Kevin O'Neill is jogging on a hotel treadmill, an oversized bath towel draped over his shoulders and one twisted corner stuck between clenched teeth. He greets a familiar face but ignores a question about the towel. The answer comes that night when the Toronto Raptors lose in the final minutes to the Pistons after leading most of the game.
It's to keep him from chewing off his own tongue contemplating how his team sometimes plays.
And, being a complete hoops junkie, he's rarely thinking of anything else. It's actually a wonder he doesn't employ the towel on the sideline. All that said, he has the Raptors with a winning record despite a major roster overhaul a month into the season and a mixed bag of talent made worse by injury. While Coach of the Year talk has been about Jeff Bzdelik and Jerry Sloan, any first-year head coach who can win with second-round pick Lonny Baxter, free-agent castoff Robert Archibald and small forward Michael Curry rotating at the big-man positions at least deserves mention.
Rather than complain, though, O'Neill relishes watching Curry and the others overachieve. "Nothing makes my heart fonder than to see Mike Curry battling with 6-(foot-)10 guys and winning," he says. O'Neill was the defensive guru behind Detroit's back-to-back 50-win seasons under Rick Carlisle and played a similar role under Jeff Van Gundy with the Knicks. Let's just say not everybody on his current squad shares his passion.
"I think we have some really tough, hard-nosed guys and we have some other guys who are headed in that direction," he said.
The O'Neill that arrived three years ago after 20 seasons as a college coach might not have been so diplomatic. That O'Neill might've said something that would have put him at permanent odds with all or some of his best players. He was practically a human calliope on the sidelines back then, the only missing element being rods of steam firing from his pipes. He's still animated but he's comparatively subdued now. He yells out assignments, not criticism. The worst he'll do is yell a player's name and give them a quizzical look, as if to say, "What the hell was that?" He won the respect of such tough-to-please players as Cliff Robinson as an assistant and now Jalen Rose as a head coach. He's also learned not to talk to the team right after a game, knowing his emotions might get away from him.
"I don't think you can go straight from college to the NBA," O'Neill said. "I know if I had, I wouldn't have lasted 12 games. AAU, high school and college ball are all the same. The NBA is a culture. I know who my guys are. I put all the personality stuff aside. All I want to do is get to the final two minutes with a chance to win."
The Raptors became an offensive juggernaut for several games immediately after dealing Antonio Davis and Jerome Williams for Rose, Baxter and Donyell Marshall, but they've since adjusted to their coach's style, even if they're not particularly suited for it. It's never easy to get a team to pay attention to detail, but it's especially hard after it hasn't been asked to do so for several years. But then O'Neill helped Carlisle accomplish the same task in Detroit, and he still talks to him at least once a day, even though they're now rivals.
You might expect a defensive-oriented coach to balk at the trade, but O'Neill completely endorsed it. Davis and Williams were once known for their defensive intensity, but Davis' age has caught up with him and Williams is all energy, vibrant personality and no direction.
Another part of O'Neill you should know: He measures the time he's at peace in seconds, as in the final ones of a victory.
"The only time you really enjoy yourself is when you're up seven with five seconds left," he said. "That's it. As soon as the game is over, you have to start worrying about the next one. It's a momentary flutter of enjoyment that turns into a sea of question marks. But I will say this: There isn't anything that feels better. Anything. Underlined."
In a lot of ways, he is a skinny version of Rick Majerus. The dome is almost, though not quite, as shiny, but he is just as glib, self-deprecating and intense. For the time being, he's even living in a Toronto hotel within walking distance of the Air Canada Center.
"I don't have any hobbies," O'Neill said. "I don't golf, I don't bowl. I read during the summer, but when I try during the season I'm in the middle of the page thinking, 'How about that screwed-up play we ran in the third quarter last night?' Coaching is my life. It's always been my life."
Despite having a host of players with their own distinctive personalities and a brief spurt as an offensive juggernaut, the Raptors are beginning to look like a collection of guys capable of gnawing off their tongues for a victory. They came close in a 78-74 overtime road win against the Hornets 24 hours after losing in the final minute to Detroit. They beat New Orleans despite not having sensational rookie Chris Bosh, losing Vince Carter in the first quarter to a strained right thigh, Rose fouling out at the end of regulation and Morris Peterson playing on an ankle sprained the night before. They had to unearth Lamond Murray, who hadn't taken a shot or played significant minutes in six weeks and demanded to be traded several weeks ago.
"Don't sleep on us," crowed Rose afterward. "We can grind. By the end of the season, nobody is going to want to see us."
You'll never hear O'Neill say that. He's far too consumed with simply getting to the final two minutes. As he leaves the workout room, he says, "See you tonight. I'll be the guy in the suit they're ignoring."
He appears to be at peace with that thought. The towel, apparently, has served him well.
While Vin Baker is back with the Celtics for now since being suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, Boston is shopping him. They're not operating quite as cold-heartedly as that might sound. If they can't make a reasonable deal by the Feb. 19 trade deadline, a league source says, they are willing to buy out his contract if that facilitates him joining a new team. ... The trust level between the NBA front office and the Sacramento Kings will be tested when Chris Webber is ready to return from knee surgery. There is little doubt Webber will serve a multigame suspension for lying to a grand jury in the case against a former Michigan basketball booster, but the league hasn't officially announced the suspension or its terms. League officials have no choice but to trust that the Kings will not activate Webber before he's truly ready to play and thereby have him serve his suspension while still injured. ... Referee Luis Grillo T'ed up Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy for allegedly screaming a profanity at him in a recent Rockets-Sonics game. Van Gundy used the F-word, but in this case it was "flop," not the other more common, and uncivil, F-word. Grillo realized he made a mistake and rescinded the technical. A quick wit in the stands immediately yelled out, "Nice flopping call."