Archive for the ‘Detroit Pistons’ Category

Just In Case You Get the Chance to Coach Superstars

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

On last night’s Lakers-Bulls telecast, they showed the “retired jersey” of Phil Jackson in the rafters at the United Center.  As always is the case, mention was made of Phil winning all those rings but . . . how he always had great players.  First, Michael & Scottie, then Shaq & Kobe and then Kobe and the cast of characters from last year’s team (with the emphasis on Kobe). 

It seems Phil Jackson’s championships can’t be mentioned without someone bringing up the “Yeah, but he had great players” line.  While it is true, there have been many coaches with great players who have failed to win championships - at all levels (remember the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars of Guy Lewis)?  It takes more than just great players.  And the way championships are won differ with the different personalities of the coaches who lead those talented squads.

There’s Phil and his Zen approach.  Imagine getting NBA players to understand Zen, much less embrace it?  There was a story of how he tried it on one of his early championship Bulls’ teams.  He told the guys to sit quietly and close their eyes.  The legend goes that a few (or more) of the players peeked - and saw Michael Jordan sitting with his eyes closed - and that sealed the deal.  Moral: Get your best player to buy into your philosophy and the others fall right into line.

Doc Rivers coached a team put together by Danny Ainge (with help from his best friend, Kevin McHale) which initially had perennial all-star, but perennial also ran (as far as his team went), Paul Pierce.  Ainge added Ray Allen, one of the best shooters in NBA history (and in case you haven’t noticed, scoring is more important in basketball than any other team sport) and superstar, but also mired on a mediocre team, Kevin Garnett.

Doc knew he had an abundance of talent, but none of these guys had ever won.  He came up with the rallying cry/mantra, “Ubuntu” which (some thought meant “Help me, I’m in my contract year”), but actually, according to none other than Nelson Mandela, meant a concept made up of traits like unselfishness, caring and enabling others.  They rode it to a championship, to the point that when many of the Celtics were asked what their championship secret was, they claimed, “Ubuntu.”  That’s buying in.

Speaking of the Celtics, Red Auerbach had his run of championship after championship.  Bill Russell wound up with more rings than fingers.  What Red did was clever.  He made everybody else hate him, thus taking all the pressure off his guys.  It’s not like he had a bunch of slouches, but the shenanigans he pulled at the old Boston Garden (dead spots in the floor, turning up the heat in the visitor’s locker room, no hot water, and the piece de resistance - the victory cigar).  Plus, he did subtle things, like going to Big Russ and telling him not to pay attention when he yelled at him in practice, but if the rest of the players saw Russell getting an earful, they’d have no right to complain when Red jumped their cases.

The master of massaging egos (and in the NBA, there’s no shortage of that commodity) was the late Chuck Daly.  He took a team and gave it an image.  The “Bad Boys” aka the Detroit Pistons won back-to-back championships with nasty (dirty?) Bill Laimbeer; tough guy Rick Mahorn; bordering on lunatic, Dennis Rodman; if-you-need-a-score, call-me, Vinny Johnson; classy Joe Dumars (how did someone so respected, with so much class become a - vital - part of this team?) and Mr. Hidden Agenda, Isiah Thomas. 

I was working at the University of Toledo (less than an hour from Detroit) during those championship years and a little known fact is that the Pistons’ owner, Bill Davidson, made his early (and big) money in glass - and Toledo was known as the Glass Capital of the World.  We’d get choice seats (Mr. Davidson’s own - right behind the basket at the Pistons end of the floor) because there were many people in Toledo who were quite friendly with Mr. D. 

One of his confidantes told me a story that was not allowed to be leaked (so how did I find out)?  Mr. Davidson was so fond of Thomas that he pledged to him a million dollar bonus if the team won a championship.  Imagine what that kind of dissent that would have caused if it got out.

That’s how good Chuck Daly was.  Because he knew and, yet, had the ability to mold this apparent group of misfits into not one, but two championship teams.  His main strength was that he possessed so little egoWinning was his goal and he focused on working individually with each player on the team. 

Many people have said he knew how to handle players, but as Wilt Chamberlain told his new coach, Alex Hannum, when the coach said to the Big Dipper, “I heard you’re hard to handle.”

“You don’t handle people.  You handle animals,” said the player who caused more rule changes than any other in the history of the game.  Talk about making a statement early in a relationship.

When it comes to winning championships, sure, great players are needed, but as the late & great coach Chuck Daly (coach of the Original Dream Team - talk about egos!) said:

“It’s harder to take a group of really talented players and make them a championship team than it is to take a group of average guys and make them competitive.” 

  

The Moments that Make/Made Coaching Worthwhile

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Every coach enters the profession, dreaming of the moment he or she gets to lift up the trophy, cut the net down, get thrown in the pool, or whatever other defining ritual goes along with becoming the leader of a championship team.

It never happens as often as any coach likes.  But, . . . other than maybe the coaches who lead the pay-for-play guys, i.e. the pros, there are other moments that make the coach realize he or she is making a difference.  

In the math classes I teach, I often relate “life stories” to learning math (not as difficult as you might think).  When the subject of hard work came up a few days ago, I told the class the foillowing story, even though it happened before any of them were born.

In the fall of 1980, I had just taken a job as an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee when the phone in my office rang.  It was our secretary, saying there was an “Earl Cureton” on the phone.  I had coached a 6′9″ center by that name during the one and only season (1976-77) I served as an assistant coach at Robert Morris College.  At the end of that season (Earl’s sophomore year), he left as well, transferring to play in his hometown of Detroit - at UD - for their coach, Dick Vitale.  Still, since it had been so long since I’d talked to Earl, I thought it was a hoax, one of my coaching friends playing some sort of practical joke on me.

