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Reed is the seventh Nets coach since 1980. After this season Reed has three years left on a contract that with incentives could give him more than $800,000 total. Chances are, he'll earn every penny.
Unlike the Bullets' bench, where only Unseld and Blair hold forth, the Nets' pine is quite crowded. Still in place are two assistants hired by Wohl, Garry St. Jean and Bob Wenzel, as well as MacKinnon. It could be a confusing, not to mention volatile, situation, but that doesn't seem to be the case. "Willis is an open, receptive person, and it's been that way since the first day," says MacKinnon. "He likes input; he wants input. He is not insecure in any way."
"Coaching is more art than science, and Willis has a way of talking to the players, getting them to focus," says Wenzel. As an example he points to the March 2 game at Boston Garden when the Nets built a 17-point first-half lead only to see it cut to seven by half time. "There were lots of ways Willis could have handled it," said Wenzel, "but what he said was, 'If anybody told you yesterday you'd be up by seven at half-time in Boston Garden you'd be rejoicing. So, let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves.' And we played well in the second half and won the game.
"The biggest thing an ex-player can bring to coaching is a knowledge of how to handle the emotional ups and downs of the game. That's what Willis brings."
Unseld presumably brings the same thing. Beyond that, his abilities as a coach are unknown. When Unseld was a Bullet administrator, and even in the three and a half seasons that he served as a color commentator on Bullet broadcasts, he was not a man who studied X's and O's, illegal defenses or even NBA personnel.
"I was a fan, and, like most fans, I really only looked at my own team," admits Unseld. "Information is the most important thing about the game, and it's something I'll have to get better at."
Unseld will also have to make a decision about how far the club can go with Moses, a great center in his day but one who is increasingly a liability because of his refusal to pass the ball against the constant double-and triple-teaming he faces in the middle. A man must really want to be a coach to deal with that sticky situation, and it remains to be seen if Unseld has the energy for it.
Reed, on the other hand, has proved without a doubt that he wants to be a head coach. He did all the grunt work, went to all the clinics, pored through all the old playbooks. But consider the questions lurking in the swampland around Byrne Arena. Is New Jersey a team with only a few holes, or should it be torn down and rebuilt completely? Will Reed admit that the Nets brass made a mistake in the first round of the 1986 draft and get rid of Pearl Washington? And what will happen when Orlando Woolridge, Reed's first cousin, the son of his late father's sister, returns from drug rehabilitation, possibly before the end of this season?
How much better Unseld and Reed will become as NBA coaches is yet to be determined. Their mere presence has to have some effect if only, as Washington guard Frank Johnson says, referring to Unseld's retired No. 41, "because you can look up every night and see Wes in the rafters." Says New Jersey guard Otis Birdsong, "Players recognize players. Everyone here knows what Willis was for the Knicks, the way he didn't shortchange himself as a player, and they know he won't let us shortchange ourselves."
Fine. But eventually their playing careers will be of little consequence and only one question will remain for the fan: What have they done for me lately?