11:00 PM PDT, March 20, 2013
It's that time of year for two of Los Angeles' main basketball coaches. They are living the Willie Nelson country song.
Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be basketball coaches.
We watch a Clippers game Wednesday night, pondering the fate of one, Vinny Del Negro. His team had lost four of its last seven games, it has key players injured and out and a couple of guys on the radio say he needs to win at least the first round of the playoffs or he is toast. They are, of course, on the Lakers radio station, where there isn't a coaching issue. Mike D'Antoni is here for awhile.
For Del Negro, the playoffs are 13 games away, after the Clippers easily handle the 26-41 Philadelphia 76ers, 101-72.
Ben Howland is in Texas, awaiting UCLA's Friday night NCAA opener against Minnesota. His Bruins will play minus one of their stars, who broke his foot in the last five seconds of a victory that put them in the Pac-12 Conference tournament title game. Without Jordan Adams, the Bruins lost the title game and, apparently projected to be less effective without him by the selection committee, received a less-desirable tournament placement.
A few days ago in the paper, Howland's job future was discussed in hedged phrases: "There is talk…", "There is word that…","Boosters are apparently lining up replacement candidates."
Del Negro, 46, is philosophical, Howland, 55, quietly angry. Their situations are both similar and different.
Del Negro is in his third season as Clippers coach. He has had a good season, with an exciting team that has a chance to make a strong run at the Western Conference title, one that has stolen some buzz from the Lakers. He has coached five seasons in the NBA, made the playoffs four times.
Howland is in his 10th season as UCLA coach. He has had a good season, guiding the Bruins to the regular-season Pac-12 championship and the final of the conference tournament. Three times, he has taken the Bruins to the NCAA Final Four, once to the title game.
But for both coaches, it seems to boil down to: What have you done for us lately?
"You know what you are getting into when you take the job," Del Negro says.
Howland, wanting to know where the "talk" is coming from and which "boosters" are lining up replacements, answered questions this week about his job status with a blunt: "You'll have to ask Dan."
UCLA's athletic director is Dan Guerrero. Statements from him have not been forthcoming.
Howland's contract status is simple. His runs through 2015. He would receive the rest of his salary if dismissed, but, in most cases, these guys want to coach more than they simply want to make money. In the mid-1980s, a veteran football coach named Joe Yukica was fired by Dartmouth. The school said it would pay his contract. Yukica sued, saying the contract gave him the right to coach, not just make money. He won and continued.
Del Negro's is dicier. The Clippers picked up his option year last year. Come May 1, he is no longer under contract. The Clippers, of course, don't know what franchise player Chris Paul will do — stay or move on. Paul becomes a free agent July 1 and doesn't have to declare any intentions until then; doing so early might compromise his leverage.
Does Paul want Del Negro to stay? Will Del Negro take another job rather than waiting two months? Will the Clippers do well enough in the playoffs to motivate the Clippers to keep him, Paul or not?
Lots of stomach turning there.
"In this profession," Del Negro says, "you have to understand there will be lots of ups and downs."
The day Howland got the UCLA job, he called it the job of a lifetime. He'd say the same today.
Del Negro says, proudly, "There are only 30 of these [NBA] jobs in the world."
Both are baffled by the forest-fire speed with which speculation on their job status sparks and explodes. The age of social media and anonymous internet opinion, is dizzying. It is nice that more people have voices. If only those voices had a clue.
"I never know where this stuff comes from," Howland says.
Del Negro says, "People get a little delusional. And they want everything right now. What's the score? Where's my phone. I want it now."
Sports used to have a winner and loser. Now, it has four guys sitting at a TV desk, chattering about it before, during and after, followed by thousands tweeting and texting about the chatter.
Noise often drowns out substance. We wait to see if it influences the livelihoods of Del Negro and Howland.
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