However, when I answered the phone, I heard a guy whispering, “coach fertig?” 

I replied, “Earl, is that you?  Where are you - and why are you whispering?”

“yeah, coach, it’s me and i’m in a phone booth at the spectrum.”  The Spectrum was the building the Philadelphia 76ers used to play.  Oh yeah, and a phone booth is where people used to go to make calls before cell phones were invented.  “coach, i think i just made the 76ers -  it was down to me and another guy and i just saw the equipment guy cleaning out his locker!“  Yeah, I’d say that’s was hint-and-a-half that guy was gone.  He said this with as much enthusiasm as a person who was whispering could.

“Hey, Earl, that’s greatCongratulations!

Now, he finally got up his courage to be heard - or else he got tired of the clandestine tone he’d been using up to now.  “Coach, I had to call somebody because I was so excited I just wanted to jump up and high five somebody, but the guy’s locker on one side of me is Moses Malone and the locker on the other side is Dr. J’s.”  (Good idea, on holding off on the celebration since they probably knew they were making the squad).  “The reason I’m calling you, coach, is to thank you for all the help you gave me.  I think you know what I’m talking about.” 

I have to admit I didn’t know exactly what he meant - until he jogged my memory.  “You remember that day in your office when you told me there were a million guys like me and that every day I worked, I would pass someone by, BUT every day I didn’t work, someone would pass me by?  Well, coach, I wanted to let you know that I never forgot that and everyday I didn’t feel like going hard or wanted to take a day off, I thought of what you said and was so afraid somebody was going to pass my by, I fought my way through whatever was dragging me down and worked my butt off.”  Come to think of it, I did remember Dick telling me that, during the year Earl was redshirting (due to the transfer rule - and the only year he was under Dickie V, who would take the Detroit Pistons job that following season), Earl was the hardest working redshirt, i.e. a guy who was only allowed to practice, he had ever seen.  

I now had perfect recall of that day and said to him, “Earl, do you remember who else was in my office that day?”

“Sure,” he said.  Larry and Charlie.”

Right,” I told him.  “And what are they doing now?”

“Last time I heard they were just hanging out.”

“That’s because they were part of the million other guys.”

We exchanged “goodbyes” & “good lucks” and after I hung up, I wasn’t sure who was flying higher - him or me.  For the record, Earl Cureton played twelve (12) seasons in the NBA or seven different teams - and helped two of them win NBA Championships (and the rings that go along with them) by being a key backup, first to Moses in Philly and then to Hakeem Olajuwon with the Houston Rockets.

It’s moments like these (many of which you don’t find out until your career is over) that justify all the hard work and long hours (and even the disappointments) you experienced.  The actual line I told Earl (and Charlie and Larry) in my office that (now) memorable day is worth repeating:

“There are a million guys like you and every day you work, you pass one of them by, but, every day you don’t work, someone passes you by - and you’ll never catch him.”

This story is one of over 200 from my book, Life’s A Joke.  For other excerpts, click on the “Jack’s Book” tab on the Home Page of this website. 

If the Draft Is Such a Crap Shoot Anyway, Why Add More Variables?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

The NBA draft has been cut to two rounds for some time.  As one general manager told me several years ago (when his title was Director of Player Personnel), “I have the easiest job in the world.  I fly around the country, on a really nice expense account, looking at players.  I get paid extremely well, that is, more than I ever thought I’d be making - and a lot more than I was making when I was an assistant coach in college - and when it comes down to it, here’s what happens when we draft.  

“We select with our first round pick whomever the decision-maker wants.  That could be the owner, if he thinks he knows the game (and so many of these guys have made so much dough, they look at the basketball team as their hobby - and figure, “C’mon, how hard can this be?”)  If the owner has a “first lieutenant,” that is, someone he implicitly trusts, (usually the general manager), then the selection will be the GM’s.  If the head coach has the power (and fewer and fewer even want that kind of power), the first rounder will be the pick of the head coach.

“I have some say in who we pick in the second round.  And he gets cut.  So, I feel like I’m stealing money!”

Now, before the reader start judging, let me explain.  The guy who told me this story (many years ago) is one of the hardest working and brightest guys I’ve met.  I also remember asking then-New York Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy, who few people remember started out in college coaching, how in the world he could coach a bunch of guys he didn’t ever see.  This was at one of our self-improvement clinics, during a lunch break when we had some time together.  He explained to me, “No way would I want to be both head coach and director of player personnel or GM.  It’s way too much work.  I don’t even have enough time to watch our next opponent, much less do a thorough job of scouting college and foreign players.  It’s a totally different game from college where you’re recruiting guys you feel are good fits for your head coach.”

All that taken into consideration, it’s amazing how many mistakes - or near mistakes - teams make - with as many people as they have employed to make sure they get it right when their team’s name is on the clock.

Sure the Colts (to briefly switch to football) got it right taking Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf, but there are an awful lot of professional people -and fans alike - who remember that Peyton was by no means the overwhelming choice.  And think about how far apart those two are in ability - physical, mental and emotional.

How about the greatest basketball player of all time going third in his draft?  Most people give the Rockets a pass when they decided against taking Michael Jordan and selected Hakeem Olajuwon first - one, because they desperately needed a center, two, the Dream had a Hall-of-Fame career and 3) he did lead his team to the ultimate prize.  But the grief the Portland Trailblazers have had to put up with has been merciless, when they took Sam Bowie - for the same reason.  They needed a center and had a great two guard in Clyde Drexler.

