Chuck Daly (1930-2009): Old Dog, New Tricks

May 15, 2009


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.

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:


Click play button to listen

Download | Duration: 00:03:39


On 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. 

Copyright © 2009, Michigan Radio 

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  • 5/15/2009 9:59 AM Bob Beckett wrote:
    Chuck Daly and Red Auerbach were masters at establishing "team" in a league notorious for putting stars ahead of team. Their results reflect the wisdom of their approach. I don't discount the importance of great players. You don't win without them. But many coaches never won despite having great players. Daly's players worked together for the team's success. Now one of Daly's best is general manager, and he reflects him commitment to Daly's message. Defense wins championships. So does teamwork. Thanks, Chuck. Keep up the good work, Pistons.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/15/2009 3:59 PM JUB wrote:

      I'd say you've got it right. They have done a great job in the '80s and now the '00s getting good talent (forget the '90s), but it's the coaching that has made the difference.

      You can also compare Daly's nine years on the bench to all those who have come since, and tend to stay 2-3 years at most.

      Reply to this
  • 5/15/2009 1:36 PM Chris wrote:
    Thanks Mr. Bacon for the post... I'm not much of a basketball fan; this sheds new light on a person I knew of but didn't know. Your writing makes Chuck Daly and Scotty Bowman sound similar.

    Also, the Michigan League event sounds interesting. Right up until the part about Drew Sharp attending to discuss the future of sports journalism.

    The words "Drew Sharp" and "journalism" should never appear together. Drew has made a career out of just insulting people... neither entertaining nor informative. I stopped reading the Free Press because I couldn't bring myself to patronize a paper which supports such buffoonery.

    Remember a few weeks ago when you posted about the demise of the Ann Arbor news and we noted how the quality and long-term growth of the product was forsaken for profits? Well, Drew Sharp is an example of that very dilemma.

    Drew Sharp has publicly said on more than one occasion that if his editor isn't getting complaints, then he isn't doing his job. Drew Sharp has been unprofessionally combative with readers in the online edition of the Free Press.

    Drew Sharp often explains the perceived negativity of what he writes is commonly mistaken for "just keeping it real" (his words). However, if that was true, for example, Drew Sharp would have written an article about the Cap One Bowl victory over Florida (every other columnist in Detroit did -- except for Mr. Sharp).

    Instead, Drew Sharp continuously remains silent about Michigan's accomplishments and slanders Michigan as often as he can.

    I'm more embarrassed that Drew Sharp went to my beloved alma mater than Ann Coulter or the Unabomber did.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/15/2009 4:06 PM JUB wrote:

      Thanks for your kind words on the Daly piece. Clearly, it felt good to write it, and give him his due.

      As for Mr. Sharp, I can tell you your views are shared by many readers and radio listeners I hear from, and I'm sure Drew is aware of the kind of responses he generates. I think it's safe to say he's probably not overly sensitive to it. Certainly it hasn't held him back.

      Like you, I have often disagreed with Drew's opinions - though I have agreed with him, too -- but I can tell you Drew in person is a very warm, friendly guy, perhaps not what you might expect given his more aggressive voice in print. When I asked him to appear on the panel, he didn't hesitate.

      That said, I found your reply more cogent than what some people provide by way of criticism. You've done a good job making your case.

      Thanks for reading, listening, and replying.

      Reply to this
  • 5/21/2009 11:19 PM Tyler wrote:
    Wow, John, that was really well written.

    I've been slaving away at dissertation writing all week. Your piece was a pleasure to read.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/23/2009 12:54 PM JUB wrote:
      Hello Tyler,

      Glad this little piece gave you a little peace in the midst of a great effort.

      Good luck with the Big Paper!

      Reply to this
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