The team had gotten off to a 4-8 start that year, and one night I had been talking to Bill Davidson, the owner, trying to get some things off my chest, things that had been bothering me since I was hired.
When I hung up, my wife said to me, ‘Hon, you’re getting fired. I heard you talking to Mr. Davidson about decisions that had been made. You just can’t do that. You can’t talk to an owner like that.’
Sure enough, the next morning, while I was getting ready to go in and coach against Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers, my administrative assistant, Madelon Hazy, called. She said ‘Before you go to practice, Bill Davidson is going to come to your house.’
“I’m going to go around the block until the limousine leaves,” Lorraine said to me, “but I’m telling you now, prepare yourself. You’re getting fired.”
I replied, “No way. Everybody knows we’ve got a team full of young kids. We’re rebuilding. But we’re creating some excitement and we’re getting good fan interest.”
Come on, guys, we should all listen to our wives.
Davidson came into the house, and in a low-key way, he said, ‘Dick, I just made a coaching change.’
“Excuse me,” I wondered aloud, “a coaching change?”
“You’ve been fired.”
I couldn’t get over it. I’d had such a skyrocketing career, going from teaching sixth grade all the way to coaching the Pistons. And then it was all pulled away from me.
It was tough, man …
People always say that I’m the head of the coaches’ fraternity, always singing their praises. Well, let me tell you why. If you’re fired from the NBA or fired from a major college job, it is just incredibly difficult to get back to that same level. If you were to keep track of the number of guys who got fired, then made it back to the top, the number is very small.
And I’m not one of them.
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The cliché is so old and hoary, no one seems to know for sure who said it first. But it was true when it was first uttered, and remains so: coaches are hired to be fired.
That doesn’t make that meeting, that ending, any easier.
Most of us who’ve ever held a job have been fired from one of them or another over the course of a lifetime. I’ve been fired; you probably have been, too. But almost all of us were dismissed in anonymity, with only a handful of people knowing, and we quickly moved on to the next job -- which might be in an altogether different discipline or industry. That is not what happens to a coach, and an NBA coach in particular. The gig is one of the most public jobs in the world. When one is eminently successful at it, for whatever reason -- great players, great ownership, great job motivating and teaching -- they can wind up in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But when one is not successful, for whatever reason -- bad or young players, poor ownership, regressing as a teacher and/or motivator -- there’s nowhere to hide. And when it ends, the years of grinding and buidling, of pleading, cajoling, arguing, of being in an emotional bunker for months at a time are hard to suppress.
“The first stage is the anger stage, and the justification stage,” says Mike Fratello, one of the NBA’s most successful coaches of the last 30 years, with 667 wins over 17 seasons.
“You’re looking at the job you did and saying ‘hey, I didn’t have my best (bleeping) player all year,’” he said, referring to his last job, in Memphis, where he was fired in 2006 -- without his All-Star forward, Pau Gasol.
“The taste is bitter in your mouth when it first happens, depending on what the circumstances are ... You find comfort in your friends, your really close friends. Sometimes you spill your guts to the one or two people you know can keep it to themselves.”
“I was on my mother’s couch at 3 in the morning watching the World Championships (in August, 2006, about a month before NBA camps opened), and he’s playing for Spain, and he grabs his foot, and I say, ‘he just broke his foot,’” Fratello said. “We had played him during the season before, and he had, like, this black line on his foot, but he finished out the rest of the season.”
Without Gasol, the Grizzlies, who’d won 49 games the season before, started 6-24. And Fratello, a former NBA Coach of the Year with the Hawks, lost his job.
“The taste is bitter in your mouth when it first happens, depending on what the circumstances are,” he said. “A lot of guys have places they go to, a place in Florida or a place in California. They’ll just go and get away. Sometimes they get away from their families; sometimes they get away by themselves. They return the calls of the people they need to talk to, People want to call and say ‘I’m sorry.’ But you can’t call everybody back. You find comfort in your friends, your really close friends. Sometimes you spill your guts to the one or two people you know can keep it to themselves.”
Indeed, another now former Grizzlies coach, David Fizdale, fired last month by Memphis, went home to decompress in his native California -- where he hadn’t lived in more than 20 years. The shock to the system after getting fired is immense.
“You go from a schedule that is all-consuming and really, you’re talking about 12-to 14-hour days, to basically not doing anything,” says Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “And that’s a challenge. That’s a big challenge.
Carlisle, like almost everyone in his line of work, also survived being fired. In Detroit, he posted back to back 50-win seasons in two seasons, was NBA Coach of the Year in his first season (2001-02) and made the Eastern Conference finals his second, yet was fired after the second. In Indiana, his Pacers won 61 games in his first season, but were devastated by age, injuries and the aftermath of the brawl at Auburn Hills in 2004.
“That’s why we’re there,” Carlisle said of the coaches’ union. “I’ve been through it. We’ve had a lot of guys through the years that have been through these situations. The person involved has to take a deep breath, and he has to have the proper support and guidance. We all get into this knowing there’s a high level of expectation. It’s a very binary and high stakes business, and termination is one of the risks of a dynamic business.”
