Culture / Sporting Life

Inside Mike and Laurel D’Antoni’s Coaching Marriage — This Rare Union Helps Power the NBA’s Best Team

When a Drive is About Much More Than Basketball

BY // 03.30.18

Mike and Laurel D’Antoni don’t just share a bed. They share a car — regularly. Which makes them much, much more unusual in the world of the high-pressure professional coaches and their spouses.

The husband and wife team at the heart of the NBA’s best team drive together, to and from, every Houston Rockets’ home game. Sometimes, they talk through potential issues with the team on these drives. Sometimes, the trips are just a chance to decompress or debrief. Some rarer times, they’ll even talk about almost everything but basketball. But they’re always in the car, talking. This ritual started when Mike D’Antoni coached the New York Knicks and a journey to Madison Square Garden meant an hour and half commitment, one way.

“In the car, we could catch up,” Laurel D’Antoni says. “Like a date.”

If you don’t think these regular car dates are outliers in the world of big-time coaching, you haven’t been paying attention to the people grumbling back answers at most sports press conferences. Those wearing hoodies and not. When I profiled a yet-legendary Nick Saban (who like Mike D’Antoni happens to be a West Virginia-raised innovator) when he coached Michigan State, his wife Terry generously let me into their home, shared stories of his secret gardening habit and flipped through pictures of their high-energy vacations. But Terry Saban outright laughed when I asked how much time she and Nick spent together during the season.

Mike and Laurel D’Antoni aren’t just unusual, they’re unicorns on the level of Giannis Antetokounmpo when it comes to this coaching marriage stuff.

The 66-year-old Mike D’Antoni wouldn’t thrive in the NBA any other way though. In a league that increasingly grinds up and spits out its coaches, often broken, on the other side (see Cavs coach Tyronn Lue needing to step away from the team to save his health, see Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s medical leave of absence, see Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s continuing health battles), D’Antoni’s secret weapon is having Laurel so often at his side, or in his office at the Toyota Center, making sure he always has an ally, someone who has his back first, someone who he can always talk to when needed.

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Almost every coach and wife say they’re in things together. Mike and Laruel D’Antoni live it every day. And every single drive to the arena.

This true partnership extends beyond the Toyota Center into the community. Mike and Laurel D’Antoni are determined to make a difference in Houston, the city that welcomed them after it looked like Mike D’Antoni somehow might not get another chance to be the head coach of an NBA team.

“I feel like Houston is embracing my husband and I,” Laurel D’Antoni tells PaperCity. “I just hope we can meet up to her standards.”

Book Driven

This sense of mission is why Laurel D’Antoni will be front and center with her 30 “sisters” in the Rockets Women’s Organization, leading a book drive at tonight’s home game with the Phoenix Suns. For each book and every book a fan donates, they will be given a raffle ticket with some serious player experiences as prizes (example — with the James Harden basket, the winning ticket holder will walk away with a bunch of James Harden gear and swag and  the opportunity to meet the Rockets’ NBA MVP favorite).

We told you Laurel D’Antoni has some serious pull. The Rockets Women’s Organization collected more than 7,000 books last year with little promotion — and Laurel D’Antoni’s aiming for 10,000 this time in a drive with Reliant and the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation as partners. (The more books a fan gives, the more chances they have to win).

On Monday morning, the nonprofits that will receive the books get a chance to come into the Toyota Center in something of a ballon party atmosphere and select which ones they’ll bring to the children they help. To Laurel D’Antoni, this day after Easter is a holiday onto itself.

“For me the best part is seeing the care they use to pick books,” she says. “The ‘Oh, I know a kid who will love this book.’ ”

After all, so much of life comes down to feeling people have confidence in you. Whether you’re a little kid growing up in a rough Houston environment where you have no access to books at home, or you’re a $228 million NBA superstar, or you’re an NBA role player coming to a new team wondering if your defense really will be valued, confidence is a life raft.

The Confidence Man

Giving confidence is one of Mike D’Antoni’s greatest coaching skills. Yes, he’s one of the most influential offensive minds in the history of basketball. Let’s face it, D’Antoni didn’t just change the league with his Seven Seconds or Less system in Phoenix, he in many ways saved the game from the slog it’d become. He brought the joy back. And now, he coaches a largely different way with another 61-win (and counting) team.

D’Antoni’s Rockets run a ton of isolation basketball with two of the best isolation players in NBA history (Harden and Chris Paul). This is why people like Bill Simmons moan about the Rockets not being as fun to watch. (But that’s an argument for another day). Mike D’Antoni adapts. He innovates while adapting. He’ll take the talent he’s given and get the best out of it (look at all the career seasons going on, up and down this Rockets roster).

Still, D’Antoni’s greatest gift may be that sense of confidence he embeds. Laurel D’Antoni sees it every day.

“The best thing — and he’s tried to do this for me and my son as well — he just gives you so much confidence,” Laurel says. “He’s so even keel.”

Mike D’Antoni never seems to let anything get to him. He doesn’t get visibly annoyed at reporter questions. He uses deadpan humor to deflect things. He almost never throws a fit on the sidelines. Instead, he gives off the sense that he’s got this — and therefore you do too.

This is why Mike D’Antoni spends a rare Wednesday off night at home into a trip to the Toyota Center with Laurel for a pre-book drive event. They’ll drum up interest and then head off to dinner. Just another “date night.”

After games, they’ll arrive home after 11 pm —and another routine will begin. “I’ll make him something — some coconut shrimp or something,” Laurel says. “Then we’ll do the game.”

This coaching husband and wife will actually rewatch that night’s game together, with Mike D’Antoni rewinding as needed and both sometimes talking things through.

“These guys have too much adrenalin to go home and go to bed,” Laurel says. “Too pumped up. If we were younger, I’d be begging to go dancing or something. I’d want to have fun at a club. But at our age, we’re going to watch NCIS or The Good Doctor. ”

Just another couple in love, watching broadcast TV, chilling on the couch, changing the NBA day after day, drive after drive.

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