Has this ever happened to you? You are screaming until your lungs explode for something you want desperately, passionately, but you are drowned out by 14,000 hysterical, towel-waving, beer-drinking fans? Well. No. I guess not. But that is where we left Chuck Daly Tuesday night, rushing down the Boston Garden courtside, waving his arms, shrieking, trying madly to get Isiah Thomas to call for time-out with five seconds left
— and instead, his voice lost in the deafening crowd, he watched Thomas throw the ball inbounds, a lazy pass . . .
You know the rest. Larry Bird stole it, Dennis Johnson scored it, and, gal-oooomp. Daly swallowed a pound and a half of anguish, along with the assurance that, once again, he would not sleep five minutes all night.
Listen. I’m going to do something shameful here. OK? I’m going to take sides. I’m going to say the Celtics — who lead this Eastern Conference final, three games to two — are great, marvelous, truly impressive, and if there is any justice in this world, the Pistons will kick them right off the sports page. Not for the players, not for the fans, but for all of life’s runner-ups, for anyone who has ever come in second, anyone who’s been one digit from the jackpot, or best man at his secret love’s wedding.
Take a look at your coach, B team. The guy on the Detroit bench with the slick coiffure and the neatly pressed suit.
Chuck D’s in love. With basketball.
And she may break his heart again.
“High school?” I ask.
“My team went to the state semifinals once,” he says. “The year after I graduated, they won the state championship.”
“The year after you graduated?”
“How about college?”
“I got a scholarship to St. Bonaventure. But a lot of guys were coming back from the war, so . . . I ended up transferring”
“As a college assistant, I made the Final Four.”
“As an assistant?”
“And the pros?”
“Made it to the NBA finals. With Philly. I was an assistant there, too.”
“Assistant. Semifinals. You know . . . ” I say, looking over the note pad.
“There is a pattern here.”
“I know,” Chuck Daly says, “second banana.”
Second banana. Runner-up. The guy is three years from his 60th birthday, he has put in his time, he has taken no shortcuts, 32 years of coaching, including Duke, Boston College, Penn, Cleveland, Philly, Detroit, he has won a lot and yet he has never won it all, at any level. A year ago, he had
“pretty much accepted the idea” that he would probably never see an NBA championship. And suddenly, a few trades, the system clicked, the Pistons are now farther than ever before, within breathing distance of the final — and Bird has the audacity to steal that pass?
Forgive me, Boston. You have, in K.C. Jones, a terrific coach, a hell of a coach. A coach who also has, on his hand, or in his sock drawer, or wherever he keeps them, two NBA championship rings as Celtics skipper and Lord knows how many as a player.
Chuck Daly has his wedding band.
Now I don’t know about you. But this affects my sense of, well, distribution. A lot of would-be NBA coaches want to jump from the court to the bench in a single bound. No sympathy here for them. But Daly has played fair. He has touched every square in the hopscotch board. Seven years in high schools. Seven years as a college assistant. Four years as an NBA assistant.
Not many people consider reaching Punxsutawney, Pa., a milestone in their careers. Daly does. “Hey, I was a Depression kid,” he says. “My father was a traveling salesman. I used to go riding with him on his runs. I’d sit in the front seat of the car while he called on customers.
“To me, getting to Punxsutawney (his first high school job) was great. I mean, I was coaching.” Which is only a big deal when you consider the alternatives. Prior to Punxsutawney (and I keep repeating it here because I am amazed every time I spell it correctly), Daly had earned wages as a furniture loader, a dishwasher, a night watchman, a construction worker and, while in the army, a bouncer in a Tokyo nightclub. “One summer in college I had a job in a leather factory. They’d bring in these hides from South America with blood on them, and we’d throw them in the lime pits so the hair would come off. And then I’d have to go down and clean the lime pits.
“Those kind of jobs really helped me decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
“Like get out of the lime pits?” I ask.
“Right,” he says.
Today, it is true, Daly is out of the pits. And into the glitz. In fact,
at their pin-striped, silk-tie best, Daly and assistant coaches Ron Rothstein and Dick Versace could be pictured running some Las Vegas casino; Rothstein at the blackjack tables, Versace — white hair and all — crooning into the lounge microphone, Daly sort of walking around with his jaw set, the man in charge, the kind of guy they whisper to and he waves a couple of fingers and an hour later, somebody gets shot.
“Chuck was always slick, from the day I met him,” Rothstein said. But he means slick in dress. Earthy in character. Remember, this is a guy who worked for Ted Stepien in Cleveland. His first head-coaching job. He lasted 93 days. He lived in a Richfield hotel room. The entire time. When he was fired he just checked out. You gotta like that.