Coaches know that almost none of them get to leave on their terms.
“You understand that’s part of the equation,” said Lionel Hollins. He had two coaching stints with the Grizzlies (1999-2000; 2008-13) and one with the Brooklyn Nets (‘14-16) that ended in termination. His second Memphis firing came after he’d won 56 regular-season games and taken the Grizzlies to their first Western Conference finals.
“I’ve been fired as an assistant coach, or not brought back; your contract runs out and they already know they’re still going to fire you and not bring you back, so they say they’re not going to renew your contract,” Hollins said. “That happened to me twice, both in Vancouver and when I was with the Suns. I was fired in Vancouver after being the interim coach for 60 games. In those situations, it wasn’t hard to take …
“The only time when it’s tough is … there’s two reasons it’s tough. One is when you think you’ve done a good enough job, and the second part is when a lot of negative news is circulated to justify the move. I can take firing; it’s not a problem to me. But when there’s stuff written every day, and leaked every day, to paint you as being a bad person or a bad coach or however they paint it, then that bothers me. But as a coach, you have to deal with all of this, and you have to be secure in who you are. You have to do what you think is right.”
Hollins, too, was uncertain in the initial days following his dismissal in Memphis.
“It takes you a while to come to grips with the reality, and also get your life on track doing something other than what you’ve been doing every day,” he said. “You get up, you have meetings, you go to work, you have meetings, you work out, you get with the team, you have practice, you have more meetings, you watch film, you’re doing all of that. And one day you wake up and you don’t have to do any of that. It is a shock to your system -- your psyche, your body, everything. It takes you a while to adjust to not doing anything. I stayed in my bed for three or four days and stayed in the house and (didn’t) go out -- not because I was embarrassed, but because I didn’t know what to do.”
By contrast, after former Raptors and Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell’s stints ended in Toronto (2009) and Minnesota (2016), he went traveling with his family, did things that he wouldn’t have been able to do had he still been grinding at the job.
“First of all, you feel a little embarrassed,” Mitchell said. “Basically, someone is saying that you weren’t good enough, or you didn’t do your job good enough. And then, if you get fired during the season (as Mitchell was, 17 games into the 2008-09 season by the Raptors), the weird thing is, your staff stays. Your staff’s intact, and you’re the one that’s getting fired, so you’re the one going into your office cleaning out your desk. It bothers you. It really does. And then you have to take a minute and sit back, and you try to figure out why.”
Mitchell believes his season at the helm in Minnesota helped pave the future for this year’s Timberwolves.
“If it wasn’t for some of the things we did in Minnesota, there wouldn’t be a Jimmy Butler” there, he says. “Because if we wouldn’t have played Zach LaVine, and given him an opportunity to grow and develop, Chicago wouldn’t have traded for him. They wouldn’t have traded an established All-Star for a guy who hadn’t shown his potential. So you just have to look at it from the standpoint that you’ve dome your job, and you hope that other people around the league realize that you did your job -- even to the detriment of you.”
After he was fired by the Nets in 2016, Hollins sought internal answers rather than external ones. He was marketing his e-commerce business, I Train Fundamentals, at the Final Four in Phoenix last March when he was introduced to Peak Performance, a company designed for self-improvement in multiple areas.
“We covered almost every situation I was in,” Hollins said, “in terms of, what did you do here, and did you do the same thing over here? And what was successful over here, and what was not successful over here? So you’re taking every situation, and you’re highlighting all that you can remember in your mind that was good, and you’re taking all that was bad. And there’s some things that were good that, when you go to another situation, you have to do differently, and make the adjustment.”
The year-plus lull in NBA coaching firings -- there were none in the 2016-17 season, the first time that had happened since 1971 -- was abruptly ended when Phoenix fired Earl Watson on October 22 just three games into the season. Fizdale’s ouster came with Memphis at 7-12, coming off bad home losses to the lowly Mavericks and Nets.
While Fizdale’s deteriorating relationship with Marc Gasol was cited as a chief reason for his dismissal, the Grizzlies didn’t spend a lot of time discussing the matter internally, either with the players or with the team’s interim coach, J.B. Bickerstaff -- which is part of the dilemma for coaches: often, they don’t know exactly what went wrong.
“I didn’t go into any great explanation,” Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace said after the firing. “I just said change has been made and J.B. has our full support. We can get the season back. Whenever there’s a change situation, I stole this line from my old boss Pat Riley -- when change rears its inevitable head, embrace it and run with it.”
The NBCA gets right to work when a coach is let go. Two full-time in-house lawyers meet with the fired coach and their representatives within 24 hours, to go over what the terms of their contracts entitle them. Most teams, for example, put “offset” language into the standard coach contract; if a coach signs a contract with a new team, the new team pays part of the remaining money the coach is owed by his old team.
One of the challenges with NBA coaching is it’s such a crucible, keeping your eye on the big picture is very challenging … the worst thing to do if you’re let go is to disappear and just go sit in a hole."
