Young bucks occasionally seek out Del Harris and ask what it takes to get a foot in the door and become an NBA coach.
The renowned and revered Harris will pull aside these aspiring mentors and give them this inside information:
“First, you start by coaching junior-high boys. And girls. Then you spend four years with high-school players. And that leads to nine years at a tiny NAIA college.
“That’s really all it takes.”
The instant-gratification generation doesn’t always take kindly to hearing – much less embracing – that circuitous route to the NBA.
But that’s the path Harris took, starting way, way back in 1960.
Six decades later, Harris is still involved in the NBA. And still getting accolades for a career well-played and well-coached.
On Friday afternoon, Harris will be announced as the 2020 winner of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the National Basketball Coaches Association in memory of the hall of fame coach whose outstanding NBA coaching career set a standard for integrity, competitive excellence and tireless promotion of NBA basketball.
“Del is like an encyclopedia of basketball,” said No. 6 all-time NBA scorer and Mavericks’ legend Dirk Nowitzki. “I would always go to Del and see what he has to say because he knows so much. He’s been around forever.
“He’s given the game of basketball so much. He’s a pleasure to talk to and I could talk to him for hours. Great guy. Coached a lot of NBA greats. And he’s done a lot for our sport and our league. I’m a huge Del fan and congratulations on getting this award. Well, well done.”
The award recipient is selected annually by a committee comprised of some of the most respected coaches and basketball executives in the game, including Bernie Bickerstaff, Billy Cunningham, Joe Dumars, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, Donnie Walsh and Lenny Wilkens.
The award has been given out since 2009. Tom Heinsohn was the first recipient and others to win the honor include Pat Riley, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan and Bernie Bickerstaff. Full list is below.
To put Harris’ NBA career in perspective, his first game as an NBA head coach came with the Houston Rockets – against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.
He also was the last person to coach Magic Johnson. And the first to coach Kobe Bryant in the NBA.
Nowitzki is one of many superstar big men who was coached by Harris, either as an assistant or as head coach for 14 seasons in the NBA. It’s like a best-of rundown of centers and power forwards: Shaquille O’Neal, Bob Lanier, Yao Ming, Jack Sikma, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes. All are in the hall of fame, and all worked under Harris, as did Nowitzki, who will join the hall of fame as soon as he’s eligible.
Harris was an NBA head coach for 14 seasons for Houston, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Lakers, forging a record of 556-457 (.549). In 1981 he led the Rockets to the franchise’s first ever championship series.
They remain the only team in NBA history to reach the finals with a losing regular-season record (40-42).
He reached his 500th NBA win as head coach in 1997, when at the time he became only the 19th coach to hit that milestone. He was NBA coach of the year in 1995 with the Lakers. Eight of his assistant coaches went on to be head coaches and two others became NBA general managers.
He was an assistant coach for 18 seasons and his teams averaged 55 wins over his last 11 years as an assistant, seven of them with the Mavericks.
“He’s one of the brightest minds in basketball as far as techniques,” said Don Nelson, who was head coach of the Mavericks when he hired Harris to be his lead assistant in 2000. “He’s one of the top coaches in the league as far as I’m concerned. I learned a lot from him.
“He’s like a diplomat for basketball. He really enjoyed teaching and helping people learn basketball and he was a great communicator.”
Harris’ NBA achievements only scratch the surface of what he’s done in his professional career.
He parlayed a willingness to start from the bottom and a flair for writing books about coaching basketball into his nine years at Earlham College in Indiana in the ‘60s and early ‘70s (his record there: 175-70).
When he found out he could make more money coaching professional club teams in Puerto Rico, the door to an emerging world of basketball opportunities opened for Harris.
With many twists and turns in between, he would go on to eventually coach in more than 400 FIBA games for the national teams of Puerto Rico, Canada and China as head coach and the Dominican Republic and U.S. as an assistant.
“Del Harris’ impact on basketball extends beyond the NBA and transcends national borders,” said Mavericks Head Coach and National Basketball Coaches Association president Rick Carlisle. “His success in both the NBA and international competition reflects a lifetime commitment to the global game. Del has been a trusted friend to the game of basketball for over six decades. Our sincerest congratulations to Del on this well-deserved and prestigious recognition.”
