In 1961, when Doug Moe was playing basketball at the University of North Carolina, the Tar Heels found themselves on the same flight as Richard Nixon, then a former U.S. vice-president but already one of the most recognizable figures in the world. North Carolina coach Frank McGuire introduced himself to Nixon and walked him down the aisle, presenting him to Tar Heel players as they went. Moe is deathly afraid of flying, and when Nixon and McGuire reached him, he was reading a book to distract himself. It may have been the only book Moe opened that semester, but to Nixon it represented an obvious conversational icebreaker. "You must be the student in the group," he said to Moe.
Moe studied the figure standing before him for a moment—the shoulders hunched forward slightly and the gaunt, jowly face. The man was completely unfamiliar to him. Moe stuck his nose back in the book and then, in a dismissive tone, he said to Nixon, "What are you, a wise guy?"
These many years later, it's fair to ask Moe, who's now 50 and the coach of the Denver Nuggets, the same question. He's about to start his ninth season with the Nuggets, which, to the astonishment of practically everyone who knows him, means Moe has served longer with his current team than any Other incumbent NBA coach. What are you, a wise guy?
Last season Moe chalked up the 500th regular-season win of his NBA career—177 with the San Antonio Spurs, whom he coached from 1976-77 through 66 games in the '79-80 season, and 345 with the Nuggets. There are only 11 coaches in the history of the NBA who have more victories than he does. His .557 winning percentage (522 wins, 415 losses) is the sixth best among active coaches, and he has attained it despite a coaching philosophy that sounds a little like something he cribbed from Pee-wee's Playhouse. "My whole life I've managed to establish myself as a complete fool," Moe says. "Therefore, any success I've had has looked like an upset."
The Nuggets won the Midwest Division in 1987-88 with a fairly astonishing 54-28 record, closing with 17 wins in their final 20 games. Moe was given a lot of the credit for the year the Nuggets had, for doing a lot with a little. "It all depends on what you think a little is," Moe says. "We thought we had a good team. There are teams that have good players, but they play terrible because something is missing. They don't have a winning attitude." For coaxing that attitude out of the Nuggets. Moe was voted Coach of the Year.
But there were seasons when he was considered such a goofball that he probably couldn't have gotten elected coach of the year on his own team. In fact, that he's still coaching above the high school level is something of an upset, particularly since Moe has built an entire career around an offense that a lot of people aren't sure exists. Moe believes in allowing his players to do whatever they want, and then correcting them with feeling. When he first started coaching, in San Antonio, his offense confused the theoreticians. "Nobody knew what the hell we were doing," Moe says. "Other coaches were diagramming our plays on the blackboard, and we weren't running any."
For a long time there was considerable doubt whether you could actually describe what Moe was doing as coaching. Most NBA coaches regard their practice sessions as a chance to interpret the sacred text in chalk—exegesis and O's—but Moe insisted that hoops shouldn't be that complicated. "One time I sent him to scout a team, and he came back with no notes," says the current San Antonio coach, Larry Brown, Moe's good friend and old North Carolina teammate. Brown was referring to the 1972-73 and '73-74 seasons when he was coach of the American Basketball Association's Carolina Cougars and Moe was his assistant. "He walked into practice, and the only thing he said was 'If we can't beat those guys, we shouldn't be in coaching.' "
As a head coach, Moe decided his best players should only have to practice every other day, and his workouts frequently end with as many children of players running around the floor as players. When Moe was coaching in San Antonio, forward Coby Dietrick often whiled away practice by playing Frisbee with his dog. There was, in fact, a widely held view around San Antonio that Moe encouraged players to bring their dogs to practice so that when one of them made the inevitable puddle on the floor, Moe would have an excuse to go play golf early.
Of course, a lot of people couldn't help wondering what a team that almost never ran any plays could possibly have to practice. Moe had devised an offensive system built around crisp ball movement, lots of screens and constant cuts to the basket, called "the passing game," in which there were almost no rules—except not to hold the ball for longer than a two-count—almost no plays and almost no believers among the league's other coaches. "Every offensive set in the passing game is different every time down the court, and the only constant is that you take what the defense gives you," says Nugget assistant coach Allan Bristow. "You can't diagram it, you can't put a pencil and paper to it. If you do, you're doing an injustice to the system. And if you try to dictate to the players where they're supposed to be on the court, you completely defeat the purpose of it. That's why a lot of people think it's a joke."
"The passing game is basically doing whatever the hell you want," Moe says, "but tell me what coach is going to say, "We're a free-lance team?' It sounds like you're not coaching. Hey, if a coach gets some sort of thrill when the team runs a play right, that's good. I just happen to think differently."