There is an apocryphal story that every sports fan — and most non-sports fans for that matter — has heard: Babe Ruth’s called shot.
According to legend, during Game 3 of the 1932 World Series between the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs, Ruth stepped into the batter’s box in the fifth inning with the score tied 4-4. The Cubs dugout and fans had been riding him mercilessly all day, and he was growing tired of it. After taking a called first strike from Cubs pitcher Charlie Root, Ruth pointed towards center field. After taking a second called strike, Ruth repeated the gesture. On the pitch that would have been strike three, The Great Bambino clobbered a gargantuan home run over the center field wall, exactly where he had pointed.
It’s a great story, the kind you’d read in a Hollywood script. It’s romantic. It’s inspiring. And it’s no wonder people would want it to be true despite sketchy facts and changing tellings, including from Ruth himself. People want to believe.
The same can be said of general manager Ryan McDonough’s recent coaching hire.
The Phoenix Suns announced on May 2 that Utah Jazz assistant coach Igor Kokoskov would be their new head coach, agreeing to a three-year deal. When he officially steps into the role vacated by interim head coach Jay Triano at the conclusion of Utah’s playoff run, he will become the 19th head coach in franchise history and take the reins of a team that finished with the NBA’s worst record at 21-61.
Kokoskov is a great story. Born in the former Yugoslavia, Kokoskov will be a rookie head coach in the NBA after serving as an assistant coach since the 2000-01 season with the Los Angeles Clippers, becoming the first head coach in the NBA ever born and raised outside North America despite the smart money being on Ettore Messina for years. He’s worked under a number of esteemed coaches, winning an NBA Championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004, and most recently stepped into his own by guiding the underdog Slovenian men’s national team to the gold medal in the 2017 EuroBasket tournament.
He even has ties to Phoenix, calling the Valley home and having been an assistant coach with the Suns from 2008-09 to 2012-13. Jared Dudley recently acknowledged that Kokoskov was the one drawing up plays during timeouts while serving under Earl Watson 1.0 (Lindsey Hunter) in 2013. Take that last part for what it’s worth.
He’s personable, he’s smart, he’s a hard worker. One would be hard-pressed to find someone to say a bad word about him. McDonough certainly couldn’t, saying in a release announcing the decision that “Igor has been a pioneer throughout his basketball career, and he brings a wealth of high level coaching experience to our club. …Igor’s teams have always had a player development focus, a creative style of play and a track record of success.”
It certainly sounds as though Phoenix found its dream candidate and that everything went according to plan…except that’s not entirely accurate.
Kokoskov was not a part of the first batch of interviews conducted by McDonough; his first contact with the Suns came sometime during the Jazz’s first-round playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. (His name didn’t pop up in rumors until the latter half of that series.) The first interviews went to Mike Budenholzer and David Fizdale, and both went beyond a basic meet-and-greet. Budenholzer and McDonough went pretty far down the road before Budenholzer pulled his name from consideration due to circumstances that remain unclear. Then a report emerged that Fizdale, who was formally announced as the next coach of the New York Knicks on a four-year deal yesterday, turned down a four-year deal from Phoenix earlier. Scott Bordow of azcentral.com tweeted that McDonough called the report “inaccurate” in a phone interview but that the GM wouldn’t go into specifics on what was inaccurate.
In any case, he wasn’t the first choice. He probably wasn’t the second choice. That’s not to say he won’t prove to be the best choice, only that if McDonough had his druthers, the Suns’ PR department would have been hyping someone other than Kokoskov last week.
And that’s disheartening. This hire is being portrayed as the end result of a lengthy, in-depth process where, after a thorough analysis of the candidates, all paths led to Kokoskov. The truth isn’t as warm and fuzzy, like reading a Brothers Grimm story after being raised on the Disney version.
This is not meant as an indictment of Kokoskov. He has proven himself both as an NBA assistant and as a head coach internationally. There is no reason why he can’t become the next coach to emerge from relative obscurity to prove himself adept at the NBA level, a la Mike D’Antoni among others. For the sake of this woebegone franchise, let’s hope that’s the outcome.
But McDonough didn’t want him initially. He wanted Budenholzer. Then Fizdale. (If I were Dave, this is where I would start recounting a “fictional” story of rejection and settling that is just an analogy and that totally didn’t happen. #TammyStrong) Does McDonough deserve credit for getting a commitment from his third choice? If Kokoskov turns out to be the next Brad Stevens or Quin Snyder, was it due to McDonough’s brilliant evaluation and foresight or dumb luck? If Kokoskov proves to be a misstep, does McDonough request a mulligan because he couldn’t secure his preferred coach? For anyone looking for decisiveness to start the offseason, this wasn’t it.
Look, it would be nice to think that Kokoskov and the Suns were a storybook match, one written in the stars so to speak. But professional sports is about results, and if Kokoskov delivers, none of this will matter. Whether he was the first choice or last will be nothing more than a footnote to the story if Kokoskov whips these Suns into winners. Besides, McDonough landing his preferred draft pick or free agent is far more important than coach in the larger scheme.
Maybe McDonough didn’t call his shot. Maybe the story is sweeter than real life. But we can hope that discussion of the circumstances surrounding the hire means the hire itself was the right choice. In that event, maybe real life just has some catching up to do to arrive at that happily-ever-after everyone wants to believe in.
After all, whether or not Ruth called his shot is only discussed today because he didn’t strike out that October afternoon.