Perfect Fit

Daly’s ability to manage egos proved an ideal match for the Bad Boys

Chuck Daly
When the Pistons were ready to win there was no coach on the planet better suited to lead them against the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls than Charles Jerome Daly.
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty Images)
When Scotty Robertson died last week, I wondered what might have been if Jack McCloskey had reversed the order of his first two coaching hires with the Pistons. What if he’d hired Chuck Daly first, as he attempted before hearing Daly’s contract requirements, and followed up in 1983 by hiring Robertson at a point when the Pistons were on the cusp of contention?

And it’s a fair question. The coaches’ graveyard is littered with the bodies of those whose one big shot came at the worst possible time.

But there should be no question about this: When the Pistons were ready to win – when they grew into Bad Boys – there was no coach on the planet better suited to lead them against the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls than Charles Jerome Daly.

I’ve had the fortune of firsthand perspective of some of sport’s coaching giants over the last 25 years: Chuck Daly, Bo Schembechler, Scotty Bowman, Larry Brown, Sparky Anderson and Tom Izzo, most prominently. I wish I could tell you that there was one magical trait they shared to explain their success. It would make identifying a good hire so much easier if that were the case.

Nobody commanded a room like Schembechler and nobody seemed more socially awkward than Bowman, yet both had an undeniable ability to motivate individuals and coalesce teams. Izzo is an open book and Brown a tangle of contradictions, yet their sideline presence gives all of their teams the confidence they’re one step ahead of the other guy. Daly appeared all suave sophistication and Anderson as homespun as his nickname implied, yet they both had the same common touch that forged a fierce loyalty within their players.

Go figure. I don’t know if Jack McCloskey knew how perfect the union would turn out when he hired Daly to succeed Robertson in the spring of 1983, but by the time McCloskey had fortified the roster to the point where honest runs at the bicoastal dynasties formed in Boston and Los Angeles were possible, it was clear he had the right general leading the troops.

Daly’s gift was to keep grass fires from becoming conflagrations. And with the Bad Boys – as combustible a group of personalities as Detroit sports has ever assembled – that was no small chore. He had certain significant things working in his favor, starting with the fact that the biggest conflagration possible was the raging competitive fire that burned within all of his leading characters.

On most teams, you’re lucky if your best player is more concerned with winning than personal glory. It’s a lot easier to keep everybody else in line when that happens. With the Bad Boys, starting with Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, who were there when Daly signed on, to the additions like Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman and Rick Mahorn, it was part of the DNA. When winning as a first priority is that widespread, it’s contagious. Even for players whose first instinct was something else, those something elses got pushed down voluntarily.

But all that testosterone in their locker room required someone of intelligence and equanimity and keen instincts at the helm to channel it properly. Enter Chuck Daly. He harnessed 220 volts of raging electricity every night and made it look like he was conducting a well-oiled symphony.

What always kills lesser coaches – the ones who come in so sure of themselves, their knowledge of the game, their expertise with Xs and Os – is the messy details of individual agendas. In July and August, when a coach is in his office poring over film and notes, there is a crystal clarity to his vision for how the season will unfold.

Then training camp opens, and every day a little piece of that vision cracks off and drifts over the horizon.

The point guard can’t execute the bread-and-butter set required for the offense to function efficiently. The shooting guard wants a chest pass coming off the baseline screen but the point guard keeps giving him a bounce pass. The starting small forward pulled a hamstring and the GM didn’t spend the money to bring in a capable replacement. The power forward’s son got into a scuffle with the center’s daughter over whose turn it was to sit in the front row.

Think about this: At the pinnacle of their success, the Pistons started games with Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman, John Salley and James Edwards seated next to Chuck Daly on the bench. All of them viewed themselves as starters – and probably as All-Stars. Rodman, in fact, is now a Hall of Famer. Often, those players would end taut games on the floor, meaning that future Hall of Famers or current All-Stars would finish them at Daly’s side.

Daly danced well above the fray, waving away any hint of a problem. “I don’t decide minutes,” he would say, arms folded across a double-breasted Navy blue suit coat, hair coiffed perfectly. “Players decide minutes.”

Is it any wonder than when the powers that be went looking for a coach for the Dream Team, the search began and ended at Chuck Daly’s doorstep? He was perfect for that team, the dream coach for the Dream Team. Any NBA or halfway competent college coach of the day could have led that bunch to Olympic gold, but how many beyond Daly could have done it in a way that caused not a ripple of controversy or discord – not from the 12 corporate entities who suited up for Team USA, not from a world on the lookout for any sign of condescension or hyperinflated ego?

Winning two titles with the Bad Boys, now that was a much trickier course to navigate. The Pistons were squeezed as no other champion has ever been – on one side by two of the greatest champions in NBA history, Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics, and on the other by Michael Jordan’s hard-charging Bulls.

We’ll never know how it might have turned out if McCloskey had stood by Scotty Robertson and given him enough rope to challenge the Celtics and Lakers. But we know how it worked out with Chuck Daly on the sidelines. He fit the Bad Boys as perfectly as those double-breasted blue suits he so treasured hung on his shoulders.