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Jack McCallum
December 18, 1989
Coach Chuck Daly, an unrepentant clotheshorse and a closet baritone, and the NBA-champion Detroit Pistons seem to be tailor-made for each other
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December 18, 1989

A Perfect Fit

Coach Chuck Daly, an unrepentant clotheshorse and a closet baritone, and the NBA-champion Detroit Pistons seem to be tailor-made for each other

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"Well, Red doesn't have to worry about it anymore," said Daly. "We've sent Billy and Ricky to charm school. They'll be all right now." Perfect. Reading situations—if you're smart, that's what you learn to do while sitting on benches from Punxsutawney to Pontiac.

"Chuck gave me the most important coaching lesson of my life," says Rothstein of an incident that occurred when he was a Piston assistant in 1986-87 and '87-88. "We're getting blown out in Dallas in the second quarter. We call a timeout, and I've got like six things written down to talk about. I mean, I'm going to blister some people, and I figure Chuck is, too. We get in the huddle and he says nothing. Makes one substitution, sets up one play, sends them back out there, and we win the game. 'That was a great lesson out there,' I told him after the game. 'Less was more.' "

Adds Edwards, Daly's role model: "Grace under pressure. That was always Chuck's forte when he was a player. He didn't get rattled."

Daly has never been a my-way-or-the-highway coach. Neither is he a "system" coach. He came to Detroit with a penchant for offense, yet he won the championship with defense after hiring assistants with defensive expertise, such as Rothstein and Dick Harter.

The one constant is that he listens. He realizes that the best NBA teams, which in this decade means the Lakers and the Celtics, are player-oriented. The players are the focus, not the coach. The players take care of most of the big problems. The coach is there to motivate, to prepare, to direct. But not to star.

"Chuck's greatest ability is to step back and not let his ego get in the way of his coaching," says Rothstein.

From a player's perspective, Piston captain Isiah Thomas says much the same thing: "Somebody once said that a wise leader is someone who picks smart people to work for him and then is smart enough to let them go out and do their job. That's Chuck. He establishes the boundaries and lets the players play. If he criticizes, it's constructive. He doesn't say something to hear himself talk."

This is not to say that everything is rosy in Piston Land. The relationship between Daly and McCloskey, who has the final say in all personnel matters (that is clearly stipulated in Daly's contract), has never been overly friendly. Before the 1985-86 season, McCloskey in effect prevented Daly from becoming the Philadelphia coach (for about $1 million over three years) by demanding from the Sixers a No. 1 pick for allowing Daly to break his contract. That's a general manager's prerogative, of course, but most of McCloskey's counterparts on other teams would have let their coach go, particularly if he wanted to go as much as Daly wanted to. He yearned to return to Philadelphia, which he considered home. Daly worked without a contract through most of the '86-87 season and throughout the finals in '87-88, which the Pistons lost four games to three to the Lakers, because he was unhappy with McCloskey's offers. There were whispers after the '87-88 season that Daly would end up as a CBS commentator instead of on the Pistons' bench. But eventually, CBS signed Hubie Brown and McCloskey re-signed Daly, who is now in the middle of a three-year deal at about $450,000 a year.

"Look, Jack has his ideas and I have mine," says Daly of his relationship with McCloskey. "They're not always the same. But the bottom line is that he is interested in getting a winner. So am I."

The metaphor that Daly uses to describe the role of a coach is that of a pilot flying a plane. There are always storms looming, even when everything seems calm. Coaches exist to be fired. Team chemistry that took years to build can blow up in an instant. Years ago, Daly was dubbed the Prince of Pessimism by columnist Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, and though he has mastered the art of being pessimistic without being gloomy or humorless, the tag still fits. Who can say what will happen if the Pistons aren't able to repeat, or, worse, if they don't make it back to the finals? Daly has been fired before. He can be fired again.

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