit and took an 11-point lead, but ultimately could not stop O.J. Mayo, who tied a career high with 40 points on 15-for-26 shooting to outduel Harden, who scored 39. The Rockets have a nasty little habit of starting slowly, and McHale’s return didn’t solve that problem.
McHale said the Rockets have another issue, which is relying too much on Harden. Though he had nine assists and only needed 17 field-goal attempts to score 39 points, the Rockets get a little stagnant from time to time, McHale said. He wants them to play faster.
McHale also seems to prefer a slightly different rotation than Sampson did. He played Toney Douglas 34 minutes at the point, and Jeremy Lin 18. He didn’t play Marcus Morris at all, and went with Cole Aldrich instead of Greg Smith at the backup center spot.
But these are just basketball things.
“He’s here working to make solutions to something so small next to what (he’s been through),” said Rockets guard Carlos Delfino.
And yet basketball is big, because basketball is normal. It has been a basketball life for McHale. There were times, as he was up there in Minnesota, trying to care for a dying daughter, that the end of the day would come and Sampson would be on the phone. And maybe it wasn’t much, but it was something.
“It was hard just because your mind is a million miles away, but you’re still watching the games and you’re stilling pulling for the guys so hard and you want them to win and you literally just ache with every loss and rejoice with every win and it’s really fun,” McHale said. “But it’s just different. We just would talk basketball and a lot of times that hour of the day was sometimes the best part of the day.”
So he’s back. He’s a basketball coach coaching basketball again.