May 09, 2009
"Daddy Rich." That's what I think of when the subject of Chuck Daly springs up.
There are plenty of ways to describe the man, who died this morning at age 78, but for me this always did the best, bang-up job. Not unlike Daly's turn at manning the sidelines. Bang-up job.
"Daddy Rich" was what the players in Detroit called Chuck. It had to do with the man's sartorial splendor, not only how Daly's suits looked, but the get-ups he put together for practice and for travel. Slick and suave in a way that Pat Riley hadn't really approximated, yet. Naturally cool.
And though Daly burned through several apt descriptions in his time coaching this game — high school head man, Duke assistant, Ivy League winner, assistant under Billy Cunningham, Bad Boys architect, Dream Team sage, winner, champion — "Daddy Rich" always seemed to wrap it up for me.
Because it meant his players dug him. And not in a way that Daly needed, or pined for, or in a style that would undermine his credibility, his respect and his authority. To put these athletes through the paces, demand the best, get the best and still come out as "Daddy Rich?" How could you call him anything else?
A lot of it had to do with the man's experience, which makes what feels like his too-early passing (wasn't he just working with Matt Harpring(notes) not that long ago?), much sadder. But it probably made him the winner that he was.
This is a guy who got his first NBA head coaching gig at the age of 51. And his Cavaliers, stuck in the dregs of the Ted Stepien-era, stunk on ice. Preferring talent and experience over a 41-game Cleveland sample size, the Pistons still tagged Chuck to run their show two years later, and he never missed the playoffs during his nine-year run with the team, making the Finals in 1988 (losing in seven, tough, games) before winning back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990.
The game belongs to the players, Chuck never let us forget it, but the Pistons don't win a thing (read: ring) without Daly. Isiah Thomas' talents were never harnessed better. Bigs like John Salley, Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards never played a more efficient, focused game under any other coach. Adrian Dantley was a me-first guy, except under Daly. Mark Aguirre was the same, add a little thuggishness, but not under Daly. Well, keep the thuggishness.
And, most tellingly, Daly's flight from the Pistons after 1991-92 had Dennis Rodman so distraught and rudderless at times that he spent a scary chunk of the year that followed contemplating suicide. It was just that those guys became legends because of Chuck. They needed him, badly.
I mean that. Laimbeer doesn't get a video game, or a coaching gig of his own without Daly's tutelage in Cleveland and Detroit. This was a rich kid, ambling through life, until Daly told him where the rebounds were. And does any other coach have the security and sense of confidence to toss a diminutive shooting guard from a college nobody's ever heard of into a starting slot next to tiny Isiah Thomas?
Not in this era, but Joe Dumars became a Hall of Famer. Or how about a 24-year-old rookie, straight out of Division II Southeastern Oklahoma State? Plug him in. Have him guard Magic. And trust him when he tells you that he's done with being a Bruce Bowen(notes)-style defensive stopper, because turning himself into the greatest rebounder ever will double his salary. You cool with that, Daddy Rich?
Confidence. Security. Trust and faith in the game you took the time to learn about, inside-out. That comes from experience, yes, because you know Daly had tons of that. From high school to college to the pros to the international stage. But he also had the character to follow through as he saw fit, and a love for the game that had still had him throwing towels on the floor a hundred times a year.
That's his legacy. The legacy that told him to move Penny Hardaway — "the next Magic Johnson" — out of the point guard slot, so that a former college punter and minor league veteran could handle the ball. The result of that? The Magic go from a .500 team to one winning nearly 2/3rds of their games, and Darrell Armstrong(notes) (the former punter) goes from the 12th man to one of the NBA's best point guards.
And the legacy didn't always result in pretty things. At the height of the Showtime Era, when teams were running with wild abandon, he slowed his Pistons down to a crawl, despite the team's litany of world-class athletes. It set in place a movement that made the NBA nigh-on unwatchable for a while, but that's not Daly's fault. He was put in place to win, and win he did. Over and over and over again.
I watched this guy for years, though, and I don't really remember the wins. I remember being glued to the TV for his Finals wins, and I know I've watched and re-watched Detroit's sweep over the Lakers in 1989, and the somewhat tougher turn in Portland the next year several times since, but I don't remember Daly's post-buzzer reaction. I don't remember any podium speeches or locker room jubilation. I'm sure it was there, but it was the journey toward those wins that sticks out, 20 years later.
And that brings us back to the players, which would please Daly to no end. I'll remember the tinkering, the tailoring and the trust. Tinkering with a game that never stops evolving, tailoring his coaching to suit his players' needs (to say nothing of those three-piece suits), and the trust in himself to follow through on what he thought would work.
And for the 16 coaches that wore those "CD" pins during this season's playoffs, you'd be wise to follow Chuck's lead. From the top of the heap, to the eighth seeded also-rans. Understand that this game never stops teaching you. And if you stay humble in the face of something you know quite a bit about, the return will be so, so rich.