Mike D’Antoni was sitting on the bench Friday night at Staples Center, the visitors’ one, to be sure.
Two hours before the Lakers played the Philadelphia 76ers, the former Lakers coach kept getting approached by present-day employees. They were all smiling.
“You look great, Mike,” one said.
There were jokes about his golf game. How the color had returned to his face. How he looked years younger.
D’Antoni has a new job now, a less stressful one than when he sat on the Lakers’ bench for two seasons. D’Antoni was hired two weeks ago to be the associate head coach of the 76ers.
He’s happy to be back in the NBA after sitting out almost 1½ seasons.
“Very much so,” D’Antoni said before the 76ers played the Lakers. “I missed it.”
There were some obvious questions. Does he ever watch the Lakers? Think about his time with them?
“No,” he said, declining to go deep on the subject. “Life goes on.”
D’Antoni’s brand of up-tempo basketball wasn’t the right fit for an aging, brittle roster meant to be anchored by Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. There was also tension because Pau Gasol didn’t like the small-ball approach and let it be known publicly.
D’Antoni resigned after the Lakers won 27 games in 2013-14, a franchise low until they won only 21 last season. They’re on pace to win fewer than that this season.
D’Antoni sold his close-to-the-ocean Manhattan Beach home about six months ago and moved to West Virginia, not far from where his brother, Dan, coaches Marshall University.
Then Jerry Colangelo came calling after being hired by the 76ers last month as an advisor to help straighten out the messy franchise. One of Colangelo’s first moves was to get D’Antoni on board. The two previously collaborated successfully in Phoenix, when D’Antoni coached the Suns and Colangelo was a team executive.
Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown called it a “privilege” to learn about D’Antoni’s offensive teachings.
“He started something really unique at Phoenix,” Brown said Friday. “You’ve got an offensive mind, you’ve got a good person, you’ve got perspective, somebody that’s coached in the league for many years. There’s a hint of wisdom. I say, ‘What do you think?’ and you listen a little bit more closely.”
D’Antoni is enjoying it despite the 76ers’ awful record, 3-31 before Friday. They have turned into an NBA punch line, continually among the league’s worst teams while struggling mightily in their rebuilding process.
They had won two of their last three games coming into Friday, an immense surge for them.
“We’re rolling,” D’Antoni said, smiling. “The players are super and willing to learn. The staff and support staff — great atmosphere. Everybody’s pulling together the same way. There’s a lot of possibilities to be good. Not immediately. There’s a nice vibe right now. I haven’t been disappointed at all.”