He didn't receive a single vote for NBA Coach of the Year and, despite the obvious oversight, he didn't think it made one iota of difference. "It was a no-win situation," said Los Angeles Lakers rookie coach Mike Dunleavy. "If we win, we're supposed to win. If we don't win, it's "What happened?' I knew that pressure would be there stepping in.
"But every day I say prayers of thanks for the opportunity I got here. It's what you always hope for as an aspiring coach."
Dunleavy was only 36 when he was introduced as the Lakers' new coach, replacing the popular Pat Riley. He inherited Magic Johnson, perhaps the greatest team player from one of the greatest teams of all-time. Three years as a Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach, and Dunleavy was taking over a team that had won five championships and appeared in eight finals in 11 years.
And, yet, he was ready, fearless even, in his approach to sculpting the Lakers in his image. Showtime, as the players knew it _ running and dunking and winning _ would become a distant memory.
"When I came, I felt we needed a change," said Dunleavy, whose Lakers are playing the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals _ a remarkable accomplishment for a first-year coach. "I wanted to establish a halfcourt defense and work on a halfcourt offense. I felt the halfcourt game gets you into the playoffs, and once you get there, you have to be prepared to play it and defend it. It's not brain surgery."
Struggles, however, were inevitable, because here was a new coach introducing a new style to a team with new faces.
Orlando Woolridge and Michael Cooper were gone. Replacing them were free-agent signees Sam Perkins and Terry Teagle, and rookies Elden Campbell, Tony Smith and Irving Thomas of Florida State. And with the addition of Perkins, veteran A.C. Green would have a new role.
The Lakers lost their season opener at San Antonio. They also lost their home opener in overtime to Portland, falling to 0-2 for the first time since 1984. The Lakers were 1-4 after five games _ their worst start since 1978.
That night, after losing to Phoenix, Dunleavy delivered a message that would change the course of the season.
"He came in, but he didn't get on everybody," Johnson said. "He just said, "Hey, we're going to be a good team. Be patient and hang in there.' "
"I think I caught everyone by surprise by saying that, but I could see us coming," Dunleavy said. "We'd played hard. We'd played some good defense. Still, the players could have said, "We're not playing well. This guy's a new coach. We don't like him.' But they didn't do that. They stuck with me, worked hard, and it's come out like this."
The Lakers constructed an eight-game winning streak just five days after the loss to Phoenix, and then in January the Lakers won 16 consecutive games. The transition from Showtime to Slowtime was complete, and the Lakers' 58-24 record was topped only by Portland and the Bulls.
"We know who's running things, but he's one of the boys," Johnson said of Dunleavy, a former NBA player who still challenges and regularly beats his players in games of H-O-R-S-E. "He's fun. The last few years with Coach Riley, there was no room for laughter or fun. He was so intense."
"You go with what you believe in," Dunleavy said. "I always felt secure with this team."