In the bowels of an empty arena, the NBA's most maligned coach stood in a long, narrow corridor and clutched a big tub of popcorn. The Los Angeles Clippers' Vinny Del Negro has been a punch line for people, a B-list Hollywood sitcom foil forever on the wrong end of the gag, a former player and front-office executive portrayed as a bumbling sideline caretaker.
Somehow, he's been the coach who gets all the blame and none of the credit. Yes, he understands that's the nature of the business. Only now, Del Negro was leaving Memphis with a Game 7 victory on Sunday, leaving with a berth in the Western Conference semifinals, and a measure of vindication belonged to him. He's been the easiest target in basketball, but people have underestimated his staying power.
In a shortened season with complete roster turnover, several injuries and no practice time, it had been reported that Del Negro lost his locker room two months ago. He was a dead coach walking. He listens to a lot this, lets most of it go, but that story cut to his credibility and stayed on his mind. In the biggest victory of his coaching career, on his way to San Antonio for the Western Conference semifinals, the mere mention still made him seethe.