INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Wouldn’t it be funny if beneath that crusty exterior, those dagger eyes, those tightly crossed arms that look as if they’ll squeeze the heart from his chest, beneath those throaty screams, that pounding on the table, the slap on the forehead as he collapses in his chair, beneath the pacing feet and the churning stomach and that look to the heavens whenever Dennis Rodman makes a boo-boo that seems to say, “Why me, Lord? What did I ever do to you?” — wouldn’t it be funny if beneath all that, Chuck Daly was really . . . an optimist?
OK. So it’s a stupid idea.
“Did you know he punched me on Sunday?” John Salley said before practice for tonight’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers, a game that could finally deliver a championship ring to Daly and Detroit. “I’m not kidding. I came off the court in the first half and he yelled, ‘Why did your man get the shot?’ And I said, ‘I switched off with Isiah.’ And he said, ‘WHY DID YOUR MAN GET THE SHOT?’ And I said, ‘I SWITCHED OFF WITH ISIAH!’ And I turned to sit down and pow! He punched me — right in the leg! And I spun around and he said, ‘Don’t let him get any more shots.’ Now, that’s playoff intensity.”
“He must have known I wouldn’t hit him back.”
Aww, who would? Now? At the end of the rainbow? Shouldn’t Daly be forgiven just about anything these days? Here, in the charcoal gray Armani suit, is the longest wait in these playoffs — not Isiah, not Laimbeer, not Edwards, not any player. The coach. The most mileage, deepest wrinkles, the least amount of sleep. And tonight could be salvation. Big Daddy Daly, on the verge of the jackpot.
“How will you react if you guys win the title in four games?” someone asked Daly Monday.
“I have no idea,” he said, squirming. “I haven’t given it much thought. I’d like to get to it first. You never know what can happen. Hey. You still gotta win one more. Look at last year. Look at–.”
We interrupt these regularly scheduled Chuck Daly pessimisms to bring you a prediction. You know what I think? I think if the Pistons win tonight, Daly is gonna run into the locker room, shut the door behind him and scream:
“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!! I DID IT! I DID IT! I DID IT! YIPEEEE!”
Then fix his tie, come out, and be back to normal.
That’s what I think.
F orty-eight minutes! Forty-eight minutes!” Throughout this remarkable playoff run, that has been the theme of the Pistons’ attack. Play the whole game. Every last second. Never assume victory. Forty-eight minutes.
In many ways, it is Chuck Daly’s life story: Here is the oldest coach in the NBA, a guy who has made all the stops you can make coming from Punxsutawney, Pa., seven years in high school coaching, eight years as college head coach, four years as an NBA assistant, he has been hired, fired
— heck, he once worked as a furniture loader, a night watchman, a construction worker, and a bouncer in a Tokyo bar. Forty-eight minutes? If coaching careers had stopwatches, he’d be in overtime right now.
“When I first came to Detroit,” he said, a few days ago, leaning back behind his desk, “to be honest, I didn’t know if I would last one season. They’d had something like 10 coaches in 11 years. I looked at Scotty
(Robertson) before me, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can do a better job than this guy.’ “
That was . . . years ago. Daly still draws a Pistons paycheck. It has hardly been easy. It isn’t always fun. Daly himself, according to most observers, is different this year than in years past: more stern, less tolerant. But then, just think of the changes he has seen: Cobo Arena, Joe Louis Arena, the Silverdome, the Palace. A busted roof. A team plane. A crowd of more than 60,000. Dan Roundfield, Earl Cureton, Terry Tyler, Chuck Nevitt.
You want headaches? How about the time Larry Bird stole the ball? You want worries? He was about to be fired once, before Isiah Thomas intervened. Uncertainty? Try William Bedford’s drug rehab, or the final weeks of last season, when Daly worked without a contract, with no assurance that he would be back, yet there he was, barking out the plays, sweating, aching, dropping onto his hotel bed at 5 a.m., exhausted, as he steered the Pistons within three points of an NBA crown.
This season alone he has weathered the departure of his two assistants, Ron Rothstein and Dick Versace, a huge mid-season trade, Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre, the toughest division in basketball, Isiah’s broken hand, Michael Jordan. Look no further than Sunday, the final 28 seconds, when the Pistons had the game locked — and almost lost it thanks to two crazy jump- ball calls and a ridiculous foul on Isiah. “Never easy,” Daly lamented, “we never do anything easy.”
Hey. To be honest? I’m surprised the guy is still standing. And look. Not only standing, but dapper, well-tailored, neatly coiffed. You half expect him to carry an investment portfolio.
“I still have my hair,” he said, patting the back of it, breaking into a laugh. “I’m glad about that. It helps fool people about my age. . . .
“Of course, that’s the only good thing, right? I mean, look at this nose, this chin, these teeth. I mean, the hair’s the only good thing, right?”
Wrong. But that is typical Daly. The glass isn’t half full, it’s not even half empty, it’s probably filled with cyanide and if you drink from it, you die. “A pessimist is just an optimist who’s been around,” Daly says. And OK. He’s been around. He is, after all, almost 59, more than twice the age of most of his players. Over the years I have seen him knock his education, knock his looks, knock his own athletic talent and once, after a tough loss, tell the media: “Practice today will be just long enough to throw up.”
