by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There were no tears when he stepped to the podium, nothing weak or mushy. Would Chuck Daly ever go mushy in public? Besides, when he first arrived here nine years ago, he couldn’t have filled a bus stop if he called a news conference, and now there were hundreds of important people crammed inside a suburban joint that bears his name — Chuck Daly’s Great Northern Restaurant
— to bid him adieu. So hey. Why cry? Business was booming.

Which does not mean something hasn’t ended, and something special hasn’t passed. They will remember Chuck Daly for many things, his Italian suits, his blow-dried hair, his sideline tantrums, his nightclub comic’s persona, his gruff voice, his winks, his shrugs — but mostly they will remember that he won. He went to the mountaintop, came back down, and went there again the very next year, with a group of guys everyone loved to hate, except the folks in this city. A lot of coaches go their whole careers without taking that big champagne bath in June. Daly took it twice — and Detroit dived right in with him. Fans called him Chuck. Players called him Daddy Rich.

Daddy Gone now.

“Let’s make this an Irish wake,” he laughed Tuesday afternoon, when he said good-bye — with no other firm offers, he says — to the franchise that gave him two championship rings, nearly a decade’s worth of employment, and all but nine of his 547 NBA career victories. “On the other hand, I’m only half-Irish and half-Scottish. So you can have one drink, but not too much food. Hahahaha!”

Slick to the end. That’s Chuck. Nobody heard the real story of why he’s leaving at age 61, one of the top coaches in the game, not at this news conference; but little ever comes out of news conferences anyhow. Between Channel 7’s Bill Bonds shamelessly pointing a camera at himself, another at Daly, then hogging the questions to make viewers think he’s the only one worth listening to, frankly, we’d have been better off ordering from the menu and waiting until Daly came around to our table, like a bar mitzvah.

And I bet Chuck would have preferred that. He loves to schmooze, he hates to open up. That’s why, if you ever asked for an autograph, he might slow down, but his feet kept stepping, because he didn’t want to get caught and have to answer a whole lot of questions. There was always another place to be. And he always knew when it was time to go.

Just as he does now.

Daddy Gone.

He knew people

“I don’t have a plan; I have nothing in mind,” Daly said, although no sane person believes this. “But I’m in love with the game. I’ll work somewhere. Hey, this is the way I get during the summer: I look up and see an airplane, and I start wondering how come I’m not on it? I have to work!”

He laughed again. The crowd chuckled with him. Behind him sat most of the Pistons’ players, crammed into the restaurant booths, Joe Dumars, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Mark Aguirre, even Vinnie Johnson, who left the team last summer but spent his best years under Chuck and came back to let him know it. It was a nice show of respect. Daly may have been gruff, abrupt, rude, he may have yelled at them, denied them, fought with them

— but he has also bled with them, sweated with them, laughed with them, was honest with them.

And, of course, won with them.

This was his magic as a coach: He understood people. He knew that not everyone gets treated the same, he knew that sometimes they’re going to hate you, and sometimes, the best action is just to let things pass. As the son of a Pennsylvania traveling salesman and a mother who actually went to different churches just to meet people — “Church, synagogue, I never knew what religion she was” — Daly obviously learned the art of communication.

This was the lesson he communicated to the Pistons: Give me all you got, and we’ll win.

“It’s going to be really strange having someone else here next year,” Salley whispered during the press conference. Sally, 27, like Rodman, 30, and Dumars, 28, has never had to take an order from another head coach in the NBA. Chuck Daly is all they know. “I never even minded when he yelled at me. I figured, as long as he was yelling at me, he was noticing me. If he ever stopped yelling I figured, uh-oh, I’m in trouble.

“Isn’t that weird?”

Daddy Gone.

A regular guy

Of course, anyone who knew Daly understands Salley’s logic: Chuck made you feel good when he noticed you and small when he ignored you. He often behaved as commonly as a pit boss — in his time, he worked as a dishwasher, a night watchman, a bar bouncer, and as a grunt in a leather factory, slapping the hides. He also ate like a slob. I’m sorry, Chuck, but the first time I interviewed you, seven years ago, you slurped clam chowder all over yourself, your sleeves, your hands, and last time I watched you eat, last month, well, it wasn’t much better.

But having said that, I must add this: that was part of his charm. The regular guy from Punxatawney, Pa., lurking beneath those expensive Italian suits, just longing to bust out for a whiskey with the boys and get really loose and loud. And Daly could get loud. He still does some of the best yelling in the NBA. He croaks. He roars. He waves his arms and bangs on tables and hollers, “AW, GIMME A BLEEPIN’ BREAK!”

Once, when Aguirre was tossing one bad shot after another, Daly grabbed the telephone from press row, lifted the receiver and screamed, “HEY MARK! IT’S THE CBA!” Another time, he came to practice after a particularly bad loss and bellowed: “Practice today will last only long enough to throw up!” There was a night when he did a particularly strenuous jump at a referee — and split his pants! We sat the rest of the game holding our sides because he didn’t know: Daddy Rich, Mr. GQ, with his underwear sticking out.

That was one of the few moments something got by Daly out on the court. He was a master of defense, and an escape artist when it came to substitutions. Last Sunday, in Game 5 against New York — his final game as Detroit coach — the Knicks were banging the Pistons around and getting no whistles. Daly spun, tugged on his suit lapels, then spotted a Chicago scout sitting near the court, checking out which team his Bulls would play next.

“Hey, Jimmy!” Daly yelled, pointing downcourt at the Knicks. “You see what you got to look forward to?”

Even then, he knew.

Daddy Gone.

No regrets

Which of course, leaves one begging question: Why? Why now? Daly will repeat the same words: “It was time” (like any decent Borscht Belt comic, when Daly gets a good line, he works it). But what does this mean? Some suggest that the head-butting with general manager Jack McCloskey finally got to be too much. Some say he is tired of playing second fiddle to Isiah Thomas, who basically runs the team and once even intervened with owner Bill Davidson to save Daly’s job. It was not uncommon to see Isiah turn and hold up fingers for substitutions, then see Daly send in exactly those players. Hey. Who’s the boss here?

But these are all theories. What are the facts? Well, the fact is Daly’s contract is up. And the fact is, Pistons management hasn’t done anything to rectify that. And the fact is, if they really wanted him back, they wouldn’t let him go so easily, right?

“I’ve always said Chuck could have been coach here for as long as he wanted,” McCloskey said, artfully shifting the blame to Daly. Jack didn’t sound too upset. The fact is, this team is unraveling. Defeat will do that, and Daly, after Rick Mahorn, Johnson and James Edwards, is just the fourth big face from the glory years to depart, not the last.

And so he goes, his last words booming through a PA system underneath the wooden beams of his restaurant. He thanked his wife and daughter. He thanked the players and management. He said if he didn’t find another job (ha!) he could always come back and cook here.

And he said it was a hell of ride, which it was.

I still see Daly, that first time the Pistons won the title, bursting into the pile of players, getting doused with so much champagne, Brendan Suhr said, “He looks like Pat Riley now.” Daly had never before won anything as head coach in his life, not in high school, college or the pros. He called himself “second banana” and the “Prince Of Pessimism” and to see him win was to see every runner-up in the world finally get their shot of spotlight.

Now here he was, all grownup, rich, famous, secure enough to walk away from a team that will never be the same again.

“No regrets,” he said, in closing. “Let the good times roll!”

And he left.


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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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