PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Now, what would a great player be without a great coach? Well, according to at least one of them, they'd still be great players.
BILL KURTIS: Coach Mike D'Antoni of the Houston Rockets joined us in January of this year. We asked him about working with a superstar on his team.
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SAGAL: What's it like getting to watch James Harden play every night?
MIKE D'ANTONI: Special.
D'ANTONI: He's the real deal.
D'ANTONI: And it's - you know, he's better than what most people think. He's is the best I've seen.
SAGAL: For people who don't know, James Harden is known for his extraordinary offensive play and also for his amazing beard.
SAGAL: Have you ever had to talk to him about the beard? Like, dude, nobody can see your uniform number. You need to...
D'ANTONI: No, most of the time it's, like, you know, you've got egg in there. Or you've got...
SAGAL: Is part of your duties as head coach, like...
SAGAL: ...Picking the nits out of James Harden's beard?
D'ANTONI: Sometimes, that's my only duty.
SAGAL: He seems pretty serious. Are you allowed to tease him about his beard?
D'ANTONI: Very carefully.
SAGAL: Yeah, I know.
SAGAL: So when did you figure out that you could be a coach in this league?
D'ANTONI: I'm - when I'm 39 years old, and I've retired from playing, and I'm looking around and going, now what? And so it's, like, you know, I had really good teams in Europe, and I got lucky. And, like anybody else, it's just being in the right spot at the right time. And I went back and started coaching the NBA.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: Do you have, like, psychological techniques that you use?
D'ANTONI: (Laughter) No. No.
D'ANTONI: No. That would mean that I would have to be and the players would have to be smart, so we're not. No, we're just...
LUKE BURBANK: Coach, you're known for a really up-tempo style. Do players like playing for you because of that? Or is it exhausting for them?
D'ANTONI: No. No. It's - you know, I think they like it. There's been some that haven't liked it. And, obviously, I've been to different cities. I've been fired a few times, so there's a lot of players don't like that.
SAGAL: No. No. They don't like being fired or they don't like when you get fired?
D'ANTONI: No, they get me fired.
SAGAL: Oh, I see.
D'ANTONI: Obviously, they didn't like to play the way I wanted to play.
SAGAL: Well, that to me is interesting because you're coaching incredibly well-paid, incredibly talented athletes who have been at the pinnacle of their sport for probably their entire careers. Like, everybody in the NBA was a superstar the moment they got there.
SAGAL: How do you handle people like that who are the stars of the league?
D'ANTONI: Well, there's a lot of groveling and begging and pleading.
POUNDSTONE: Well, I think, then, that you need to have some psychological techniques.
D'ANTONI: There you go.
SAGAL: So seriously, how do you - if James Harden, say, or Chris Paul - both superstars - if you want them to do something they're not doing, or you want them to do something better or different, how do you do that?
D'ANTONI: We work together, and I give my experience in there. And we're very analytic-based now, so a lot of it is data-driven where they can see that it makes sense.
POUNDSTONE: Give me an example of a time where a problem is solved by data.
D'ANTONI: Well, you have a player that shoots primarily two-point shots instead of three-point shots. So I'm not going to get too technical, but I can show them some of the data that shooting that shot there is not as effective as shooting the three-point, so you have to...
POUNDSTONE: Wait a minute - but they don't know that three points is...
POUNDSTONE: ...Higher than two points?
D'ANTONI: Hey, it's taken about 20 years for the NBA to figure that out.
SAGAL: Wait a minute...
BURBANK: Coach, I'm on a YMCA men's team in...
POUNDSTONE: Yeah. Well, you want to go for the three points.
D'ANTONI: That's a good start.
BURBANK: Yeah. We're called the Sledge Hogs. You've probably heard of us.
BURBANK: I didn't name the team.
D'ANTONI: We have scouts there most of the nights.
BURBANK: We lost a game this week by 49 points.
BURBANK: Do you have any advice for us as to how to be a better team?
