In honor of National Coaches Day – come on, you knew that was today, right? – we’re looking back at the glory days of NBA coaching.
This is not to besmirch this generation of coaches. Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, Doc Rivers and a lot of others are keeping the craft in good hands.
They are making their predecessors proud.
And those forerunners to this crop of coaches left an indelible mark on the NBA.
It was, without question, a golden era to be a coach. Lenny Wilkens, Jack Ramsay, Gene Shue, Dick Motta, Don Nelson, Larry Brown, Chuck Daly and, of course, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson were marquee coaches with classic portfolios.
They had taken the baton from Red Auerbach, Dolph Schayes, Alex Hannum and Red Holzman. And they helped usher in the era of exploding interest in the NBA.
Sometimes, we take coaches for granted. But they have served a far greater purpose than simply to be there for our second-guessing amusement.
“It was such a great era of unbelievable coaches to go against,” Del Harris, who won 556 games over the course of 14 seasons during his head-coaching career, said recently. “In my first game as an NBA head coach, I had to go against Larry Bird as a player and Bill Fitch as his coach.
“My second game, it was the Knicks that were coached by Red Holzman. And the third game, it was Dick Motta at Washington with Elvin Hayes. I ended up 0-3 to start my career and the first game I win is back at home against Hubie Brown.
“I had coached 20 years at various levels, but I was still a rookie NBA coach and you’re going up against legendary guys every night – Larry Brown, Doug Moe, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Mike Fratello, Jerry Sloan.
“It was a wonderful time for basketball and to be a coach.”
Even if it meant taking a few lumps along the way, which they all did because there were too many good basketball minds at a time when the talent level in the league did not have nearly the parity that it does now.
Those teams without superstar talent had to find ways to win with quality coaching and chemistry.
“It was never easy,” said Don Nelson, the winningest NBA coach in history with 1,335 wins. “Every game you had somebody who was trying to out-think you and out-coach you.
“It was a challenge going against all those guys.”
Daly, for whom the National Basketball Coaches Association named its annual lifetime achievement award that was given to Harris last week, always said coaches and players should have the midnight rule.
You get to enjoy or stew over a game until midnight. Then it’s on to the next one.
Coaches of that era probably had an easier time adhering to that guideline than present-day coaches. The stakes aren’t any higher now. But the paychecks certainly are. And the pressure, simply because the NBA is wildly popular in this era.
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Not as much, at least not until the ABA-NBA merger and, a couple years later, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came along.
One thing definitely has not changed in the coaching profession through the years – their relationship with referees. The perception that your team is being jobbed by the refs is never going to go out of style for fans, players or coaches.
Perhaps that’s why there’s not a National Referees Day. At least, none that anybody has ever heard of.
“As coaches, we’ll feel we’re treated wrong by the refs,” said Rudy Tomjanovich, who joined the long list of legendary coaches in the hall of fame this year. “Usually, it’s human error or you go back and look at the tape and it didn’t happen the way you thought.”
And, a lot of times, it was just the other team making plays and having a game plan that was a little better on that particular day because you knew it was going to be a battle of wits every game.
“It was always a hard job,” Tomjanovich said. “And I had so much respect for the guys who did it for years, for decades. It’s not an easy life.”
As Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle likes to say: “If it was easy, they’d be picking guys off the street to do it.”
So in honor of National Coaching Day, which came into existence with a proclamation during the Nixon Administration, we salute the golden era of the profession – and those who are carrying on the torch today.