I was at Tennessee when Big Sam played at UK and everybody knew of the fragile nature of Bowie’s legs/knees/feet.  Maybe they felt they won a championship with another center who had lower extremities problems in Bill Walton, so history would repeat.  The classic line regarding the Blazers’ selection at number two was delivered by Bob Knight, who had coached MJ in the Olympic Games and had witnessed up close his skill, work ethic, and competitiveness.  As well as anyone, Bob Knight knew Michael Jordan was destined for superstardom.  So when Portland GM Stu Inman, a close friend of Knight’s, told him they really needed a center, Knight simply said to Inman, “Then draft Jordan - and play him at center.” 

Although taking really young guys is a gamble (e.g. Kwame Brown), taking a foreign player has to be more of a risk than a college guy.  Naturally, having spent 30 years in the college game, I’m biased toward the kids who play in the U.S., in front of rabid crowds and are raised on the NBA much more so than players from overseas.  It does seem like the gap is narrowing and there are some sensational players who weren’t born in this country.

However, one disappointment has been Darko Milicic.  In a previous blog, I mentioned unless a player is a surefire super, like LeBron or Shaq, the team drafting the player usually determines his chances for immediate success.  Milicic was not head coach Larry Brown’s top choice, especially with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade all available and poor Darko spent the entire year riding the pine.  Brown could get away with it because he’s one of the top notch coaches and the Pistons won - B-I-G.

The latest foreign fiasco is Ricky Rubio.  When your team is as bad as Minnesota was last year, and you’re sitting there with three “firsts,” including number four overall, you’d better be more than absolutely sure if you pick Rubio - who, on video, looks like un ultra-talented, pass first (& defend later) big guard who could help win games - and sell tickets.

Timberwolves president David Kahn dealt directly with Rubio and his agent or rep and, I’d bet felt certain, he could work a deal out to have the “European Pistol” in a T-Wolves jersey for this year.  Now, Kahn finds out Rubio decides he wants to play two more years in Spain.  Maybe it will all work out.  Maybe in two years, he’ll be thrilling NBA crowds and Kahn will look like a genius.  I’ll wager now that, even if that is the case, he won’t be playing for the same coach.

Sometimes the decision comes down to:

“The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”      

Examples of Excess in the Sporting World During a Down Economy

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

One of the industries hardest hit by the economy is college athletics.  With administrators coming to the conclusion (between 30-35 years later, depending on the institution) that when Title IX was passed in 1972, it meant it was a law, something that, if you didn’t follow, you would wind up paying dearly.  

No budget-slashing idea has caught on at the University of Tennessee where they make certain they’re in compliance, yet still manage to find upwards of $3.3 million - for salaries for their assistant football coaches.  That means if the Vols went 13-0 (a respectable year, from the fans’ viewpoint), their football staff, not including head coach Lane Kiffin (whose annual package is in the seven figure category, similar to the way it was when I got there in 1980 - except all seven figures are to the left of the decimal point, not just five of them like it was in those days), would cost the school over a quarter of a million dollars per game - and you’d be hard pressed to find a single soul in Knoxville who wouldn’t think every cent was justified.  Possibly because if they went 0-13, the cost would be even more - the $3.3 mil, plus moving expenses, a nationwide search and even more for the next coaching staff.  Orange might be the favorite color in TN, but green follows closely behind.

On the professional front (for some reason, UT is still considered amateur), Eli Manning recently signed a contract which will pay him an average of $15.3 million annually, exceeding his brother, Peyton’s, contract of $14.17 mil per year.  But don’t feel too sorry for his older bro; he’s more than making up the difference in endorsement dough (a talent he seems to have that might not equal his QB skills, but only because his QB skills are the best in the game - which, by the way, is why his next contract will be even more than Eli’s).  

And there will be a few other signal callers who will sign mega-deals, thanks to Eli - and David Tyree, the receiver who trapped the ball against his helmet, keeping what turned out to be the game winning drive alive - in the Super Bowl!  In the process, it cost me $240 in our annual  pool, which is based on scores of each of the participating teams at the end of each quarter (as if watching the Super Bowl isn’t entertaining enough).  One of my “boxes” (I sprung for $20 for two of them) had the AFC team’s final score ending in 4 and the NFC’s participant ending in 0, so a 14-10 Patriots’ victory would have suited me just fine.  Not because I wanted them to win - a Giants’ 20-14 would have been just as nice. 

So, with all my that money riding on the game, Tyree’s miraculous catch - under that kind of pressure - was nothing short of remarkable.  I guess that’s what separates the great ones from the guys who sit on the edge of their chair, waiting for the game to end, knowing if the Patriots can just shut down the Giants - and close out a 14-10 victory, I get what amounts to someone else making (one of) my February car payments.    

This past basketball season, many teams in the NBA “tightened their purse strings” during the free agency signing period, waiting to open up the pocketbooks and “let the green flow” when next year’s uber-crop of free agents hit the market.  The names of those who won’t have to worry about filling out the short form for quite a while are: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Tyson Chandler, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Redd.

