After a while, in any good marriage, you learn to read each other’s faces. You can sense anger, glee, disappointment. So it was that Isiah Thomas, who has been professionally married to his coach, Chuck Daly, for the last five years, sat on the curb of a parking lot Sunday afternoon, acting out all of Daly’s courtside expressions.
“There’s this one,” he said, tugging on an imaginary coat lapel, “and that means, ‘Calm down, relax, slow it up.’
“Then there’s this one.” He held out his hands, palms up, with a look of amazement. “That’s like, I don’t believe it. What can you do?
“And then. . . . ” He smiled. “There’s this one.” He lifted his legs in exaggerated height, windmilled his arms, and made a face like a gorilla.
“That,” he laughed, “means you bleeped-up BIG TIME!”
You know something? I have seen every one of these faces. Over and over. How long has The Chuck and Isiah Show been running in Detroit? Five years? How many games is that? How many trips up and down the court, back and forth, face to face, turning and waving and yelling and shrieking and nodding and grinning and hollering instructions?
Five years? And, let’s face it — we could be watching the swan song. After today’s Game 4 of this Eastern Conference final, Chuck Daly will be working without a contract; his old one has expired. He could reach the NBA final — heck, he could win the NBA championship — and be working for nothing. Will he return? Will he take a general manager’s job? Who knows?
Now. OK. Coaches come and coaches go. But, for me, the picture of Thomas minus Daly is like a picture of Yogi minus Boo-Boo. They have grown older together here in Detroit, grown famous together, grown richer, talked and yelled and interacted their way to the lip of NBA glory.
This is a story about the man in the suit and the man in the shorts, on the morning of perhaps the biggest game of their careers. Can you really imagine Isiah running upcourt with anyone but Daly making the gorilla face?
CHUCK ON ISIAH: “He understands me, I understand him. He knows my faults. I know his faults. Obviously, at times, we disagree. But for all the time we spend together, he’s a pleasure. He lets me drive the bus.” ISIAH ON CHUCK: “Chuck sees people, not X’s and O’s. When I’m out there on the court, I’m not his point guard, I’m Isiah, and there’s certain things he lets me do because he knows it’s me. Same thing when Vinnie Johnson comes in. He’s not X2, he’s Vinnie. And when Bill Laimbeer comes in, he’s not X3, he’s Bill.
. . . I think that’s the greatest gift Chuck has.”
On the surface, they would seem to have little in common: Thomas, 27, is the sweet-faced basketball hero, the poor kid who escaped the Chicago streets the way a baby Superman escaped Krypton. Daly, meanwhile, is the slickish Irish coach, the son of a traveling salesman, a fan of Mel Torme music and a self- professed “second-banana” who, at 57, is still waiting for the big score.
That these two have clicked, that they call each other “friend,” is credit to a single trait: honesty. Daly’s and Thomas’. This they share. If Thomas doesn’t like something, he lets it be known. And Daly, who dresses in silk, still speaks in cotton. “Hey, I need the money,” he’ll say. Or, “Hey, I could be fired tomorrow.” Once, last year, after a poor playoff game, he announced: “Practice today will be just long enough to throw up.”
How can you not trust a guy like that?
When Daly arrived in Detroit, Thomas was already pegged as the future of the Pistons. He already made more money. He was already more famous. And yet Daly was suddenly his boss. This is the curious nature of NBA coach and NBA superstar. Thomas could have been arrogant, egotistical, impossible to deal with — and it would have been Daly who hit the highway.
“I’ve never once in all the time I’ve been here considered trading him,” Daly admitted, as the Pistons practiced Sunday afternoon. “How could I? You’d have to change the world first. He’s bigger than life here.
“So I’m very fortunate. He’s a good guy. He could have been a real bleep. Sure, he’s got his complexities. He’s got his conflicts. But he’s very young. Sometimes people expect him to behave like a 50-year-old with that stuff.”
“Do you ever find yourself wishing he’d act more like a 50- year-old?” I ask.
“No, because when he’s 50, I’ll be dead.”
