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A Quarter-Century Later, Kurt Rambis Takes Out Kevin McHale

10/20/2009

Kurt Rambis will reportedly replace Kevin McHale as the head coach of the Timberwolves.

In Game 4 the 1984 NBA Finals, the Celtics needed the win of their season. They had given up home-court advantage and trailed 2-1 to Magic Johnson's Lakers.

Laker forward Kurt Rambis caught a pass on the fast break, and rambled to the hoop down the right side of the lane. After one dribble, and just as he started his layup, Kevin McHale stretched out his long left arm and extended it across Rambis's chest and neck. As Rambis elevated, at a run, McHale pulled backwards, sending Rambis to the floor, hard and horizontal.

It's among the most famous dirty plays in NBA history, and changed the tone of a series that the Celtics went on to win in seven games.

In 2008, Rambis talked about it in an interview with TrueHoop:

There are things that you are not supposed to do. In the heat of the moment, those things do happen anyway, sometimes. You get your competitive fires going. I don't know why it happens, exactly, but players do things they would erase, if they could go back in time.

But you are not supposed to do, for instance, what Kevin McHale did to me when I was in the air. You are supposed to make a play on the ball. There are so many leapers in this league, so many basket attackers. Usually when the defense attacks, they attack the ball, and there might be body contact, but not just body contact.

How ironic then, that David Kahn, the Timberwolves president of baskeball operations (who was in his early 20s at the time) has a chance to symobolically reverse the impact of that 1984 event. Now it is McHale who has been pushed aside, and Rambis who emerges victorious.

What kind of coach would Kurt Rambis be? One can examine the 37 Laker games he coached a decade ago for evidence, but more meaningful might be his own comments. He offered some insight in that same 2008 interview, including:

  • On the triangle offense: "If the staff had their druthers, we'd be using the triangle at all times. And I think that any basketball purist would rather see more player movement, more passing, and less dribbling. The result of all that should be a quality shot: a layup, or a wide open jump shot within the player's range. Making that shot -- that just depends on the skill level of the player. But if you end up with a shot like that, the offense has accomplished its job, whether or not it goes in. On the other hand, if a player comes down and misses a shot from three-to-five feet behind the three-point line, they might say they were open, but the answer is 'yeah, but who would guard you out there?' Our objective is to penetrate the defense and find high-quality shots."

  • On zone defense: "With the talent level in the NBA, however, where there are a lot of quality shooters, the zone is less effective over the long haul. Those shooters spread out your zone, but the whole idea of the zone is to protect the heart of the court. But if it gets spread out, that opens the middle, and then people can pick the zone apart, get to the seams, move the ball, and attack the back side. So a zone has shock value, but it shouldn't last very long. It also makes it hard to rebound."

  • On player development: "I have always thought that we should not try to pigeonhole guys by putting them into specific positions. Maybe it should be more like Europe (although I haven't been to see what they actually do). Maybe we could teach everyone to dribble, pass, and shoot, regardless of size. Teach everyone to play facing the basket, or back to the basket. Teach them how to be basketball players, and then let them gravitate to what they are best suited to do."

  • On simple play: "When players do something of transcendent athleticism, the twist, turn, jump, pike, flip, or whatever, and they miss the shot, the crowd goes ooh, ooh, oh. But it's just a missed shot. To me a much simpler way to play the game is better. The beauty is in the ball movement, the passing, and a lot less dribbling."

  • On whether he'd like to be a head coach again: "Oh, absolutely. That's what I'm working towards."