by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The truth is, you don’t coach NBA players anymore, you manage them. They are richer than you. More famous than you. More important than you. So they have the power.

The smart coaches know this, because the evidence is all over the graveyard. Paul Westhead, once of the LA Lakers, thought being coach meant his word was as important as that of a player, Magic Johnson. Westhead was quickly fired. Doug Collins once thought he could match significance with Michael Jordan. Collins was history. It is a players’ league. Players rule. When Charles Barkley can land his Lear jet in some tiny town in Italy and see his face plastered on billboards, well, he knows how big he is, to his franchise, to his league, to the marketing forces that run this worldwide sports circus. Barkley is not going to jump just because you blow a whistle. A players’ league. You must communicate with the players. Coddle them. Stroke them. Motivate them with a velvet glove. More and more people are understanding this. One is Billy McKinney, now the Pistons’ director of player personnel but once a player. About 10 years ago, McKinney was traded to the LA Clippers, and he sat behind a guard named Norm Nixon. McKinney was mad. He stewed. Finally, he went to an assistant coach for answers.

“How come I’m not playing?” he demanded.

The assistant told him. He said Nixon had been acquired in a blockbuster trade, and he was going to get 40 minutes a night to prove he was worth it. Sorry. That’s business.

McKinney returned to the bench, his anger cooled. As he says now, “The man gave me a straight answer.”

That man was Don Chaney.

Monday, he became the Pistons’ new head coach.

Already, he knows more than the last guy. A major in communications

The last guy was Ron Rothstein, an X-and-O’s man brought in to replace Chuck Daly, a communications man, and let go after one season to make room for Chaney, another communications man. So Rothstein was like a wrong turn on a map. A momentary screw- up. Of course, the Pistons now have a million dollar coaching staff for the next three years. Half a million they pay to Rothstein to sit on a beach somewhere. The rest they give Chaney, who actually has to work for it.

“It’s very important to listen to the players; they’re the ones in the trenches,” Chaney said Monday, addressing the communications problem that plagued the Pistons under Rothstein. “We’ll deal with things before they become big problems. My experience is, it’s easier to put out a camp fire than a brush fire.”

And it’s easier to deal with a guy who played the game than one who simply diagrams it. Chaney played with Bill Russell and John Havlicek and Larry Bird. He knows the feeling of wearing an NBA championship ring and seeing a banner hoisted to the rafters. Maybe this shouldn’t be a prerequisite. But players seem to like it. Otherwise, when things go bad, you hear whispers like, “He never played the game. How would he know?”

Chaney played the game. And on Monday, he spoke player- friendly sentences. Said he liked “entertainment.” Said he believed in “big scores.” He also wiped out his old boss’ habit of two-hour practices. “You can’t keep pro players’ attention that long,” Chaney said. An hour. An hour and 15 minutes tops. Joe Dumars and Alvin Robertson were standing in a corner at the press conference. They must have loved that.

“I’ve seen the league change from a dictator style of coaching to player-coaches to college-style coaches,” said Chaney, 47, who has been head coach in Houston and with LA Clippers. “Now it seems to be shifting to guys who played the game, where the relationship is one of communication and concern.

“I think I can be good at this.”

A man for the times.

Better to nudge than push and shove

Adrian Dantley once told me how he hated playing in Utah because his coach there, Frank Layden, wanted all the players to eat breakfast together, to build spirit, like some college team. “I ain’t no child,” Dantley said, taking another table and telling Frank where to stuff his eggs. Dantley was traded.

But Layden was soon out of coaching.

Chuck Daly was smarter. He split from his players once the game was over. Didn’t try to make them boy scouts. Didn’t have them over for dinner. And when Isiah Thomas, the most powerful influence on the team — more powerful than Daly — would make a bad play on court, Daly would often spin and yell at John Salley because he knew Salley would take it and Thomas wouldn’t.

Daly won two NBA championships.

This is the way you coach in the league now. You tread lightly. You nudge.

You cater to your stars, and you let them do their magic. Chaney could be a perfect guy for the Pistons, if he learns how to mix a little discipline in with being everybody’s pal. After all, there’s still only one ball, 48 minutes, and 12 guys who want both.

“My door is always open,” Chaney said, smiling. Funny, no? Once upon a time, coaches came in with crew cuts and iron fists, and they said things like “My way or the highway.” You do that today, they say, “OK, hit the road.”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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