But here is the problem. Sometimes Daly is so busy deflecting hope and dodging compliments, people overlook a simple fact: This guy is a good coach.
No. Wait. I’m gonna go one better than that. He may be the best guy working
today. And he deserves consideration for best in the decade. Am I crazy? Caught up in the championship fever? Not really. Think about the great coaches of the ’80s, the guys who have won championships: Pat Riley and K.C. Jones. That’s it. They took all but one of the crowns (Billy Cunningham did it with Philadelphia in 1983). Now consider what they had to work with. Jones had arguably the best player in the game, Larry Bird, along with Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Robert Parish. Talent. Riley had — and has — arguably the best player in the game, Magic Johnson, plus Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, James Worthy. Talent.
And Daly? He has one superstar who is not even the best at his position, Isiah Thomas. A guard. A 6-foot-1 guard. Bird and Magic are 6-9. Kareem is 7-feet-2. A guard?
And what else? Bill Laimbeer? Rick Mahorn? Hey. We love these guys in Detroit, but they are not exactly big star material, folks. You cannot anchor a team around them.
So instead, wisely, Daly has anchored them around the team. Team defense. Team speed. Team play. You aren’t born running the trap or double-teaming. That gets taught. Chuck teaches it. He also plays substitutions like an Olympic TV producer plays the camera angles: Cut to here. Cut to there. Get Rodman out there, get Vinnie, now Vinnie sits, go to Joe, now Joe sits, gimme Mark. . . .
You think that’s easy? Then try meshing all those personalities — Thomas, Laimbeer, Aguirre, Dumars, Rodman — which are about as homogeneous as the Tower of Babel. “That’s my job,” said Daly, shrugging. “You hit it on the head. Every guy wants to play 48 minutes and score 48 points.”
So here is what I want to know: Where are the awards? Where is the recognition? Why aren’t they calling Daly a genius of substitution, a defensive mastermind, a hardcourt wizard? Huh?
“He deserved coach of the year this year, no question,” said Pat Riley.
“With what he did? A big trade mid-season? Won 63 games? But I think he’s falling into a little of what they say about me. He’s getting taken for granted.”
Great, six years ago they were saying “Chuck Who?” and today he is overlooked. Typical Daly.
He went right past “appreciated.”
So forgive him if he’s a little bit glitzy these days, a few too many commercials, a few too many TV shows and radio spots. He is, after all, cashing in the chips pretty late in the game. “It’s kind of amusing. Here I worked all these years, and now, at the end, I’m finally getting some attention. I hear some people criticize all the stuff I do, but when you get the chance you’ve got to take advantage. I could be out in the street at any time. Remember, my career here has always been checkered in terms of contracts.”
Indeed, last year at this time, he was working the NBA Finals without one. Looking back, it is remarkable that such a situation occurred. “I think you media guys missed the boat on that one,” he said, still sounding a little bitter. “If we were in New York, that would have been front-page news.”
Instead, Daly took the Pistons to a seventh game against LA, then went the whole summer before signing — at a base salary that is still just more than half of what Riley or Larry Brown is making.
Perhaps that experience, perhaps the fact that this is “my last coaching job,” perhaps time and place and coaching mileage have finally pushed Daly beyond self-doubt. He will not tolerate much monkey business these days. Not long after Aguirre arrived here, Daly pulled him aside for a private meeting. He laid it on the line as far as attitude, weight and the way things are done.
“Just remember, you have one more trade in you,” Daly said, “and I won’t be afraid to make it.” It seemed the mark of a coach who believed in his system
— and the mark of a coach who knew he had two years guaranteed on his contract. They want to fire him? Fine. Until then, he’s gonna try to win a championship — his way.
“He’s more intense this year, no doubt,” said Salley, who often takes the brunt of Daly’s outrage. “Last year taught him — and all of us — how close you can get and still not taste it.”
Which begs the question: Would Chuck Daly hang it up if he won it all tonight?
“Not for the fact that we won or lost it,” he said, “but maybe for another position. I’d like to be a part-owner of a team, like Billy Cunningham (in Miami), and I’ve spoken to some people about that idea. I could leave before my contract was up for that. But right now, I need the work — for money and for sanity.”
And, who knows? Perhaps, tonight, for glory. All the yelling, the stomachaches, the midnight phone calls, the hoarse throat, the handkerchiefs full of sweat. Will Chuck Daly learn that there is a payoff after all?
“I’m an Irish realist who understands odds,” Daly said when asked to describe himself. Fine. Then understand this: You’re up 3-0, your team is well-coached, you deserve it. So when they finally pour your champagne, Chuck, tonight or whenever, try not to look at how full the glass is, OK?
And watch out for Salley.
He’s got a wicked left.
Chuck Daly at courtside: Still dapper at 58. Chuck Daly makes his point to a referee; tonight, his stern expression might finally give way to a smile.