D'ANTONI: (Laughter) Well, start scoring more points.
SAGAL: Yeah, I know.
BURBANK: Is three points more than two points?
D'ANTONI: Yes, three.
D'ANTONI: Shoot threes.
SAGAL: The biggest cliche of every sports movie any of us have ever seen is the halftime motivational speech, right?
D'ANTONI: (Laughter) Yeah, that's great.
POUNDSTONE: Do you give that?
D'ANTONI: No (laughter).
D'ANTONI: Most of the time I'm - like I said, I'm in that fetal position. They're giving me the speech.
SAGAL: Well, coach, it is great to have you with us. We have invited you here today to play our game. And we call it...
CHIOKE I'ANSON: Mike D'Antoni, Meet Mike, Dan and Tony.
SAGAL: Since your name is built out of three first names, much like a transformer - Mike, Dan, and Tony...
SAGAL: ...We thought we'd ask you one question each about a Mike, a Dan and a Tony.
D'ANTONI: All right.
SAGAL: If you get two right - could be a Dan and Mike, could be a Tony and Dan, could be a Tony and Mike - if you do any of those, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - the voice of their choice from our show. Chioke, who is coach Mike D'Antoni playing for?
I'ANSON: Jim Hogan of Geneva, N.Y.
SAGAL: All right. You ready to play?
D'ANTONI: Oh, yeah.
SAGAL: Oh, yeah. Here we go. First up, Michael Jordan - you may have heard of him - he remains the world's most famous Mike. He was so famous during his heyday that you could find which of these? A, a shrine to him in the palace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il; B, a megachurch in Lebanon that believed he was the Messiah; or C, the "Be Like Mike" diet book, which recommended you consume only Gatorade and expensive cigars?
D'ANTONI: I'm probably going with the shrine in North Korea just because Dennis Rodman solved our problems there, right?
SAGAL: You're right. You're exactly right.
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SAGAL: It turns out that Kim Jong Un got his love of the great Bulls teams of yesteryear...
SAGAL: ...From his father, Kim Jong Il. So Kim Jong Il, the dictator, had a shrine to Michael Jordan. All right. Next up is Dan. One of the most famous Dans in American history was Vice President Dan Quayle.
SAGAL: He's remembered now mostly for misspelling the word potato and for not being Jack Kennedy. But he also said many memorable things during his time in the public light, including which of these? A, quote, "I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future..."
SAGAL: ...B, quote, "I believe we are on an irreversible trend towards more freedom and democracy. But that could change..."
SAGAL: ...Or C, quote, "The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history. No, not our nation's, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century - but in this century's history," unquote.
D'ANTONI: Do you have D, all of the above?
SAGAL: That's actually right. I'm going to give it to you.
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SAGAL: He said all of those things.
SAGAL: The last up is Tony. So one of the most famous Tonys, of course, is Tony the Tiger.
SAGAL: Tony the Tiger, the cereal spokes-animal, has fans around the world. They can get a little out of hand, though, such as when which of these actually happened? A, a group of people started raising money to save tigers from, they said, being harvested to make Frosted Flakes...
SAGAL: ...B, Tony the Tiger went on Twitter to ask furries to please stop sending him anthropomorphic erotica...
SAGAL: ...Or C, somebody invented a language called Tony-talk, which is English, but you growl every R?
D'ANTONI: I'm going with B.
SAGAL: You're exactly right...
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SAGAL: This happened a couple years ago. A lot of people were tweeting inappropriate things at Tony the Tiger, so he tweeted, quote, "I'm all for showing your stripes, feathers, etc., but let's keep things great and family friendly if you could. Cubs could be watching."
Chioke, how did coach Mike D'Antoni do on our quiz?
I'ANSON: Nothing but net - Mike got 3 out of 3.
SAGAL: Congratulations, coach.
SAGAL: Mike D'Antoni, coach of the Houston Rockets. Coach Mike, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
That's it for our midsummer break edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.