On the Detroit Pistons’ mid-April trip to Miami, Joe Dumars drove with a carload of old guard franchise employees – the trainer, public relations director and radio voice – to Jupiter, Fla., to visit Chuck Daly. They had a sweet time remembering the glory days of the Bad Boys, but the old coach had been watching Detroit’s games between treatments for pancreatic cancer and wanted to talk all about it. He had so many questions for Dumars, still so much curiosity about the plans and perspective of the Pistons president.
When it was time to leave, Dumars was walking out the door when Daly called him back alone. Daly was gaunt, 50 pounds lighter, and yet those eyes had lost nothing. Daly leaned close to Dumars and whispered, “Always go forward in life.”
Never look back, he told Dumars. Never.
“That was his way,” Dumars said softly on the phone Saturday night, “of saying goodbye.”
Goodbye Daddy Rich. The Bad Boys gave him that nickname for the expensive suits and perfectly coiffed hair, but the irony is that Daly was always substance over style. He was the son of a small-town traveling salesman who told his best friends that he someday hoped he could be a $10,000 a year high school coach and teacher. He made it late, made it big and finally died on Saturday at 78 years old. He is forever the Detroit Pistons coach, a defensive innovator, an original in a profession overrun with cookie-cutter copy cats.
Daly, who won two titles with the Pistons and the Olympic gold medal with the Dream Team in 1992, will be remembered as a man’s man, a coach’s coach. He was funny, self-deprecating and still cracking wise until a merciful end on Saturday morning.
Two weeks ago, Daly was talking to one of his closest friends, Lonnie Cooper, the agent who helped make him a millionaire coach, and told him that the stock market was tanking and he needed a favor.
“Get me a job,” Daly told Cooper. The two of them laughed on the phone, like you always did in Daly’s company.
The beauty of the man was that he never thought he had it made, that he was still always the thirtysomething high school coach in Punxsutawney, Pa., sending out letters to college coaches to get an assistant’s job. Before he got the Pistons job in 1983, he had bad players and a bad record as the Cleveland Cavaliers coach. With the Pistons, he transformed a historically combustible brew of talent and egos and characters – Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn – into two-time NBA champions.
As the coach, he created the Jordan Rules and a hard-edge defensive style that bordered on sheer mayhem. He taught the NBA that you could win championships with defense. “I don’t know who else it could’ve worked with other than Chuck,” Dumars said. “His personality was exactly what was needed for the type of team we had. You couldn’t have been a shrinking violet and coached our team.”
He was never trying to be someone else, never an act and that’s why it worked with the Bad Boys. They would’ve spotted a phony a mile away and chewed him up.
Within him, there were still the scars of a poor childhood and a pro pink slip. They called him the “Prince of Pessimism,” because he always counted on the worst to happen. He’d call Cooper and tell him that they were going to lose that night, and that he’d probably never be able to get another job and it was always Daly’s mechanism to keep himself grounded.
At the news conference to introduce him as the Nets coach, Daly peeked behind the podium curtain and could see cameras and reporters everywhere. All the big-time New York guys were there, all for him. His agent had just made him basketball’s first million dollar a year coach, and yet he grabbed Cooper by the hand and pulled him into a broom closet. The man with two NBA titles, Olympic Dream Team immortality and a ticket to the Basketball Hall of Fame told Cooper, “Do you realize that just a few years ago I was a high school basketball coach making eight thousand dollars a year and sweeping my own gym?”
Then Daly took a deep breath, said, “Let’s go,” and Daly charmed ‘em all over again. We won’t remember him for those final seasons with the Nets and Orlando Magic, but always the Bad Boys. The Pistons ended the Celtics’ 1980s run, held off Michael Jordan’s Bulls and won back to back titles in 1989 and 1990. Every day in the gym with those Pistons was a high-wire act, part X’s and O’s, part psychologist, part peacemaker and part skull-cracker.
Those closest to Daly will tell you that Dumars, the gentleman, had always been his favorite. He was the easiest kid in the class. Once, Daly walked over to Dumars before the start of a practice and said, “Thanks kid.”
That’s all. Just thanks. For what, Dumars asked him. Daly wanted to tell Dumars that he appreciated that with all the characters and drama in Detroit, he never had to worry about him. “Whatever time you feel like you need to use on me, just use it on them,” Dumars told him. They always had that understanding, that they had a bond borne of less is more.
Dumars was on the telephone Saturday, fighting through the ache of it all. In his days as player and president in Detroit, late owner Bill Davidson and Daly had been second fathers to him. They treated Joe D. like family. Those final words stayed with Dumars, resonated and he isn’t sure that he’ll ever go a day without thinking about them.
Always go forward in life, Daddy Rich told his old shooting guard when it was time to say goodbye. Never look back.
What a gift, Dumars thought. What a beautiful, forever gift. Until the end, Chuck Daly was still his coach.