by | Apr 29, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

When you check into a bed and breakfast, it’s a good idea to read the guest book. See what others before you had to say.

Same goes for hiring NBA coaches. A look back gives a glimpse ahead. So here, on this first morning of the Alvin Gentry Era in Pistonland, a brief primer on those who came before him:

In 1992, the Pistons let go of Chuck Daly, the coach who brought them their only two championships. They hired Ron Rothstein, a guy who had been working in TV.

“We need change and we need discipline,” said Isiah Thomas the day Rothstein was hired. “Those are the things Ron brings to the party.”

One year later, the party was over. The Pistons fired Rothstein and hired one of his assistants, Don Chaney. Discipline was out, understanding was in.

“Don is going to command the players’ respect, not demand it,” Tom Wilson said the day Chaney was hired.

Two years later, having lost the players’ respect, Chaney was fired. The Pistons dipped back into the TV booth, plucking Doug Collins. Good-bye, understanding. Hello, butt-kicking.

“I love his enthusiasm,” owner Bill Davidson said the day Collins was hired.

Three years later, Davidson wasn’t so crazy about his enthusiasm. Neither were the players. Collins was axed, and, in keeping with the pattern — one TV guy, one assistant, one TV guy, one assistant — Detroit chose Gentry, an affable man who has a calming effect.

And as of this morning, the job is his. For two years. Plus an option.

Five coaches in six years? A Ping-Pong from discipline to detente, discipline to detente?

Kind of makes you wonder where the ball is going to bounce next, doesn’t it?

It’s the players, stupid

Now, none of this is to say that Gentry won’t be a fine coach. Like Brian Ellerbe at Michigan, Gentry, 43, is a young guy you first expect to be “happy to be here.” Then, when you come to know him, you realize there’s a dash of moxie, a quiet confidence and a lot going on upstairs.

Defenders of his promotion Tuesday pointed to guys such as Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, who were unknown assistants before becoming top-ranked coaches. Of course, when someone points to Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, I point to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. I mean, Brendan Malone was an assistant who became a head coach, too. How long did that last?

Same goes for Bill Hanzlik (Denver), Jim Clemons (Dallas) or Dick Versace
(Indiana). All those ex-assistants came highly recommended. They left highly reconsidered.

Today’s NBA is all about the players. If you got ’em, you’re three-quarters of the way home. Which partly explains Gentry’s new status.

Grant Hill likes him.

“You have to admit, if Hill weren’t on your side, you wouldn’t be here,” I said to Gentry.

“No question,” he said, to his credit. “On the court, I try to put Grant in every situation where he can be successful. And off the court, I let him come to me. I think Grant is much more comfortable being the person who does the coming in, rather than being approached.”

Don’t underestimate an observation like that. It’s the kind of thing Collins didn’t get. Older fans might think being a good coach is kicking over a chalkboard and screaming X’s and O’s. But nowadays, knowing your players’ moods will keep you your job much longer.

Gentry does this. He is not an irrational screamer. He relates to players from his own experience in the game.

Of course, the same could be said of Don Chaney, and look what happened to him.

“Here’s how Alvin handles things,” said Joe Dumars, who also is in favor of the hire. “In our last game against Chicago we had a big lead, then the Bulls made a run at us. Alvin called time out, but he didn’t yell. He said, ‘Hey, they’re the world champions. Did you really think they wouldn’t make a run? We expected this, now let’s go out and stop it.’

“As a player, you appreciate that approach.”

And the Pistons won the game.

Then again, the Bulls are still playing. The Pistons are golfing.

He has a head start

A few days ago, I asked Chuck Daly, who now coaches Orlando, what he thought of the Pistons hiring Gentry. He gave it thumbs-up.

“He’s a sharp guy,” Daly said. “And he already knows the personnel. That’s key. Knowing what certain guys like to do, what they’re willing to do.

“I don’t care who else they hired. Say they got George Karl (from Seattle.) He’s an excellent coach, done a great job. But I guarantee you it would take George a year to learn the personnel, same as everyone else.”

By that point, Gentry would be halfway through his deal. Let’s face it. It’s no accident that the term of his contract coincides with the remainder of Grant Hill’s. If Hill changes his mind on Gentry in the next two seasons, the Pistons will be free to ax him and get whomever Grant wants. More than anything, that’s what this is about. Keeping Hill, Mr. Franchise, happy and — most important — on the roster.

In the interim, Gentry gets a chance to make his mark. He’ll need a big forward. He’ll need more scoring. And he’ll need to crawl inside Brian Williams’ head and reset the buttons.

But it’s a shot, one Gentry has worked hard for. I wish him luck. I like him, and I see why the Pistons do, too. Looking at him historically, he fits the pattern. Soon enough, we’ll learn if he fits the bill.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581. He will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” 1-2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, Rochester Hills, and 7:30-8:30 p.m. May 6 at Barnes & Noble, Grosse Pointe Woods.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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