MINNEAPOLIS -- During 15 years in charge of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kevin McHale forged two distinct reputations.
There was McHale the gifted teacher, beloved by players and staff for his relentlessly positive demeanor and an unending eagerness to share his wealth of basketball knowledge. Then there was McHale the mistake-prone executive, vilified by fans for a series of blunders and the failure to make his team into a consistent championship contender.
New president of basketball operations David Kahn dumped McHale as coach on Wednesday, praising him as a "great man" who deserves respect. But Kahn offered no specific reasons during a news conference for his decision, saying instead that "this is going to be a transition period. And with the changes that have occurred, and with the changes that are still going to come, it would have been difficult to put him in the middle of that again."
McHale, a northern Minnesota native and Hall of Fame player who won three NBA titles with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, met several times with Kahn before the decision was reached.
"I was willing to come back, but they never offered me a contract," McHale told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "They told me last night they were going in a different direction. I said, 'I think you're making a mistake, but that's up to you guys.'"
Players lamented the loss of the teacher.
"I was more shocked, disappointed, hurt," said forward Al Jefferson, one of many players who urged Kahn to bring McHale back next season. "But at the same time I understand that this is a business."
Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen said McHale will be sorely missed.
"Kevin McHale is a great coach," Madsen said in a phone interview from Salt Lake City. "I'm a little bit surprised by this news and I was hoping to play for him next season and I guess that's not going to happen now."
Though he helped turn one of the most hapless franchises in professional sports into a playoff team by boldly drafting Kevin Garnett out of high school with the fifth pick in 1995, McHale received massive criticism from fans the last few years for a series of draft-day failures and other roster moves that never worked out.
After a stirring run to the Western Conference finals in 2004, the Wolves have not made the playoffs since.
McHale showed more proficiency as a coach and adored this young team that he helped assemble after trading Garnett to Boston in 2007. Timberwolves forward Kevin Love actually leaked word of McHale's departure early Wednesday with a Twitter posting that read in part: "Today is a sad day."
"I don't want Kevin [Love] to feel badly about that," said Kahn, who added that the Timberwolves won't start the coaching search until after the June 25 draft. "We live in a very different world than all of us grew up in. I don't think it's a big deal."
McHale had been the primary decision-maker on personnel matters since he was named vice president of basketball operations in 1995, forging a tight bond with owner Glen Taylor in the process.
"I know that David made a careful analysis and this decision was made with the best interests of the Minnesota Timberwolves in mind," Taylor said in a statement issued by the team. "I will be forever grateful for the work Kevin did in returning to his home state and assembling a team that made eight straight playoff appearances. Kevin brought an enormous amount of basketball talent and passion to our organization and I wish him nothing but the best."
Even while in the front office, McHale loved to work with players -- often staying late after practice to help post players from Garnett to Jefferson hone their inside games. He still enjoyed that aspect last season, though losing wore on him and he wasn't fond of the rigors of travel.
Though Jefferson lobbied heavily to keep McHale, he said he supported Kahn's decision "100 percent."
"We have to put Mac out of our heads right now," Jefferson said. "I talked to some of the guys today. In a way, we're glad it's over with."
In 2005, McHale took over as coach after firing his old friend Flip Saunders and went 19-12 the rest of the season.
Taylor moved McHale down from the front office again in December to take over for fired coach Randy Wittman, and hired Kahn last month to take McHale's former position as basketball boss.
Minnesota's record under McHale after he replaced Wittman was 20-43, but for much of that stretch the Wolves were playing short-handed after Jefferson tore the ACL in his right knee. Defensive standout Corey Brewer also suffered a season-ending knee injury and guard Randy Foye missed 12 of the last 22 games to ankle and hip problems.
Several players remarked about the positive vibe McHale brought to the bench and expressed appreciation of his simpler strategy.
"I believe to my core that Kevin McHale has some enormous gifts and is a good human being who cares deeply about his players," Kahn said. "But I can also believe, at this present time, it was time to make a change."
McHale was haunted by several bad contracts given to the likes of Marko Jaric, Troy Hudson and Mike James; draft-day blunders like Ndudi Ebi, Rashad McCants and the trade of Brandon Roy for Foye; and an illegal under-the-table deal with Joe Smith that ultimately cost the team three first-round draft picks.
Those missteps aside, Madsen said he thinks people should remember that McHale built a perennial lottery team into a group that once lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
"I think Kevin McHale's legacy speaks for itself," Madsen said. "Sure, the last couple years haven't been quite as good as any of us would have wanted. But let's not forget that it was Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders that took this organization to new heights in 2004 that was probably an injury away from a championship."