If the speculation is true and Rick Adelman retires when the regular season ends this week, he can’t just slip out a side door this time. Not again.
The rousing applause, the shout-out from the public address announcer, the overhead video tribute. Bring it on. When the Minnesota Timberwolves visit Sunday night, Sleep Train Arena should sound like one incessant cowbell.
This is the man – the bearded, slouching, 67-year-old gentleman seated on the T-wolves’ bench – who held the brush that painted the masterpiece, the coach who transformed the Kings into an internationally acclaimed piece of art. Before Chris Webber’s fragile knee ligament tore apart that afternoon in Dallas – the first step in a deep, persistent decline – Adelman’s players didn’t simply play basketball; these were adults who drew colors for a living.
They sketched crafty reverse layups, baseline reverse jams, jumpers from the corners, shots from beyond the arc. They could shoot from all angles – and they could all shoot. But the beauty of those Kings – the era of Divac, Webber, Peja, Christie, Bibby, Jackson – was the ball movement. It was all about the ball movement, those selfless, soulful, exquisite sequences Vlade Divac once described by saying, simply, “Sometimes the ball has eyes.”
“Rick’s offense was awesome not only to play, but to watch,” Doug Christie recalled. “It was like you were coming to see a show. And what made it so impressive is that we weren’t a gimmick. We were able to improve.”
It began, of course, with one massive offseason (1998) swoop, with Geoff Petrie putting together the pieces. He traded Mitch Richmond for Webber; signed Divac, a free agent eager to return to the West Coast; drafted Jason Williams; lured Stojakovic from Greece; bolstered the bench; and finally, when then-owner Jim Thomas asked for the names of additional coaching candidates, added Adelman to the list.
Three seasons later, having swapped Williams for Mike Bibby and added Christie and Bobby Jackson, the Kings owned the best record and the most talent, and were seemingly poised, prepared and capable of overtaking the Shaq and Kobe Lakers.
In an absorbing, epic series of high drama and enduring controversy, the Lakers emerged victorious in the Western Conference finals and went on to beat the Nets. That hasn’t changed. But the Lakers weren’t the superior team. That hasn’t changed, either. The Kings just whined so much about the horrible officiating in Game 6, they choked on their vocal cords in Game 7. A year later, Webber gets hurt, then Webber comes back, limping and somehow still starting, then Webber is traded and circumstances remain strange and bizarre and futile. Knees, coaching, franchises. It’s all so fragile.
“Rick didn’t win the ’ship (championship),” continued Christie, “and as badly as I feel for the Sacramento fans, I wanted to win it for him, too. He was my favorite coach. He identifies what a player can do and brings out the best in him. I definitely don’t think he gets enough respect as an elite coach.”
His bio in the NBA record book reads in part like a Hall of Fame legal brief. In his 22 full seasons as a head coach, Adelman twice took the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals, endured losing seasons only four times, led the Kings to the playoffsin each of his eight seasons in Sacramento, and ranks as one of only eight coaches to win 1,000 or more games. He also is highly regarded for his innovative “corners” series, an offensive set that requires a big man who can pass out of the high post and players who can read and react.
“When you think of Rick Adelman, you think of ‘corners,’ ” Kings coach Michael Malone said the other day. “Honestly, it’s something we’ve talked about implementing next year because of DeMarcus’ (Cousins) ability to pass and face up.”
But back to being fragile. For all Adelman’s success, his career to some extent has been decimated by player injuries. Webber’s knee in Sacramento. Tracy McGrady’s knee and Yao Ming’s feet in Houston. Ricky Rubio’s knee and assorted ailments suffered by Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic in Minnesota; the T-wolves will have missed the postseason in each of Adelman’s three seasons coaching the team.
Of far more concern is this: Adelman has missed games for consecutive seasons because of wife Mary Kay’s health issues.
“When you hear the talk about Coach retiring because of Mary Kay, you wish him the best,” said Kevin Martin, a former Kings guard who also has played for Adelman in Houston and Minnesota. “But you also don’t want him to leave. He’ll always be a special person in my life.”
And in Kings history. Eight straight postseasons and all those pretty passes. That said, since being fired at the end of 2006, Adelman has largely been ignored in his old building. And that should change. Sunday night, while those cowbells are clanging, while two lottery teams are playing, the man on the visitors’ bench should stand and take a bow. No quiet exit this time.