May 15, 2009On Saturday, Chuck Daly, the head coach of the Detroit Pistons from 1983 to 1992, died of pancreatic cancer. He was 78.
His crowning achievements were two NBA titles, and an Olympic gold medal. But I remember him best for the clever way he did it.
Like most Michiganders, I had always admired his work, but from afar. Some people are better up close – and Daly was one of them. A couple years ago, I had breakfast with Chuck Daly at a little diner in the Detroit suburbs – and I learned a lot.
Daly was the underdog’s underdog, a latecomer to success – and that was a big part of his charm. When Daly was in high school in tiny Kane, Pennsylvania, he didn’t dream of being an NBA player. He couldn’t. The league had just started and didn’t pay a living wage. No, he told his mom, he was going to be a coach. And, he boldly predicted, “I bet I can make $10,000 at it!”
Daly pursued his dream – and it’s safe to say he made more than $10,000 doing it. But the man paid his dues. From leading Punxsutawney High School – yes, that Punxsutawney -- to assisting the Philadelphia 76ers, all told, Daly served an apprenticeship of 26 years.
In 1981, the last-place Cleveland Caveliers gave the 51-year old Daly his chance to be an NBA head coach in the middle of the season. When his team won nine games and lost 32, they also gave him the ax.
Daly feared his NBA career had ended before it started. He asked one reporter, “Who wants to hire a 52-year-old failure?”
It turned out Detroit did. On paper, the Pistons didn’t look much better than the Cavaliers, coming off six straight losing seasons. But they had a great owner, excellent management, and promising young talent.
But the key, clearly, was Daly – who had to figure out how to motivate players who suddenly had more money and power than coaches had.
Much to the NBA’s surprise, no one was better at managing new age egos than the old-school Daly – who proved to be a master of coaching jujitsu.
When a player started carping about this or that, Daly often replied, “Whatever,” and walked away, leaving the player to guess if his coach agreed with him. The secret to Daly’s success? “Bad hearing,” he said.
Daly never confronted a player in front of his teammates. He figured even if you’re dead right, and they all know it, his teammates will still take the player’s side, and you’ll lose them all.
Daly viewed every player as his own corporation – which they practically are anyway. He’d find out what they wanted, and start negotiating. He once said, “If you’re a coach, it’s a selling job night in and night out. I had to have surgery on my right knee, from bending it so much.”
But Daly was no push-over. The Piston’s plane, Roundball One, left on time, every time, no matter who was on it, or who wasn’t. Daly persuaded a team of particularly proud personalities to sacrifice playing time for team harmony, and offense for defense – rare commodities in the NBA.
The results were astounding. The Pistons made the playoffs every season Daly coached them, nine straight, and won Detroit’s first two league titles.
In 1992, the U.S. Olympic Committee picked Daly to lead the first Dream Team, and he got them to check their egos at the door. But he refused any praise for their success. He said, “Great players let you coach them.”
Maybe. But only if you’re a great coach. Twelve years after he feared he was finished, Chuck Daly was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.
He shrugged it off, saying, “I got lucky with some players in Detroit.”
No, they did. We all did. And our luck ran out last week.
NOTE TO OUR LOYAL LISTENERS AND READERS
A couple weeks ago we actually cracked the 20,000 subscriber mark. Frankly, we're as surprised as you are! But our webmaster (webmistress? Sounds... misleading), called the server twice along the way and they confirmed the numbers both times. So, thank you for your support, and spreading the word!
If you want a little audio-visual media for a change of pace, you can check out a five-minute snippet of a speech I gave last month, focused on Bo's Lasting Lessons, and the infamous Andy Cannavino encounter. http://michigantoday.umich.edu/2009/05/index.php.
Last, I'll be emceeing a panel at the Ann Arbor Book Festival on the future of sports journalism, along with Angelique Chengalis from the Detroit News and Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press. Saturday, 1:30-2:30, at the Michigan League. No charge.
And now, without further ado, our Feature Presentation:
CHUCK DALY (1930-2009): OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS
Click play button to listen
Download | Duration: 00:03:39
Copyright © 2009, Michigan Radio