PORTLAND, Ore. — It is time to say good-bye to Chuck Daly. No, he hasn’t quit yet. But whether anyone wants to admit it, tonight could be his last game as Pistons coach — if they win, I’ll bet it is — and I think we ought to at least be prepared for his farewell performance.

I remember the first time I really talked to Daly. We did a lunch interview at the Silverdome. He ordered clam chowder. Big mistake, Chuck. You are a snappy dresser and a brilliant people manager and I say this with all the respect in the world: You have the worst eating habits I’ve ever seen. That clam chowder was on your elbow, on your wrist. And you slurp. There. I said it.

But, personally, I kind of like a guy who slurps. I think most people do, and maybe that’s why, when I walked around the Pistons practice Wednesday talking to players, almost all of them sighed when they thought about your leaving. And these are the same guys who look as if they’re ready to kill you when you take them out of a game.

What was the phrase they kept repeating? “Players’ coach.” That doesn’t mean Daly shoots hoop with them, or cruises the local nightclubs. It means he treat them like men. Even when he’s chewing them out. “We don’t really mind his screaming because we know he’s got that Irish temper,” said John Salley, who has often been on the receiving end. “Chuck screams at you, but then, 20 minutes later, he forgets what he said. He’s like President Reagan. Can’t remember a thing.”

Ah. Yes. The age jokes. Well. You know what I find so remarkable about Daly’s age? That it is so far from his players’ and yet his personality is so close. How many 59- year-olds do you know who can talk style with a 23-year-old, laugh about movies with a 26-year-old, and feel indebted to a 29-year-old? If there is a magic to his coaching, it is not on the chalkboard. It is his ability to run with his own youthful pack.

Maybe it’s the hair. No movie deals in the works

No, actually, it’s more than that. Did you see the other day, when Pat Riley quit the Lakers, how he said, “I’ve had enough of coaching”? Riley is 45. He had monster talent. He did nothing but win. Now he’s out. For some reason, it got to be too much. Daly, in typical self-effacing manner, explained it this way: “Pat has a lot of other things he can do. I don’t. I read where he was already offered movie work by (producer/ director) Robert Towne. I’m going to call and ask for the part of Pat’s father.”

More age jokes. But, movies aside, I think there is a reason why Daly outlasted Riley in this coaching business. This is the reason: Daly is better at managing people.

I don’t know where he gets this. Maybe it comes from being one of the managed for so long. Maybe it comes from having worked in the lime pits as a young man, or as a furniture mover, or a bar bouncer, or having been an assistant coach all those years. All I know is that Daly has managed to pull together 12 divergent Pistons personalities — and believe me, were another man in charge, you would see sparks flying between these guys — and he has spread around the minutes and ignored a lot of whining and done just enough to get the players to play hard and still be content. Not happy. I don’t think coaches makes players happy. But the good ones give them tools to do it themselves.

Daly is a good one. Well, nobody’s perfect

Talent? Sure, he’s had talent. But let’s not forget, Daly has managed to build a mini-dynasty here based on guards — real guards, little guys, not 6-foot-9 oddities such as Magic Johnson. When was the last time a coach did that in the NBA? And the man has turned team defense into an art form.

Oh, he’s made mistakes. He’s been too deferential to Isiah Thomas, allowing him to take over games whenever he chooses. Also, there is this “Woe is me, I’m so poor” bit. Listen, Chuck, I know when you came to Detroit nobody offered you a radio show, a TV show, or any car commercials. But you’ve got all of them now. You can drop the welfare act.

Or maybe that’s part of the shtick. One of the guys. Blue collar. Don’t come across too high and mighty. Here was an interesting question: What percent of what Chuck says to the team do the players actually listen to?

“Oh, 100 percent,” said Vinnie Johnson

“I’d say 86 percent,” said Salley.

“Less than 50 percent,” said Bill Laimbeer.

The genius in this is that they all believe what they’re saying. The coach has succeeded.

In truth, Daly has succeeded — “Finally” he will add — beyond his or our wildest dreams. Three straight NBA Finals? Perhaps tonight his second straight championship? This is a man, don’t forget, who began six seasons ago with players such as David Thirdkill and Ray Tolbert.

He will be gone soon. It’s the smart move. TV is calling, it’s a good job, no phones ringing late in some Denver hotel room to tell you Dumars is out for four weeks. When Daly leaves, there will be the press conference and the speeches and plenty of time to recap his career. For now, let us appreciate the man racing up and down the court tonight, yanking on his jacket, barking at the referees, hair coiffed, suit pressed. One more game. Maybe the last. Time has come to say it, Chuck. You’ve done a hell of a job.

Got rid of the soup stains, too. n

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