This year’s belt tightening meant Hedo Turkoglu who, at 6′10″ can run the NBA’s offense-du-jour-decade (the pick & roll/pop), left Orlando, where he played more than a bit part in leading the Magic to the NBA Finals, to chase the money - all the way across the border, to Toronto, for the sum of $53 million over five years.  Chicago’s Ben Gordon, this century’s version of Vinnie “the Microwave” Johnson, i.e. a guy who can churn out points in huge numbers in a hurry (at both ends of the floor, but fans only know how many are at the offensive end - because those are the ones that are printed in the paper), turned down a $56 million/5 year offer from the Bulls before the season, then was offered only $51M/5yr following their playoff defeat to the Celtics in an epic seven-game battle.  He showed Chicago - by turning down that puny offer to sign a deal for an additional $4,000,000 from the Detroit Pistons (coincidentally, the Micro’s old squad).  What this means is he actually lost a million from the original offer he turned down.  You’re thinking, “So, he lost a million.  He’s still making an average of $11 mil/year for the next half decade.”  Go ahead, pooh-pooh it.  Just remember, a million here, a million there, it starts to add up.

The “making lemonade out of lemons” award goes to the Lakers who were snubbed by their young, talented forward, Trevor Ariza, a critical piece of their run to the title.  Ariza bolted LA for Houston and its five-year, $33 million offer.  How would the World Champs deal with the depletion of such a critical rotation player?  Simple.  Make the identical offer to Houston’s Ron Artest, essentially trading youth for experience - and, arguably, improving the champs’ roster.  And all it took was $53 million over five years.  Not sure I’d have made that deal but, then again, not having that Super Bowl money Tyree’s catch cost me is probably clouding my thinking.  

But for sheer, unadulterated spendthrifting (if that’s a word - and if it’s not, he could buy its way into Webster’s), Jerry Jones is right where he wants to be - at the top.  The size of scoreboard alone of his newest toy, the football stadium for his Dallas Cowboys, is 160′ x 72′ and weighs 1.2 million pounds - yet isn’t high enough to avoid a booming punt.  Jerry paid $1.15 billion (yeah, the amount Dr. Evil finally came up with) - and, I believe I read somewhere that with transactions such as these, all sales are final.  Somehow, I don’t think Jerry’s going to tire of his hobby anytime soon.  Anything over a cool bil kinda locks you in forever.       

The sporting world seems to have fallen in line with Oscar Wilde’s feeling toward “doing it huge:”

“Moderation is a fatal thing.  Nothing succeeds like excess.” 

I Now Know What It’s Like to Meet My Waterloo

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Talk about a humbling experience!  Yesterday’s blog was about the term, “X Factor.”  In the post, I mentioned that an “X Factor” was not referring to a superstar, or even a starter, but, rather, to a player no one thought much about, but who could have a major impact in deciding who would win the game.  In addition, I said the X Factor in the game shouldn’t be spoken about until after the game had been completed.  Only at that time, could one select the X Factor, e.g. the team member who performed so well, unbeknownst to everyone prior to the game, it was that contribution that actually determined which team (the X Factor’s) won. 

At the end of the blog, I mentioned, “If you think I’m wrong, let me know.”  Yikes!  I don’t know if I should be flattered that so many people read my blogs or demoralized so many people think my opinion isn’t worth donkey dust (for lack of a more descriptive term).

There was certainly no shortage of opinion.  People got in touch with me I hadn’t heard from in years.  “Just read your blog.  See you haven’t changed much.”  I’m not sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that was not meant as a compliment. 

Others were gracious enough to offer medical advice (probably because he is a loyal reader and truly understands the pain I’ve had to endure).  “So, you don’t think someone like Kobe or LeBron can be considered an X Factor?  You need to have your head examined.“  Made an appointment with a psychologist right after reading that and am looking forward to our session.  Wonder if I should send a copy of the blog ahead so she can have a better insight to her new patient?  On second thought, I think it might be better if I surprised her.

Still other readers were complimentary of my potential.  “An X Factor has to be a reserve?  Come on, Jack, you’re better than that.“  It’s refreshing to know I haven’t reached my max yet.

There were others, many of them more colorful.  Two of them were from 1) someone I ran into at the store (lucky I was in the Express lane) and 2) a call from a friend in New Jersey, who gave me advice on how to be taller (as only someone from New Jersey can).  “If you believe what you blogged yesterday, you ought to spread your legs as wide as you can . . . and see if you can pull your head out.”

Years ago, I would have argued with each and every one of these people.  It’s amazing at how strongly people will argue - even when the other side has proven they’re wrong; at how they’ll try to redirect the valid point just made by the person they’re speaking with, or blurt out a sarcastic remark, diverting atention from their mistake - so they won’t have to be thought of as that dreaded word . . . wrong.  If you’re not sure the type of person I’m talking about, just listen to Ann Coulter when she is having a conversation with anyone but Sean Hannity, e.g. someone who disagrees with the gospel according to Ann.  If you think I’m not a particularly big fan of Ann’s, consider that I’m Jewish and her remarks on Donnie Deutsch’s Big Show about Jews needing to be perfected were quite offensive to me.  In fact, if Ann Coulter is perfect, I want to be about as far from perfect as is humanly possible.

Honestly, I was so influenced by the number of people who cast dissenting votes against what I posted last night that I have (drum roll, . . . ) changed my mind!  The one argument that did it was, “when the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Pistons, if LeBron wasn’t the X Factor, i.e. the guy who made the glaring between the two teams, the one guy who the Pistons did not have that the Cavs did, please tell me who was.”

Checkmate.

What I learned in situations such as these can be summed up in a quote from the former head of Intel, Andy Grove.  Put this practice to use and, not only will you walk away from “discussions” quite a bit more intelligent, not to mention, informed but you won’t have to go back to your hotel room, or house, or office, thinking, “Gee, did I make an ass out of myself today.  Why can’t I ever give in to even a minor point?”  Try it and you’ll immediately gain more credibility.  Andy’s line? 

