Kevin McHale to make emotional return to Minnesota after daughter's death
Houston Rockets attend Sasha McHale's funeral, end emotional day with loss in Oklahoma City
Sasha McHale, 23, daughter of ex-Timberwolves coach, dies
The instincts from the game that shaped Kevin McHale's life are evident again.
It has been a gradual and painful process for the Houston Rockets coach, but his players and assistants are seeing the revival.
McHale has admonished his players for setting poor screens, displaying a casual demeanor on the court and during timeouts and for any other fundamental flaw that he felt required their attention.
"The little things that upset him, a week or 10 days ago, he would not have addressed those things," Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Every day, you can tell he's getting better. In staff meetings, he wasn't as talkative or demonstrative. Kevin's a storyteller. He wasn't doing any of that."
McHale's love for basketball has been one of his strongest allies to help him cope with the death of his 23-year-old daughter, Sasha, who died Nov. 24 of complications from lupus. The former Timberwolves executive, coach and TV analyst needed almost a month before he felt he was ready to coach again.
McHale's inner strength likely will be challenged again when the Minnesota native returns to his home state Wednesday night, Dec. 26, to face the Wolves at Target Center.
The game will mark McHale's first visit to Target Center since Sasha died. As a young girl, she was regularly seen in the arena while her father worked Wolves telecasts or was running the club's basketball operations department.
Those memories will be hard for McHale to ignore. He and
his wife, Lynn, endured a difficult first Christmas without Sasha on Tuesday while the family was in Chicago for Houston's game against the Bulls.
Lynn and the couple's remaining four children will be at Wednesday's game to offer more support to McHale.
"Those who know Kevin know he has a heart of gold and is incredibly close to his family," said TNT and CBS broadcaster Kevin Harlan, who worked Wolves telecasts with McHale from 1993-95. "I've always thought of him as very distinct with his personal and professional life. As a parent, my heart breaks for him and his family."
Heading into Tuesday's game at Chicago, Houston was 5-3 since McHale rejoined the team for a Dec. 8 game against Dallas. The Rockets were riding a three-game winning streak, an indication that McHale and his players have regained their focus since Sasha's death. But McHale's return wasn't easy on him or his team.
"We lost that game to Dallas," said Rockets assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, a former Wolves assistant. "That was a tough night. He had been away, and things had changed. We had made adjustments and improvements. He had to feel his way back into it, but he was glad to be back working and happy to be around the guys. It was good for him to have an
Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale protests a foul call against his team by referee Dan Crawford, right, during the third quarter against the Wolves at Target Center in Minneapolis on Monday January 23, 2012. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)
As much as McHale has worshipped basketball most of his life, the sport fell off his radar when he took a leave of absence Nov. 10 to join Lynn at Sasha's side. Sasha's condition had worsened, and she was placed in intensive care.
"Before he took the leave, he had talked about how she was doing," said Sampson, who took over the head coaching duties in McHale's absence. "She was doing better. Then she took a turn for the worse in the fall. He called me one day and said he had to fly back home. He was crying. It was pretty emotional. He couldn't say much more than that."
The Wolves honored Sasha with a moment of silence before their Nov. 30 home game against Milwaukee. Several members of the organization attended the Nov. 28 funeral at St. Odilia Catholic Church in Shoreview. The McHales live in North Oaks.
There are no plans for a formal tribute to McHale and Sasha before Wednesday's game, but McHale is certain to receive a warm reception from fans and members of the Wolves organization.
"Everywhere we go, somebody comes up to him to give him a big hug," Bickerstaff said. "Over the last 33 years or so, his touch has been felt all over the NBA. It's hard to find people who don't like Kevin McHale, who weren't touched by him in some way."
After the Rockets defeated Boston in Houston on Dec. 14, McHale and Celtics forward Kevin Garnett embraced in an emotional hug that moved McHale and nearby observers to tears. The moment was captured on television and went viral on YouTube and other websites.
Garnett was McHale's first draft pick, and the two developed a close relationship over K.G.'s 12 years with the Wolves.
"Their relationship was pretty tight," Bickerstaff said.
Bickerstaff said the staff had no doubt that McHale would return. Sampson and McHale talked at least twice a day about the team while McHale was gone. Sampson said he avoided mentioning Sasha sometimes in their talks, but McHale occasionally would bring her name up.
"You could tell it was a battle for him ... thinking about the team and Sasha," Sampson said. "When he came back, he told us he was really going to lean on us to help him get through it. In the last week, you can tell he's getting back to himself."