Being fluent in Spanish helped open opportunities internationally for Harris. And his passion for writing helped. His early books in the ‘60s were distributed and translated in Puerto Rico and Asian countries. Word got around that he was an up-and-coming coaching genius.
And he met a lot of other coaches in Puerto Rico, including Tom Nissalke, then coach of the ABA Utah Stars who would hire Harris in 1975 before the ABA folded.
Harris would win international gold medals with Puerto Rico at CentroBasket in 1974 and with the Dominican Republic in 2012.
But it was the 1998 experience with Rudy Tomjanovich as head coach of the U.S. team in the World Championships in Athens, Greece, that Harris takes perhaps most pride in.
“Rudy was chosen to be coach of USA basketball during the lockout year, with no NBA players,” Harris remembers. “He was allowed to choose one NBA coach and the others would be college guys. And he chose me. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, for Rudy to pick me and I had hired him as an assistant in Houston.
“I had been the guy who told Rudy he wasn’t in the lineup anymore when I was head coach (at the end of Tomjanovich’s playing career).
“I know Rudy won a gold medal in Sydney. But that was a bigger win, to get the bronze in Athens, as far as I was concerned. We had all college guys and only one that really made it in the NBA, Brad Miller.”
Tomjanovich remembers the decision he made to hire Harris when he had the chance as part of the U.S. team in ’98. He had come to grips long before that with Harris’ decision to bench him in 1981 when the Rockets went to the finals.
“I remember at the end of my career, it was a hard thing to take,” Tomjanovich said. “We were having success, and I couldn’t be out there. It was tough.
“But I had to give the guy loads of respect for doing it his way. And we were actually real close to winning a championship – a play here, a play there.”
And Tomjanovich gained a great appreciation for Harris’ aptitude for the game as he transitioned from player to scout and assistant coach.
“I loved talking about basketball with him,” Tomjanovich said. “Del was an innovator. He had done things that not everybody was doing. I go back to his Milwaukee days and he was running picks for (Jack) Sikma to come get an outside shot. People weren’t doing that back then.
“He loves basketball. It’s his life. At that time, I still would think like a player, and I needed to be around people who were born to be coaches. And Del is a good guy to be around for that. There’s so much wisdom that comes out of his mouth. Which is good, because he loves to talk.
“I wanted somebody I could trust and respected to be in the foxhole with me. And he was known as the silver fox, too. So that was pretty cool.”
It was just part of Harris’ international success. In the 2000s, Harris was tabbed to work with the Chinese team and Yao Ming and he helped take that country’s national team to unprecedented heights.
Then he teamed up with John Calipari to coach the Dominican national team.
For the last 11 years, Harris has been involved with the Texas Legends, the NBA development team in the G-League. He’s served as coach and vice president over the course of the years.
Overall, it’s been a remarkable run for a kid from Indiana that started out hoping to take a much different route than sports.
“My goal in life, first of all, I was going to be a preacher,” Harris said. “And I’ve done that – married, buried and baptized people, not in that order. I had a virtual wedding ceremony for a friend just this year.
“But my professor (at Milligan College) said it would be a good idea if I could make some money before going to seminary.”
A junior-high school job was open at Johnson City, Tenn., and after coaching both the boys and girls teams, he moved to the high-school level in Indiana. Then to Earlham College, where he spent nine years.
Puerto Rico opened all the other doors, including the NBA, and it resulted in a 61-year career – so far.
“Without Puerto Rico, I could have been winning 20 games for 20 years at NAIA schools and never gotten an opportunity,” he said. “And it all started with writing those magazine articles. Back then, there was no internet and the way the Euros and South America and Asia got information was periodicals and books. And there weren’t a lot of books. But the magazine articles would be translated.
“I was going to be a preacher, but I was destined to do this.”
NBCA Chuck Daly Award winners
2020 Del Harris.
2019 Frank Layden.
2018 Doug Moe.
2017 Hubie Brown, Al Attles.
2016 Jerry Sloan, K.C. Jones.
2015 Dick Motta.
2014 Bernie Bickerstaff.
2013 Bill Fitch.
2012 Pat Riley.
2011 Lenny Wilkens.
2010 Tex Winter, Jack Ramsay.
2009 Tom Heinsohn.