“Fight like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.”    

X Factor Should Be Consumed, Not Predicted

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Someone came up with the name “X Factor,” which was meant to stand for the player whose contribution to his team’s effort in a specific game (or over the course of a series or even a season) made (or could make) the difference between the squad winning rather than losing.  It is a term not usually attached to a star, or even a starter.  It is a compl-i-mentary term to describe a compl-e-mentary player, one who is the envy of all opponents.    

There are so many members making up what, at one time, was called the Fourth Estate, that new catch phrases or terms (such as X Factor) are more than welcome.  It gives reporters more to talk about.  (We all remember that now infamous quote: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be“)?  X Factor has such a positive connotation, Gatorade named a whole brand after it - and it’s become one of their most popular sellers.

 As with most “inventions” that take off quickly, there’s a tendency to overuse it.  Instead of it being someone who performed so well the game was changed by that singular achievement, we’re now asking, in advance of the contest, “Who will be the X Factor?”

In this context, we now have a potential hero, but also, a possible scapegoat (if the proclaimed X Factor turns in a subpar performance).  I don’t think that was ever the intention of the term X Factor.  An X Factor is someone who changes the outcome in a positive manner, not someone who might change it or whose peformance aided in losing.  Players want to be an X Factor, not a potential X Factor.

Besides, basketball is a team sport.  There’s no one NBA player who can influence a game so much that he alone is the difference in a W or an L, assuming the player in question is not intentionally tanking.  I’m not talking about a superstar who is so superior to anyone the other squad has, the opponent has no chance to win - like LeBron against the Pistons or Hawks.  If that’s the definition of an X Factor, then I’ve got it all wrong and this blog is as useless as much of the other things you’ve read today.  However, if that truly is the case, I apologize and please come back tomorrow.

But, then again, if that’s the case, then you’d think that KG and Yao would be considered X Factors - and if that were true, how come the Magic had to go to seven games to beat the Celtics and the Lakers needed the same to advance past Houston? 

Sometimes, the home crowd is the X Factor., e.g. when both teams are physically drained, but the home team feeds off the energy and volume of its fans and is able to summon up the effort necessary to pull out a win, when every mistake the visitors make is so roundly cheered, it psychologically further drains the opponent.

In my humble opinion, an X Factor is someone (or “someone’s”) who is (are) determined after the game, not prior to it.  If you think I’m wrong, let me know.  I’ve posted well over 600 blogs.  Naturally, readers will disagree with some of them.  That’s simply human nature, because, as I learned many, many years ago:

“If you and I agree on everything, one of us isn’t necessary.”

A Blog Guaranteed to Upset Many

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Chuck Daly, the Hall-of-Fame coach of the back-to-back NBA World Champion Detroit Pistons (aka the “Bad Boys”) and the coach of the 1992 Olympic Gold Medalists (aka the original “Dream Team”), died yesterday.  I had the honor of meeting Chuck during the 1972-73 season when he was the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania and I had just entered the world of intercollegiate coaching as a graduate assistant at the University of Vermont.  It was very brief encounter, so when I saw him the next time, I certainly didn’t expect him to remember me. 

The year was 1976 and the site was the campus of the college at which I was employed, Robert Morris College.  RMC also happened to be the home of “Five-Star West,” a summer basketball camp for high school kids who hoped to earn scholarships or, if they were good enough, intended to show the school they wanted to attend how good they were.  A major selling point for the camp was its famous list of guest speakers. 

One of the original Five-Star clinicians was Chuck Daly.  I was introduced to Chuck (again) and when he shook hands, I reminded him of our first meeting a few years back when I was working at the University of Vermont.  “Oh yeah, I remember, you were with Pete,” he said, referring to our head coach, Peter Salzberg.  I had just turned 28, Robert Morris College was my first full-time assistant job (after two years as a high school coach and four years as a grad assistant - at three colleges) and I had made such an impression on Chuck Daly that he remembered me!

All that sacrifice (especially on the monetary side - I had made a combined total of $8,200 - the past four years) was all paying off.  The truth of the matter was that Chuck was the head coach at Penn and, prior to being named head coach at UVM, Peter had been an assistant at Columbia, both schools being members of the Ivy League, at a time when all the coaches in a league knew, and usually were friendly with, all of the other coaches in the league.  Chuck knew Peter was the head coach at Vermont and made an educated guess.

But that was the beauty of Chuck Daly.  He made you feel as though he not only knew you, but that he was truly glad to know you.  In the late 1980’s, I was associate head coach at the University of Toledo, a 45 minute to an hour drive to Detroit.  Because Detroit was so close, and our head coach, Jay Eck, had previously worked at Bradley for one of Chuck’s assistants, Dick Versace, our TU staff used to make an annual trip to the Pistons’ training camp in Windsor, Ontario to watch their preseason workouts.

Every time I was in Chuck’s company, he would be engaging and always asked some kind of question to show an interest in what was going on in my life, e.g. “Did you guys have a good recruiting class?” or “Do you have a family?” or “How’s the MAC (our conference) look this year?”  He made you feel, without getting too psychological, like you mattered.

Whenever he was asked about his success in coaching, his answer was in general terms, not in what he did or strategies he invented or perfected.  One of his quotes regarding coaching in the NBA was, “The NBA is a “players” league.  The players allow you to coach them and when they stop allowing you to coach them, it’s time for you to move on.”

