Chuck Daly steps from his white Thunderbird wearing a blue suit, which is not surprising. One of the guiding principles of Daly's life is this: No one looks bad in a blue suit. Here's another: A sports coat-trousers combination "breaks you up," meaning that it does not give "the continuous smooth line" of a suit. Talk to Daly for five minutes and you may think you are in the presence of a world-class tailor instead of the coach of the NBA-champion Detroit Pistons.
The sounds of The Phantom of the Opera on the car's cassette player are still audible as Daly strikes an operatic pose before closing the door of the T-bird. "Sing! Sing!" Daly bellows, trying to replicate the voice of Colm Wilkinson, whom he had recently seen in the title role of a Phantom production in Toronto. Some coaches dream about point guards; Daly dreams about voices, like Wilkinson's, or those of what he calls "the true stylists"—Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Nat King Cole.
It's early October, and Daly is paying a visit to Oakland University, in Rochester, Mich., where several Pistons are playing a pickup game. When the game ends, forward Dennis Rodman, who is about to start his fourth season in the NBA, walks around the hot gymnasium, hands on hips, gasping for air.
"Yo, Dennis! Your boss is here," says Piston assistant Brendan Suhr. "You going to say hello?"
Rodman strides over and exchanges a few pleasantries with Daly. When it's time to return to the court, Rodman gives Daly a good-natured jab to the gut. I Daly doubles over for a moment, then smiles and shakes his head.
There are many NBA teams on which a young player would not feel comfortable jabbing the coach in the gut, but probably none is as good as the Pistons. Nevertheless, with Rick Mahorn and his physical presence now in Philadelphia and with the Pistons still searching for a starter to replace him, Detroit has yet to return to its championship form of '88-89. At week's end, the Pistons (12-7) were third in the Central Division, a half game behind surprising Indiana and Atlanta. But because of their coach and their talent, the Pistons are among the league's most dangerous teams. No one in the NBA has forgotten that.
"Life is like a dogsled race," Daly says. "Unless you're the lead dog, the scenery never changes."
It was a long time before Daly, 59, saw anything but hindquarters. Last June, when his moment finally came at the conclusion of the NBA Finals, when Detroit had put the Los Angeles Lakers out of their misery in four straight games and Daly stood front and center, staring contentedly at the scenery, he felt nothing so much as an overwhelming sense of relief. Finally. I made it. No basketball coach in America deserved to say finally with the same, well, finality, as Charles Joseph Daly.
"People in our business were genuinely happy for Chuck," says Ron Rothstein, coach of the Miami Heat and one of several former Daly assistants who have become head coaches in recent years. "He worked his way to the top, from high school to college to here. Nobody ever handed Chuck anything."
As a player, Daly was good but not great. His brother, Bud, 1½ years younger, was better—he led the Kane (Pa.) High School Wolves to the state title in 1949, the year after Chuck graduated. Chuck earned a scholarship to St. Bona-venture, but there were too many players in front of him and he transferred to Bloomsburg (Pa.) State College, not exactly Hoops U. After college and two years in the Army, he began his coaching career at Punxsutawney (Pa.) High School. When you spend eight years in a town whose main claim to fame is a groundhog—that would be Punxsutawney Phil, who crawls out of his hole every Feb. 2 in search of his shadow—you tend not to take yourself too seriously.