DALY ROUTINE TOUGH, BUT HE DOESN’T CRACK

He woke up once an hour, always in a sweat.

“WHO WON GAME 3?”

The voice screamed inside his head. He could not answer. Why couldn’t he answer? Why couldn’t he remember? Who won Game 3?

And then Chuck Daly took a breath, in the dark, and suddenly realized where he was and who he was. And why he couldn’t answer. This was Saturday night; Game 3 hadn’t been played yet.

You want to coach? This is what it’s like. Chuck Daly, at the age when most men can take it easy and wait for grandchildren, is having nightmares before they’re even scheduled. He’s got no job security. He’s got a star guard who’s injured. Every day 12 players bring their mental laundry to work and dump it on Daly’s doorstep.

Nice job, huh?

“I drove to practice today and three times I had to stop for trains crossing,” said Daly, 57, standing alone outside his office Monday as the Pistons practiced for Game 4 in the NBA final. “Usually that drives me crazy. But today, it was a blessing. I just sat there for a few minutes, without any phone calls, without any problems. It was great.”

Great? Waiting for a train? Well. Think about it. Isiah Thomas, his best player, is suddenly injured, and about to become a father for the first time. Rickey Mahorn, his power forward, is looking at back surgery as soon as this is over. James Edwards, his only post-up center, doesn’t know if he’ll have a job next season.

Any one of those would be a major problem to most of us. Maybe all we’d talk about. The baby. The job. The surgery. Yet, in the NBA final, each player must try for the game of his life, while personal problems trail like tin cans tied to a wedding car.

And the coach?

He runs behind the cars and makes sure none of the cans falls off. Deserves whatever he wants

So how much is a job like that worth to you? Try doing it for nothing. And that, technically, is what Daly is doing right now. His contract has expired. He is driving without a license. If he decided to just stay in bed this morning, let somebody else coach tonight against the Lakers, well, heck, there’s not much anyone could do about it.

And yet Daly is drawn to the hardwood like Don Quixote was drawn to windmills. Basketball will kiss him or kill him but it cannot ignore him. Did you see him ranting and raving and finally being ejected from Game 3 Sunday afternoon? Did you see him yank on his jacket, or punch the air, did you hear his voice — which has now absorbed a full-time rasp — screaming, croaking, urging his players on?

This is a guy who is battling every fear, every doubt and every shred of his personal history — in front of the entire country. Daly has never finished first in anything as a head coach. “I’m a second banana,” he will joke. Even during a stupid halftime feature Sunday afternoon on CBS, a clothing maven voted him second-best dressed coach in the league, behind Lakers coach Pat Riley.

Now suddenly, he gets within a breath of glory, the NBA final, and on Sunday, when he’s supposed to have it easier, home court, home crowd, his team deflates. “How can you guys be flat now?” Daly yelled at the Pistons during the devastating third quarter. It was the same question we all asked. Sometimes a coach doesn’t have any better answers. He just has to stand closer to the problem.

“You’ve got a contract to worry about, a future to worry about, a private life to worry about,” someone observed. “How do you keep from dwelling on that?”

“I compartmentalize my thinking,” he said. “When I’m here, I’m focused on the game alone. But maybe other times, like when I’m driving home, I think about that stuff. I do a lot of driving, you know. That car is like a sanctuary.”

Let’s say this right here: Chuck Daly deserves whatever he wants from a contract — if he wants a contract. Not only has he meshed 12 guys who might not even say hello to each other in another life, but he has done it for a low price. Other coaches make 60 to 70 percent more, and they are on vacation now.

He deserves more. He should already have it. But he is rolling the dice. He opted to pass up one offer — which was not good enough — and now his success in this final will largely determine the nature and price of his future.

Just one more thing to worry about, right?

Daly, meanwhile, does his best

Pat Riley doesn’t go through all this. Pat Riley has a contract. He has already won a championship. He’s been No. 1. Heck. He’s got a book out that is going on the best-sellers list. He is younger than Daly, he lives in a high-profile city and has the sleek, good looks to garner plenty of spotlight.

Daly, meanwhile, keeps on plugging. He is like a businessman who never knows what’s inside his briefcase. Will the team be motivated? Will the important papers be there? And he can’t open it until the meeting starts and everybody is watching.

And under all this, he has personal concerns, his players have personal concerns, and we all just want to see winning basketball. “I have to be that way, too,” he said, shrugging. “When the game starts, I can only see players as players and me as coach. Nothing else.”

Whatever happens in this final, at least know it is far from a glory ride every waking minute. Players have problems, fans have criticisms, and Chuck Daly still doesn’t have a contract. It would be great if he won this thing. A dream come true. In the meantime, he’ll eat wrong, he won’t sleep, his dreams will be haunted, and he can only hope that a train stops traffic, so he can get a few minutes’ peace.

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