One incident I distinctly remember was a ritual the Pistons had.  It was their timed mile run.  The “mandatory” time  the players had was , I think, 5:00 for perimeter players (or guards) and 5:30 for the posts or (or big guys).  Some of their guys - Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson, John Salley, had no problem making the time, but Bill Laimbeer couldn’t come close - and didn’t seem too bothered by it.  One year we attended, the guards finished the run, and went back to run with the big guy, exhorting him on. 

Laimbeer was up to the challenge.  He really wanted to make that time.  So, . . . he cut across the track - and sprinted the last three steps.  His teammates cheered.  As everybody was heading back to the practice facilty, I happened to be walking behind their coaching staff and one of Chuck’s assistants seemed pretty upset about the physical condition Laimbeer was in and how he had just made a mockery out of a team drill.  Chuck looked at his lieutenant, smiled and said, “I’ll deal with Lam.”

Another of Chuck’s traits was he was the eternal pessimist.  Once asked why he wasn’t an optimist, his reply was “A pessimist is an optimist . . . with experience.”  Knowing how he always expected, or at least planned for, the worst, it was remarkable that he revealed (of course, it wasn’t until the Olympics were finished and they’d won the Gold) his goal for the Games: not to call a time out.  Asked if he ever considered wavering, he admitted there was an instance in one game when the opposition had cut the lead and he normally would have taken one to stop the momentum, but he said to himself something to the effect, “If I can’t win with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, David Robinson, . . . I have greater problems than can be fixed with a time out.”

The part of this blog that may upset many (although I know it wouldn’t upset Chuck - in fact I’m certain he’d be pleased with it) is ever since 1995 (when I started working for him), I’ve thought numerous times how alike Chuck Daly and Jerry Tarkanian are.

Both have amazing people skills, leaving those they meet feeling important.  Obviously, each was a huge winner throughout their respective careers.  Each one coached in a way that let the people they coached be themselves.  This is where all the anti-Tark’s will jump up and say, “Tark coached in college where there are rules and kids need to held accountable.”  There’s some validity to that.  Where Jerry was crucified for having Avondre Jones, he of samuri sword fame, on the team, Chuck wasn’t attached to any of Dennis Rodman’s craziness because Jones was a college kid, where Rodman was an adult.  Try saying that with a straight face.

My point is that the two of them each possessed the ability to connect with people in their profession, be they the players who performed for them, the other coaches in the sport or the fans.  The other similarity they shared is what my friend, mentor and former boss, George Raveling, used to say quite often:

“You can get a lot done in coaching if you don’t let your ego get in the way.”

This Strain of Rose Is Scarce and Here’s Why

Friday, April 24th, 2009

The fact that Derrick Rose won the NBA Rookie-of-the-Year Award is hardly surprising.  After all, he was supposed to win itEvery number one pick is the odds on favorite to win the award because: first of all, he’s the first player picked which usually means he’s the best player in the draft and secondly, he’s usually chosen by a bad team, i.e. a team that did not make the playoffs - so he’s more than likely to get as much playing time as any rookie would want during his first year in the “League.”

What separates Derrick Rose from some of the other, Number 1 picks who earned the ROY prize are other, intangible qualities.  After reading what he had to say about his mother, and subsequently, what she had to say about raising him (and her other sons), it’s easy to understand why he’s the way he is - humble, driven and competitive.  The two quotes I saw from his mom were, “I told my boys they were no better than anybody else and that everyone deserves to be treated with respect,” her interpretation of the Golden Rule.

Her other quote was, after he told her, as a young boy, that he was going to play in the NBA, she merely said, “Go after it!”  His brothers kept him on the same straight and narrow path, almost as if they had planned the entire ordeal.  What he received from his family was a marvelous lesson in character building, and it seems as though every scribe who writes something about Rose, while not always praising his play (especially if they have a favorite son), never criticize his character.

From a skills angle, he possesses all that can’t be taught and has an unquenchable thirst for developing what he what he needs to, but hasn’t quite yet, mastered.  This includes individual work, film study and leaning on teammates who have been through what he hasn’t yet experienced, e.g. older guys like Kirk Heinrich and Lindsey Hunter.

The initial wise move he made was choosing to live out in Deerfield, when it must have been tempting to live closer to downtown, where his “home boys” were and where he was comfortable, having grown up in downtown Chicago.  Another correct decision he made was, being a rookie, he was assigned “doughnut duty,” meaning he had to bring doughnuts for the team.  A couple of times he was late to practice and didn’t factor in “doughnut duty time” into his schedule.  After his teammates threatened to take it out of his per diem money, he decided it was time to “get back on track.”

Think about it.  It certainly couldn’t have been the money he was worried about, whether it was the money he was spending on doughnuts or the per diem dough, because compared to his salary and endorsement deals (sure to increase in number of and money for), they were insignificant.  I read it as he wanted to fit in, didn’t want people to think he needed special attention (meaning bending of rules and traditions to satisfy his ego) and he understood the hierarchy of the organization.  And absorbed all of this all very quickly, especially for someone who is not too much more than a year and a half out of high school!

Also astonishing was how quickly he picked up on the other hierarchical structure.  And that one is: who needs to take over at the end of a game.  So many times he put the team on his back and started taking people to the basket because his team was in desperate need of a score, but also because he realized no one on the floor could stop him from getting where he wanted to go.

