ATLANTA — The coach wakes up before the alarm clock. He rubs his eyes. It’s another hotel room ceiling, and his very first thoughts are: “Where are we? Who are we playing?”
It’s like this every morning on the road. But this is a big morning, the morning of the opening playoff game for his Detroit Pistons. The NBA playoffs are a reward of sorts — the reason you endure seven months of coffee-and-heartburn breakfasts in Indianapolis and Cleveland and Houston. The games will be won or lost by the athletes. But the coach is the first one up.
This is Chuck Daly’s life, first up, first worried, last congratulated. Nobody really knows what a coach goes through from whistle to whistle. But by 8 a.m., this one is in front of a TV set, watching videos of games past and making notes on a crumpled piece of paper.
“Look at that. Watch them clear out for (Dominique) Wilkins,” he says to a visitor. He tries to rewind the little Panasonic recorder. “See that dunk? Ooh. Hel-lo.”
For the next three hours he stays glued to the set, studying the night’s opponents, the Atlanta Hawks, and drinking an entire pot of tea. (“Caffeine,” he says.) At 11:30 a.m., he meets his players — a dozen sleepy-eyed giants in crushed velvet sweat suits — and they board a bus for the arena and a brief practice.
Daly sits up front. The game is not for eight hours. “You nervous?” he is asked.
His foot is tapping madly and the paper has been rolled into a thin baton.
“Nah,” he says. “I don’t get nervous.” Head for the nearest mall Practice ends. The bus returns. There are now six hours until tip-off time. Daly has been thinking and talking basketball since he got up. What if Isiah Thomas gets in foul trouble? What if Wilkins can’t be stopped?
The players pair off in the lobby. They go for lunch. Daly is left alone. Now comes the hard part. The wait. All this time between now and the game, a coach could eat himself alive. Daly has a solution. He has spotted a shopping mall across the street.
“I walk through shopping malls in every city,” he says. “It passes the time.” Daly can name his favorite malls in Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia. He even picks hotels that are near malls.
He races through this one. In 10 minutes, he does three men’s stores, a record outlet and a dozen windows. “I never buy anything,” he says, fingering a sports jacket. “It just takes my mind off things.” But even as he says it, his eyes are far away, and there is a distant thumping of a ball inside his head.
These are the lonely hours, the hours no one sees. Daly usually eats alone, because a coach can’t really get too chummy with his players. Not if he wants to be effective. He eats with his mind on defenses and sips a Diet Coke with his mind on the fourth quarter. Some salad spills off his plate and he puts his arm into it and a crouton sticks to his sleeve. He doesn’t notice.
“I’m wondering how ready we are,” he says. “You know, how much do our guys want it?”
He sips the drink. His mind is jumping. “Box out. We’ve got to box out tonight.”
Lunch is done. He marches through the mall again. A few minutes later he’s unlocking his hotel room door. Try a nap, he figures.
“I always look at the phone the minute I walk in,” he says, “I’m so relieved when there’s no red message light on. That means no problems to worry about.”
He lies down. No sleep comes. An hour later he takes a shower and picks a game suit.
You want to know the glory of NBA coaching? Here’s the glory. Watching tapes and walking through shopping malls and looking nervously at the phone and waiting.
Some glory, huh? That helpless feeling Night falls. Game time finally arrives. Daly paces in front of the bench, his hair neatly coiffed, his jaw set. He has been an NBA head coach for more than three years and it still isn’t easy. The first time the Pistons lose a rebound he screams loud enough for the cheap seats to hear:
“BOX OUT! BOX OUT!”
The game goes well at first, then goes down the tubes. The Hawks pile on points, they outrebound and outhustle. Their home crowd roars.
Daly can only pace and scream, and finally stand with his arms folded and watch, his voice hoarse. Earlier in the day he had remarked how hard it was to “want to see something happen but be helpless to do it yourself.”
Every man has his own prison, right? This is the coach’s prison, to want to jump out there in somebody’s else’s skin but to be stuck in his own.
The game ends. The Pistons slink off, losers, 140-122. Daly will not sleep for hours. He’ll be watching tapes, planning for Game Two.
First up, first worried, last to sleep. Such is the lot of an NBA coach. In the long run he can’t shoot or pass or make his team win. In the long run he can’t do much but go back to the room and hope the red light isn’t on.