The fact is, it is tough to find anyone around who doesn’t like the guy.
(Except maybe Stepien.) Even some of the Boston writers privately concede they’d like to see him get one before he quits, even if it means beating the Celtics. Why not? Here is a guy who is, well, relatable: he likes golf, Mel Torme, New Jersey. He will bury you in optimism, then turn and say, “But hey, they may fire me tomorrow, so what do I know?” He can talk clothes with rookie John Salley, he can talk best-sellers with a bookstore owner. He is the type to come to lunch in Sergio- this and Georgio-that, and still slurp his soup.
I have seen him, at various times in the past two years, racing through a shopping mall in Atlanta, leaning over a piano in a Boston bar, pacing the halls in the Houston Summit. I have heard him deny contract rumors, admit he was about to be fired, choke up at the prospect of leaving, and laugh at the Pistons’ playoff success. I have seen him yell at players, yell at reporters, and remark that “practice today will be just long enough to throw up.” And this is my impression: Daly, 57 in July, is like a salesman who has grown tired of the sandwiches and the long drives and the feeling in the pit of his stomach when the customer says no. But he still can’t resist the prospect of the one big one, the consummate deal, and so he trudges on.
He deals with egos that are insatiable, players who all want “48 minutes and 48 points a night.” He takes the barbs of a Bill Laimbeer and the silence of an Adrian Dantley and the explosive leadership of an Isiah Thomas. He kills the road boredom with shopping malls and books. And he fields all of it, like a shortstop, even though it is a flat-out pain in the butt, even though he is the second-oldest coach in the NBA (behind Jack Ramsay). One time, you would figure, for all this, he would get the brass ring.
And it keeps eluding him. W hen do you feel oldest in this job?” I ask.
“Mid-January around 5:45 a.m.” he says. “I get that wake-up call, another bus, another airport, and I say, ‘Oh my God.’ I couldn’t sleep all night because we blew a 10-point lead and lost a game. I was up every hour. I must be insane. A normal guy is going home at 5 o’clock today. And he’s got a future!”
The last word is always on his mind. No coach in this league should feel particularly secure. But Daly — perhaps because of the ugly, almost-switch to Philadelphia after last season, and the season he had to spend doing TV commentary after the Cleveland collapse — seems particularly job-sensitive.
“I tell the guys even now, hey, with all we’ve done this year, 10 days into next season, I could be gone,” he says.
“Doesn’t that bother you, never knowing if you’ll hold onto your job?”
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s partly why I’m interested in GM jobs. I had a good chance at one last year, before I signed the new contract here (he would not say which team).”
“Why didn’t you take it? Why didn’t you get out?”
He shrugged. Then he laughed. Above all else, Chuck Daly has a hell of a laugh.
“I’m in love,” he said, sing-song. “I’m in love. I still want to coach. What can I say?” I should add here that the guy is not a saint. I mean, I have witnessed Daly blow his top. First-hand. Last season during the playoffs, I wrote a story about Isiah Thomas’s bladder ailment — which threatened his play. Daly, naturally, didn’t want it in the papers. When I told him it was in there, he went “ARRGH!” His eyes bulged, I thought instinctively about ducking, and then he wheeled on me, yelled, “FINE! FINE! THAT’S ALL!” and marched away.
Isiah got better. The Pistons got eliminated. I didn’t speak with Daly the rest of that season.
So this is not a fan letter. Just an appreciation of a guy who has put in his time. Chuck D’s in love, but she keeps teasing him, inviting him in, onto the couch, dimming the lights — then taking a phone call in the kitchen. Enough. Let the guy have his moment.
The Pistons had only one big, closed-door team meeting this year. The highlight, Daly said, was this unexpected dedication by Isiah Thomas.
“I read where you said you don’t think you’re gonna be named coach of the year,” the guard said.
“That’s right,” Daly answered.
“Well, I’m not gonna win the MVP award. And Laimbeer’s not gonna win the rebounding title. And Adrian’s not gonna win the scoring title. So why don’t we dedicate ourselves to winning the whole thing instead? Kind of all the second-bests? Let’s just go for it all, for all of us.”
I like that. So maybe tonight, for all the second-bests, all the also-rans, all the guys back in the lime pits, things will turn out OK. And who knows? Maybe the Pistons and Daly will go back to Boston and take it all there in a stunning finale, and then go on to beat LA for the title?
In which case, Chuck, forget I said any of this.