Two parts of his press conference were extraordinary (you can see it by going to bulls.com).  First was his means of thanking all the right people: his mom and family, the sponsor (of the award), the organization, the coaches and finally, his veterans (note he didn’t simply call them his teammates, but his “vets”), demonstrating the respect that’s mandatory for a younger player in an established player’s league.  When he said he did, in fact, want to win the ROY award, but not only did not talk about it (showing his ego was in check), but saying that he didn’t care (displaying wisdom); then, after the presentation of the award, admitting to the above (an act of honesty) put him in a class of being a young man who’s personal maturity matches that of his athletic skill.  Two other examples were the answers he gave to Chicago’s legendary sportswriter, Sam Smith, who first asked him, “What one thing stood out as the greatest accomplishment of the year?”  Rose’s reply was the four point play that occurred when the Clippers’ Eric Gordon, who was picked in the top five for this award, fouled Ben Gordon as BG attempted a three at the buzzer of a game in which the Clippers were ahead by four at the time.”  (The Bulls eventually won it in OT).

“How about the worst moment?” Sam followed with.  Once again, the answer was surprising, and probably disappointing for someone looking for a chink in his armor: “After we lost five in a row.”

Neither answer had anything to do with him only, a not unheard of remark other athletes make, especially when scoring 36 points and tying Kareem’s record for most points scored by a rookie in his first playoff game is a possible answer. 

When a point guard (the leadership position on a team, whether the player embraces it or not) has that type of mental/physical/emotional game, the franchise has a cornerstone upon which to build.  When he’s the age of a Derrick Rose, the future looks as bright as, dare I say in the Bulls’ case, its (rather recent) past?

Conceit’s a trait Derrick Rose does not seem to have an inch of, which all of us non-participants appreciate because as my late friend and mentor, John Savage, was fond of saying:

“Conceit is the only disease that gets everyone sick except the one who has it.”

     

A Cavs vs. Lakers Final Is a Sure Thing

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

So much for my blog saying the Lake Show would destroy the Jazz.  Like Kenny “The Jet” Smith said, “It was just a replay of Game 1.”  Maybe the Lakers are bored - or just can’t wait for the Cavs, because it certainly doesn’t look like anybody is going to come close to either of them.  So now I’m back with another prediction.  If this doesn’t come true, you can start calling me “the SI Cover Jinx.”  (Actually, I’d rather enjoy being referred to as the SI Cover Jinx, since it’s that time of year when teachers tend to get called a lot worse things when grades for the kids who have been warned about not working hard enough, not paying attention, not getting extra help in the form of math labs or tutoring and not putting in enough (any) study time, receive their final grades - and summer plans may have to be disrupted).

As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, my main man from Fresno, Dave Severns, is now with the Chicago Bulls in the capacity of assistant coach for player development.  One day, as the season was winding down, I brought up the fact of how great it would be if they could make the playoffs.  The playoffs!  For Sev, it meant that a year removed from winning the conference and playing for the Valley championship in girls’ badminton at Roosevelt HS, he’d be part of an NBA team in the PLAYOFFS, best known for 1) not having to send a rep for the draft lottery ping pong ball fiasco, 2) getting a sweet (and desperately needed) bonus check (and in the NBA, it’s for more than $100) which members of all the teams and staffs get if they make it out of the draft lottery and 3) being able to listen to the old interview cuts of Jim Mora without thinking, “Damn, we coulda been there.”  It’s also known for incredibly, beyond belief, intense basketball action, displayed by the best athletes in the world (see yesterday’s blog for further explanation).

Shortly after that call (and the subsequent winning streak the Bulls would go on), he told me how they could be the 7 seed.  I said, being a math guy, “the numbers say you could be as high as 6″, to which he replied, “Maybe, but getting 7th would be fantastic.”

“Why aren’t you fired up that you guys could move up to number 6?” I asked him, not understanding his reaction had nothing to do with just “getting versus not getting in.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I’d love for us to be the 6th seed.  But getting to 7th means . . . we don’t have to go to Cleveland for the first round.”

Therein lies what many, if not everyone in the East feels.  As long as we don’t have to go to Cleveland.  And, for once, it has nothing to do with bashing the city.  OK, so they didn’t tie the home court regular season record of 40-1 due to Coach-of-the-Year Mike Brown (wisely) resting his best guys (meaning LeBron James and . . . some other good players), but what they’ve done to the Detroit Pistons (granted, an old team whose trade for Allen Iverson didn’t turn out how they hoped it would . . . but how everyone else who has ever seen a basketball game, including the Saturday morning 5-year old kind, knew it would).  Remember the quote from a few blogs ago, “The greatest indicator of future behavior is past performance“?  The trade of AI for Chauncey Billups is a living example of it.  So, as Dave had expected, whoever was going to Cleveland was going to leave there with their feelings hurt - and probably not have to worry about going back until next year.

The Cavs’ counterparts on the other side, LA, has played down/toyed with/virtually ignored their opponent, the Utah Jazz.  The Jazz has a few big-time NBA players, but with Mehmet Okur out (give them something to use as a crutch so they don’t have to admit to complete and utter hopelessness), they work like the devil and come close, but in the end, it’s as inevitable as Lucy vs. Chuck - with the Jazz playing the ignominious role of CB (and, Kobe Bryant masquerading as Lucy).

The way all the other series are going, I just don’t see any other (barring something catastrophic happening) scenario but an LA-Cleveland finals.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be some entertaining, and certainly exciting, hoops for your viewing pleasure (if you enjoy basketball at its finest).  Thusfar, watching the other games (naturally, I’m biased, but, especially the first two games of the Chicago-Boston series) has been phenomenal, independent of which team you’re pulling for.  That series shows an, up ’til now, non-existent fact: Kevin Garnett might not be the Defensive Player of the Year and he might not be the MVP, but he certainly is the Defensive MVP of any league.