And the union works with the coach and his or her agent/attorney to help them work out whatever statement they want to make to the media. That’s generally the preferred method for coaches these days, a far cry from when Fratello resigned from the Hawks in 1990, under pressure after not making the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“I had a lengthy press conference the morning I got fired with Stan Kasten, who was the general manager,” Fratello said. “He’s sitting there, saying about me, ‘he’s been here four years as a head coach, seven as an assistant before that.’ He’s crying; I’m crying, we’re crying together. In Memphis, and in Cleveland, I handled it differently. I put out a statement thanking the players and the ownership; I didn’t want to put myself out there answering all those questions. Because nothing was changing.”
After the legalese is worked out between the coach, their representatives and the team, the reconstruction begins. While the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” terrifies a lot of coaches after they’re fired, many take extended time off, not only to recharge their batteries physically, but to clear their minds to new ideas. If you look around NBA training camps, you often find a former head coach there.
“For most of the coaches, I think a little bit of time off is usually good,” says David Fogel, the Executive Director of the NBCA. “Not necessarily being away from the game, but maybe just being away from the coaching spotlight. I know with Rick, I believe he took a sabbatical and sort of went around the league, and learned from other coaches, what worked for some of the greats, and how he can incorporate that to make himself a better coach. But for others, whether it’s Kevin McHale or Sam Mitchell or Jeff Van Gundy, they find homes in broadcasting and sort of being around the game, which tends to be a great springboard when you’re trying to get back in to another really good opportunity later on.”
Indeed, Fratello became known as the “Czar of the Telestrator” during his high-profile years with Marv Albert on NBC’s broadcasts of NBA games in the early 1990s. It introduced him to a new audience, and kept his name out there with GMs and other decision makers. And, it was all a happy accident.
“NBC winds up outbidding CBS for the rights to the NBA,” Fratello said. “It was the first time NBC was going to do basketball. They had never done it before and they were hiring everybody who had done it before. So the voice of the broadcast was going to be Marv Albert, and the color guys on the A and B teams were going to be Pat Riley and Chuck Daly. They called my agent and asked if I’d like to audition for the sideline job. That’s it. Nothing else. Sideline reporter. I go in and do the interview. I’m interviewed in the middle of the newsroom of NBC on the edge of a chair, and the guy interviewing me is Bob Costas.”
But while Fratello was waiting to hear about the sideline gig, Daly dropped out over money, and Riley said he didn’t want to do color on games; he wanted to work in the studio. So Fratello’s agent called him.
“He said, ‘you’ll never guess who their top choice is for the number one analyst job,’ ” Fratello recalled. “I said, ‘who?’ He said, ‘you.’ ”
After working from 1990-93 on NBC’s top crew, Fratello called Cleveland GM Wayne Embry. Lenny Wilkens had just resigned as coach of the Cavaliers, who were still a contender in the Eastern Conference.
“Wayne said, ‘I was going to call you tomorrow morning,’ ” Fratello said. The Cavaliers hired him a few weeks later; he won 248 games there in six seasons, including the lockout-shortened 1999-2000 season.
Carlisle’s year off helped him immensely when he took the Mavericks job in 2008.
“It’s valuable on multiple levels,” he said. “Number one, you’re staying active and you are learning. Number two, you’re in a situation where you’re not in the foxhole. You can take more of a broad view of things. One of the challenges with NBA coaching is it’s such a crucible, keeping your eye on the big picture is very challenging … the worst thing to do if you’re let go is to disappear and just go sit in a hole. That’s not healthy. It’s good to decompress and take a little bit of time. But ultimately, staying active and staying in a growth pattern is very important.”
And, the head coach is often not the only person who loses their job.
“The head coaches typically have great agents and great attorneys,” Fogel said. “For the assistants, these could be much younger coaches in their early 30s that might not necessarily have the kind of financial security or support that most of the head coaches do. That’s really where we at the Coaches Association are needed the most. On that level, if there’s a young assistant coach, that’s where we might take a more formal approach. I’ll usually connect them with Rick and have them talk and see what their next best move might be.”
The union is addressing the idea of continuing education for coaches between jobs by developing a series of short form digital teaching vignettes, a virtual, ongoing digital curriculum and continuing education -- “not only Xs and Os, or defensive strategies, but also coaching philosophies,” Fogel said, “how each and every one of these head coaches got to their position, who helped them out along the way, who their coaching trees are.”
The head coach also has to take solace in the fact that leading a team to a championship may not have ever been in his job description.
“We almost doubled the win total (in Minnesota). My young players got better,” Mitchell said. “We improved offensively and defensively. When something like that happens, it knocks the wind out of you a little bit, and then, after a few days, you just have to sit back and say ‘this is the business I chose. I understand that coaching is not one of the most secure jobs, especially you’re coaching professional basketball or any professional sport. And then you just have to put it in perspective. The thing that I felt good about, in both situations -- I did my job. We wasn’t going to make the playoffs in Minnesota. My job was to get these young guys ready to play.”
And if Dick Vitale never got another chance at running an NBA team, that is not how most fired coaches think they’re going out. As painful as getting fired is, there isn’t a former head coach who doesn’t burn for another chance.
“If you think it’s tough being that consumed with that level of responsibility,” Carlisle said, “wait ‘till you see how it is not having it.”
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