HOUSTON — It was time.
Time for Kevin McHale to think about Xs and Os instead of the unspeakable tragedy of losing a daughter.
Time to deal with the tension of trying to win games rather than cope with the lingering grief.
McHale returned to the sidelines on Saturday night nearly one month since taking a leave of absence to be with his 23-year-old daughter in the last days of her life.
Sasha McHale died of complications from Lupus on Nov. 24.
“I feels good to be back,” McHale said in the hallway of the Toyota Center a short time before his Rockets played the Mavericks. “I’ve been gone a pretty long time. It’s good to rely on the players to make plays and the coaches to help me out a lot.
“It’s been a while, but hopefully it’s the right time. I don’t know if there ever is a right time. Don’t know if there’s a playbook by this. I’m excited to be back. I think it’s gonna be good. It’s been, needless to say, a terrible month. But you know, it just felt like the time to come back and go to work and be around the guys.”
When McHale left the team to fly to Minnesota to be with his family on Nov. 10, the Rockets had just lost at Memphis. The team went 7-6 in his absence under the guidance of acting coach Kelvin Sampson.
“I thought Kelvin [Sampson] did a tremendous job, I really did,” McHale said. “I left after the Memphis game. We went there and got beat up pretty good by Memphis. We had a two-point game for a while, but they exposed some stuff and I had talked to Kelvin and the coaching staff about trying to do some other things. I thought they did a great job implementing that.
“With a new team, with a bunch of new guys, your first 20 games — I feel bad I wasn’t around to really be here and help with the guys, because everything works on the white board when you’re drawing stuff up and a lot of stuff works in the exhibition season. But all of a sudden the regular season starts and everything doesn’t work as good as I thought it would. We have to do this or we have to do that. There’s just a ton of adjustments to be made, and I thought they did a really good job.”
From a distance, McHale had both analyzed and admired his team, the youngest in the NBA.
“They fight hard, they do. I mean, last night San Antonio put it on us pretty hard, but the guys have battled. That win we had against the Lakers was an amazing win. That just felt like there was no chance that we’re going to win that game. They just battle hard.
“We’re a young group of guys. We coaches are still trying to figure out how to fit everybody into the mold together. And then, inside of that, you have Carlos [Delfino] miss 6, 7 games with his groin. There’s always stuff that’s happening in the NBA. When you’ve been together for a while, you just fall into a rhythm as a team. ‘Oh this guy’s not playing, so this guy’s role increases.‘ We’re still trying to figure a lot of that stuff out.”
It was coincidental that McHale’s return came against the Mavs, coached by his long-time friend Rick Carlisle. They were teammates for three seasons in Boston and won a championship together in 1986.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people,” McHale said. “That’s been tremendous. I had a lot of guys that I didn’t know that well that really reached out, and I spent a lot of time talking to them. It’s a terrible situation. It’s a terrible situation to even think about. To comprehend the whole thing, it’s almost incomprehensible.
“I’ve known Rick [Carlisle] since we were kids. It was good to see him. It was good to talk to him.”
Carlisle and McHale spoke before the game and the Mavs coach expected the return to the sidelines to be an emotional experience for his old friend.
“I’m sure it will be,” he said. “I just talked to him about it and I can’t imagine the emotions he’s gone through in the last month. All of us that know him have been thinking about him and his family and praying for them a lot over the last several weeks. And this represents him stepping back into the fray here and it’s an important deal.”
When the Toyota Center public address announcer noted after the starting lineups that McHale was back on the bench, the crowd rose to its feet and applauded warmly, but he did not acknowledge it. McHale’s head was down inside a team huddle as he drew up plays on his whiteboard.
It was time to be a coach again.
What was important to McHale through the ordeal was keeping in touch with his team through his daily conversations with Sampson.
“I don’t want to get into the whole thing, but it was hard,” McHale said. ‘Your mind’s a million miles away and yet you’re still watching the games, still pulling for the guys so hard. You want them to win and you literally just ache with every loss and rejoice with every win. It’s just different. We would just talk basketball. A lot of times, that hour of the day was the best hour of the day.”