And his hair was perfect. Every time I think about Chuck Daly, I think about that old song lyric. Chuck coming down the tunnel, nodding just before going out, and his hair was perfect. Chuck charging down the sidelines, screaming “GIMME A BREAK!” and his hair was perfect. Chuck speeding through a shopping mall, fingering the suits, Chuck grinning through a TV interview, Chuck wearing Armani or Hugo Boss, and his hair – wavy, thick, blown back like a Roman statesman’s – was perfect. It gave him the image of a man in control, always coiffed, always ready.
But none of us is always ready. He wasn’t ready for cancer. It snuck up on him less than a year ago, and took him from us Saturday, in Florida, at 78.
It took him, fittingly, during the NBA playoffs, where Daly once made a huge impact, and where younger coaches have been wearing “CD” pins on their lapels, pins that now go from honoring Daly to remembering Daly, just like that, because life works that way, you’re here and then you’re gone.
Chuck always knew this. I think it made him unique. He wasn’t a former NBA or college star. He actually worked real jobs before becoming a coach: a dishwasher, a bouncer, a grunt in a lime pit, slapping leather hides. He knew there was a bottom as well as a top, and he would tell me that we’re all just a snap away from going back, here then gone. I think he coached that way, with a shadow behind him, the shadow of normalcy. He won in the NBA and he won in the Olympics and we called him “Daddy Rich,” but he always laughed at that. He was Chuck from small-town Pennsylvania, the son of a salesman, a child of the Depression. And he always would be.
He knew how to not listen
There’s an East Coast expression, “a neighborhood guy,” and it means in essence, one of us. Daly was a neighborhood guy. It allowed him to understand that he wasn’t bigger than the players he coached. It also allowed him to understand their hunger, because it reminded him of his own.
He used that hunger as a motivator. When the Pistons’ effort weakened, he reminded them endorsement deals weren’t offered to losers. He once famously grabbed a phone from the press table and waved it at a lagging Mark Aguirre, yelling, “Mark! It’s the CBA!” He skipped the bromides about teamwork and spirit. He knew success was the reward, and the reward required work.
Chuck worked. He worried. He could worry the smile off a clown. But he worried funny, if you can do that. He was also as good a manager as you’ll ever meet. He could listen to one player moan, another complain, another whine, and ignore all of them equally. He had one weapon: minutes. He used it artfully, and got five disparate personalities to band together to win a championship in 1989, then came back with an altered cast and did it again in 1990.
He never relaxed, but those two rings reduced his “second banana” references. He laughed more easily. He accepted fame. Once, on the road, in a hotel, he came over to a piano I was playing and crooned a song. That night he just seemed happy.
The one game he couldn’t win
I spoke with Daly not too long ago, as the pancreatic cancer was taking hold. His sentences were terse, but still funny. We talked about keeping a positive attitude, fighting the disease as if you hated it. “Yup,” he said. “Gonna try,” he said.
I know he tried. I know his dear wife, Terry, tried along with him, every minute. Some games you are not going to win. A good coach knows that, and Daly was always a good coach.
But he was more than that. He was The Pistons’ Coach. None who has proceeded or followed him – even those who won big – ever owned the job the way Chuck did. The day he left the Pistons in 1992, he told the assembled crowd, “Let’s make this an Irish wake.” Then he laughed and added, “On the other hand, I’m only half-Irish and half-Scottish. So you can have one drink, but not too much food!”
Cancer steals your energy. It steals your body. But it doesn’t steal your soul. And Daly had soul to spare. So let’s make this an Irish wake – or half-Irish, anyhow. Sing a song and hoist a toast to the coach in your mind, tugging on his sports coat, lifting his chin, winking impishly, forever young there on the sidelines, his hair perfect.