ISIAH ON CHUCK: “I’ve always felt he doesn’t get enough credit simply because I’m on this team. It’s assumed we’re going to have a certain number of wins just because I’m playing. Like, when we were winning games with Kent Benson and Earl Cureton, people acted as if we were supposed to do that. They didn’t realize how much Chuck brought out of those players.” CHUCK ON ISIAH: “Hey. He saved my job. No question about it.”
The latter is not an idle compliment. There was a time in the 1985-86 season when Daly was indeed rumored to be on his way out. The team had slumped, lost 14 of 19, and Daly even spoke to his players before a game and told them he might soon be axed. Thomas was upset. He told the press it wasn’t Daly’s fault, it was the players’ fault, they weren’t delivering. He then spoke with Bill Davidson, the man who owns the Pistons, and told him the same thing.
Thomas: “I talked to Chuck the night before we were going to play Boston. That was the make-or-break game. It was like, If we don’t win tomorrow, well, I know what’s going to happen and you know what’s going to happen.”
He promised Daly the Pistons would win. He then made sure of it. He scored 39 points, playing with a bad leg (“the most remarkable performance I’ve ever seen him give,” Daly says now). Detroit won, and proceeded to win 23 of its next 27. The coach was safe.
“What did you think of Isiah speaking to the owner on your behalf?” Daly was asked Sunday.
“I felt very good about it. And I felt he was right. We did win 23 of 27 after that.”
“But was it difficult to deal with him as just another player?”
“You mean did I have to genuflect more? Or take deeper bows?” He laughed. “No, seriously, none of that happened, because he’s a smart guy, and basically he just wants to play and compete.”
Thomas must have known what he was talking about. The Pistons are enjoying their most successful season ever. And Daly has now become the winningest coach in the history of the franchise.
Even if he doesn’t have a contract.
CHUCK ON ISIAH: “There are games where we talk the whole time and games where all I say is ‘Hi Zeke. How ya doin’?’ And then I’ll call the seven play or the eight play . . . and he’ll run the three play.”
ISIAH ON CHUCK: “We talk about a lot of things. Before I got married he told me ‘Ahhhh, don’t get married’ — sort of sarcastic, you know? — ‘Don’t get married, it’s the worst thing, you come home one day and your wife has bought all this furniture and you don’t know where it came from. . . . Ahhh, don’t get married.’ And I started laughing. I said ‘Chuck, you been married for 26 years. How can you dislike it so much?’ “
Here is the scene I remember most about Daly and Thomas: Last year, Boston Garden, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final. Those final five maddening seconds, when Daly was screaming, his lungs bursting, his voice drowned out by 14,000 fans — and Thomas, unable to hear him call for time out, throwing that pass, which Larry Bird stole for the win and the Detroit funeral.
They were never closer to a championship than at that moment, these two, yet they literally couldn’t find each other, the noise was like a stormy sea that ripped them apart. Never that close. Until perhaps today.
A win over Boston would give the Pistons a 3-1 edge, and a driver’s seat to the NBA final. And if indeed, this is Thomas’ and Daly’s last go-around together, and if there is any justice in this world, then they will finish the afternoon with a victory.
“Can you picture playing here without Chuck yelling at you on the sidelines?” I ask Thomas.
“Well, I know it’ll happen eventually. But do I think this is the right time for it to happen? No. I don’t.
“I’m bothered by the contract thing personally, because we like each other, and I want what’s best for Chuck. But business-wise, Chuck does what he has to do and the Pistons do what they have to do.”
And everybody goes on. How strange. Had Thomas not helped win that game against Boston years ago, Daly would probably not have his job today. And had Daly not been as good at meshing personalities such as Adrian Dantley, Laimbeer and Johnson, then Thomas would likely be home right now, watching some other team in the playoffs.
The man in the suit. The man in the shorts. There are times when they glare at each other and times when they holler, there are times when Daly thinks “he’s 100 miles away” and times when Thomas thinks “he doesn’t understand what it’s like out there.” But, for better or worse, these relationships are special, unique, they take a lot of wear and tear and they don’t last forever. This afternoon, Detroit fans will be looking for Kevin McHale to shoot, for Rickey Mahorn to rebound, for Larry Bird to explode. You know what I’ll be looking for? I’ll be looking for Chuck Daly to make the gorilla face. And I bet I see it.
CUTLINE Isiah Thomas talks to coach Chuck Daly.