With regard to the firing of Brian Hill as coach of the Orlando Magic on Feb. 18, the operative clich� was, The inmates are running the asylum. Here's a more appropriate metaphor: The children are running the day-care center. Children point fingers and backstab when the going gets tough. Children have a hard time accepting responsibility when things go bad. Children pout when they don't get their way. Ladies and gentlemen...your Orlando Magic!
The NBA has long been an indoor Lord of the Flies (one wonders if Red Auerbach was the league's last coach truly in control of his team), but never have so many children been so much in charge. Players are leaving college earlier—or not going to college at all—and thus entering the NBA with less maturity than ever. And they bring with them a sense of entitlement borne of marketing deals that turn them into celebrities of vast wealth before they turn themselves into players.
At the same time, the stakes are getting so phenomenally high (the DeVos family, proprietors of the Magic, paid $85 million for the Magic in 1991, and as of last May the team was valued at $122 million) that franchise executives suddenly listen very carefully to the children. If they don't, the children will pout and tune out the coach, or take their ball and move to a new team as soon as they're free agents. Hill found out that the individual who really runs the Magic is a 25-year-old child named Penny Hardaway, who already has his own puppet alter ego (and an irritating one at that).
In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I go back a long way with Hill, two decades, to Bethlehem, Pa., where he coaxed dozens of wins out of mediocre talent in nine years at Lehigh. But by any objective standard Hill should not have been fired by Orlando. In his three complete seasons he won 68% of his games and more than 50 games per year, the benchmark for NBA coaching excellence. He took the Magic to two conference finals and an NBA Finals. You'd think they'd be giving this guy a long-term contract, not the gate.
Hill's record this season was a subpar 24-25, but four starters, including Hardaway, missed a total of 61 games to injury. Then there is the matter of Shaquille O'Neal's exit to the Los Angeles Lakers after last season; all he took with him was 27 points, 12.5 rebounds and three blocks a game. When Hill had most everyone healthy, as he did before the All-Star break, the Magic won nine of 10 and was the NBA's hottest team. Then Orlando lost five in a row; Hill got canned.
Criticism of Hill centered on three things: his alleged failure to keep O'Neal from fleeing, his alleged failure to develop an imaginative offense and his alleged failure to keep Hardaway happy. O'Neal was not overly enamored of Hill, but he also left because the Magic front office bungled negotiations with him and because La-La Land was too enticing to pass up. Anyway, young players are not exactly, as the sonnet puts it, constant in their affections. On more than one occasion during O'Neal's rookie season of 1992-93, I heard him say of his then coach, "We've got to get Matty [Guokas] out of here and bring in Brian." Sure enough, next season Matty was out and Brian was in. As for Hill's offense, well, every offense in the NBA is predictable—the Chicago Bulls, for crying out loud, run a Stone Age triple post, but they run it very well. Precise execution of a predictable offense is what NBA winners are doing these days, and when O'Neal was around, Orlando was pretty good at it.
As for the final criticism, I want to see the guy who can keep Hardaway happy. He's a spectacular player, but he has spectacular flaws as a leader. He is a sullen pouter who demands superstar treatment even when he doesn't put forth superstar effort or leadership. And no one else resembling a leader, no one who might rally the troops when times get tough, can be found on the Magic roster, with the possible exception of Horace Grant. Instead, these babies yelped, "Let's get rid of the coach." Hardaway, who led the insurrection, can become a free agent after the 1998-99 season, and he held a Hill-or-me hammer over the franchise.
Asked whether he and Grant were responsible for Hill's dismissal, Hardaway's reaction was, "I know it isn't my fault, or Horace's fault." It's not my fault. It must be someone else's fault. Now can I go to the bathroom?
Are there any coaches in the league whom team executives still listen to more than they listen to the children? Pat Riley is one. John Calipari, for the moment, is another. Phil Jackson may be another, though a single anti-Jackson syllable from Michael Jordan could change that. The list is short, and Hill was never on it. It has long been a truism that NBA coaches are hired to be fired. That doesn't mean it's right. Not in every case, anyway. This was one of the wrong ones.