By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Oct 25 2008 6:27PM
A year out of coaching didn't mean a year away from basketball for Del Harris. In his role as a team consultant, he was a staple at Mavericks' games all season. In his role as dad, he was a staple at son Nik's games during his senior season of high school.
Not a bad way to spend your first full year off the sidelines in nearly five decades. Yes, nearly.
"I really didn't want to stop at 49 years of coaching," Harris said recently.
Something about that number didn't feel quite right. He compared it to a man who dies a month before turning 100.
"It's almost like he failed," Harris quipped.
Harris doesn't do failure. No one builds a 49-year career on failure. He just wasn't going to jump into any situation to hit the Big 5-0. Harris had the security of a "lifetime" contract in Dallas courtesy of Mark Cuban.
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NBA life is a daily grind for nine months, so a return to the back-to-backs, the shootarounds, the three-hour practices had to feel right. And it did when freshly-minted Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro called.
"He knows all the restaurants, all the hotels," Del Negro joked. "Obviously, Del has seen it all in the game. He's a great sounding board for me. You can't ask for a more experienced, knowledgeable guy to have beside you than Del."
He certainly owns the credentials. Harris sports a career record of 556-457 over 13-plus years as coach of the Rockets, Bucks and Lakers. He led Houston to the 1981 NBA Finals and was the league's Coach of the Year in 1995.
Harris and Del Negro began to really get to know each other during the lockout season of 1999. Harris had been let go as head coach of the Lakers and close friend George Karl, the then- coach of Milwaukee, asked Harris to hang with the Bucks for the last part of season and playoffs. Del Negro, a veteran NBA guard, was on that Milwaukee team, too.
The two stayed in touch through the years. Del Negro, who finished his career with Phoenix, worked as a color analyst on Suns' broadcasts for a few seasons and helped host a pregame show. Harris was a frequent guest. When it came time for Del Negro to talk Harris out of semi-retirement, it wasn't exactly pulling teeth.
"No, because Del is a basketball guy," Del Negro said.
As an Indiana native, a return to the Midwest also had its pull.
"It hasn't snowed yet," Harris reminded. "Ask me again in a couple of months."
His enthusiasm for the game won't be buried under by a few snowstorms. Harris' new players, none of whom were born when he began his pro coaching career in 1975 with the ABA's Utah Stars, have witnessed his passion firsthand.
"He's still going strong," Bulls guard Larry Hughes said. "At his age he still has a lot of energy and that has nothing to do with basketball. That's a tribute to him for taking care of himself, having love for the game and still wanting to be around the game."
Fellow guard Kirk Hinrich added: "He's been around the game for a long time. We're happy to have him. Coming from a basketball family, I can definitely understand how it would be hard to walk away from it."
Del Negro's staff, which also includes Bernie Bickerstaff (who coached 14 seasons in the NBA), is long on basketball men. Harris also brings an added bonus to the group that can't be overlooked. He knows how to work with rookies ... as in first-time head coaches.
Harris last sideline gig coincided with Avery Johnson's first. Harris was there when former Dallas coach Don Nelson stepped down with 18 games left in the 2004-05 season and the reins were handed to the Lil' General. Harris stayed at Johnson's side for the next two years and was part of the team's run to the 2006 NBA Finals.
When Del Negro starting thinking about possible assistants, he called on Johnson. The two have a long bond that began as teammates in San Antonio. As the Spurs backcourt in the early 1990s, Johnson and Del Negro were dubbed "Red Beans and Rice."
"He was very supportive," Del Negro said of Johnson. "I have a long history with Avery, so I take what he says seriously."
Harris sees the obvious parallels in Johnson and Del Negro.
"Avery kept good notes over the years and he played for some outstanding coaches," Harris said. "As it turns out, Vinny has played for about the same coaches and did the same thing.
"He prepared himself as he went along and really prepared himself the last few years for this. This wasn't just something he thought about. He's amazingly organized and very bright."
Johnson and Del Negro haven't followed the same path from coach to player. Johnson joined the bench the day he retired. Del Negro hung up his sneakers in 2002 and joined the Suns' broadcast team from 2003-06. He then moved to the Suns' front office in 2006, serving as director of player personnel in 2006-07 before being promoted to assistant GM last season.
Johnson and Del Negro also began coaching job No. 1 under different circumstances. Johnson inherited a team and coaching staff he was already working with. Del Negro is starting from scratch.
"We're new altogether to the program and he's new to coaching as well," Harris said. "We had an established team in Dallas when Avery started. This is not an established team.
"This reminds me more of when we started with Mark Cuban after he took ownership of the team, where we had bunch of young guys that weren't established stars but had star potential."
Harris, even at 71 years young, is up for the challenge of helping build another winner. And it isn't just about a round number.
"As you learn in the NBA, it's one game at a time ultimately," he said. "We'll see how things play out. Obviously, I'm not going to do this for a lot longer. That's for sure.
"We'll see how my energy level holds up. I really don't want to make any predictions about when it all might come to an end. Usually somebody else decides it for you in this business."
Harris would know. You would too after 50 years. Nearly.
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