As stated, I’m a Bulls fan (and have been ever since this past summer), but if anybody in the world thinks the Windy City guys would be consistently on top the side of 100 (like they have been for the first two games), if KG was on the floor, there’s this great timeshare I have in Pigeon Forge, TN I’d love to talk to you about taking off my hands - for cheap!

While Boston, Utah and, of course, San Antonio and even Philadelphia, have been hit with untimely injuries, the Lakers are just now getting back Andrew Bynum, who is getting better as he gains more experience and gaining confidence because he might just be too young to realize he’s having it a little more easily than guys like him on other teams because they have to focus on the other Lakers so much.  Bynum gets, more or less, a free pass to exhibit his array of skills and use his height and length quite efectively.

But if you think the Lakers or the Cavs feel bad for the teams with the injured guys (or anyone else, for that matter), you might heed a bit of advice one of my high school coaches gave me after I had a bad practice and was hanging my head:

“If you’re looking for sympathy, you can find it in the dictionary - between shit and syphilis.”  

  

Good Luck, Zekeson

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

There’s a story in my book, Life’s A Joke, in the chapter entitled, Humbling Experiences.  that happened during the one year I spent at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh, PA.  The gist of the story is that the year in question, 1976-77, was the first year of Robert Morris being in Division I.  Not only was that move difficult, but the year prior, RMC was a junior college!  This story about that transition begs the question, “Why?”

To make this incredible undertaking all the more difficult, we were an independent, i.e. no conference affliation and had to play something like 18 of our 26 games on the road.  Even our home games were played at three different sites - the band box on campus (which, if packed - something we never did get to see - and the fire marshall looked the other way, might have had a seating capacity of 1,000), the Beaver County Auditorium (a nice 4,000 seat facility about 20 minutes from campus) and the downtown Civic Arena (a 17,000 seat monstrosity where we played a couple games, including our home opener).

The one thing they did know at the Robert Morris was marketing.  Being in the Pittsburgh area, it was a real struggle for any kind of identity because 1) the Steelers, in their true glory days - Chuck Noll, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and Super Bowls - were there and their season didn’t usually end until January, followed by a minimum of two weeks of either celebration or postmortem; 2) the Pirates of “We Are Fam-i-ly,” led by Willie Stargell were fan favorites; 3) the Penguins were there for people wanting a hockey fix; 4) that year, they even had Team Tennis, an experiment that the locals seemed to think was more exciting than watching our Colonials play, and 5) add to the fact that we had to battle head-to-head on the college basketball level, Pitt (who won the National Championship in football in ‘76 behind Coach Johnny Majors and Tony Dorsett) and Duquesne, which was much more of a basketball power then than they are now (having boasted of players like SiHugo Green and Norm Nixon).

Well, we were opening the season at home against Delaware State (hey, who else could we get to open with?) in the Civic Arena and we made our entrance to the game (all media, naturally, alerted well in advance) in helicopters!  After we finished our warm ups, the guys came over to the bench and prepared for the pregame introductions.  First, Delaware State’s starters were announced - and then the big moment, announcing the starters for Robert Morris’ first game as a Division I squad (it had been a national powerhouse under legendary coach Gus Krop, one of the greatest human beings I ever had the pleasure of knowing, and who had just retired as coach but remained in his full time job as head of campus security).

The guy on the microphone screamed (before a crowd of about 800), “And now, the starters for . . . Phillip Morris!  I think this guy can say without a doubt, that tobacco was harmful to his health - and career.

The reason I am including this story in today’s blog is because Isiah Thomas, one of college basketball’s best ever point guards and voted one of professional basketball’s 50 greatest players, but someone who, recently, has been, as the saying goes, ridden hard and hung up wet, has faced humiliation once again.  His trials and tribulations date all the way back to being the leader of the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys, a big-time winner, but also the team who, after they were beaten by the Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson-led Chicago Bulls, refused to shake hands with the new champs - a scenario allegedly organized by “Zeke.”

This show of low (or no) class was followed by his aborted takeover of the CBA (the NBA’s “minor league”), only to be trumped by his being handed over the reins of the most storied franchise in the NBA (c’mon, I’m from Jersey) and totally ruining the entire organization - from making horrific personnel decisions, be they draft picks or giving Allan Houston a seven-year contract for a guaranteed zillion dollars and having him play just two years of it (don’t even mention “Starbury”) and losing as big as his college team at IU and the aforementioned Pistons won (a college National Championship and two NBA World Titles), to being sued for sexual harassment by a young, female employee of Madison Square Garden, to a botched (take your pick) suicide attempt or the home version “Throw Your Daughter Under the Bus.”

The final chapter of “go ahead, throw another pie of shaving cream in my face” may have happened at the press conference announcing his latest job (this guy must have some agent), being named the head basketball coach at Florida International University.  Vice President and Provost of FIU, Ronald Berkman, proudly standing in front of a crowd, composed of several hundred fans and media members, uttered the words that are bound to be replayed hundreds, if not thousands of times: “I’d like to personally welcome Isiah Thompson as the new FIU basketball coach.”  He would have done better if he had said, “And now, I’d like to present a man who needs no introduction,” and then sat down.

When it comes to the height (or depths) of being a charter member of the School of Total Humiliation, Isiah Thomas must feel like Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in Godfather II when he said:

“Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in!”