The Best of Trader Jack: Part IV
First things first. Jack McCloskey did not fire Scotty Robertson because of anything Isiah Thomas said or didn’t say to him. And he didn’t hire Chuck Daly because he thought his personality would mesh better with Isiah than Robertson’s did.
“It wasn’t that (Daly) had to get along with Isiah,” McCloskey scoffed. “Isiah had to get along with him.”
The NBA of that era was turning more and more into a player’s league. It was widely speculated that Magic Johnson was behind the firing of Paul Westhead early in the 1981-82 season, though it was later divulged that Jerry Buss pushed for the firing days before it happened and that the anti-Westhead sentiment was universal in the locker room.
But perception, once it cements, is difficult to alter. To this day, Johnson is cited for causing Westhead’s ouster. In Detroit, it was widely believed that Isiah’s dissatisfaction with Robertson’s style forced McCloskey’s hand when he jettisoned Robertson three years after hiring him and two years after drafting Thomas with the No. 2 pick.
“Absolutely not,” McCloskey said when I asked him recently if Isiah had gone to him to suggest a coaching change. “There was never a mention – not one word – from Isiah about Scotty to me. I really liked Scotty and I hated to do that. I really hated to do that. We got along so well. But I just felt like he’s taken it this far (and) I don’t know if we can go any farther.”
McCloskey knew the Pistons would have to become a more proficient defensive team if they were going to take the next step, having gone from 21 wins the season before drafting Thomas and Kelly Tripucka to 39 to 37.
McCloskey had a deep respect for Daly that stretched to their shared roots at the University of Pennsylvania. McCloskey had coached the Quakers from 1956-66 and Daly from 1971-77. (The man who bridged the gap between McCloskey and Daly at Penn was Dick Harter, who would become Daly’s first assistant coach with the Pistons.) McCloskey tried to get Daly to coach the Pistons the first time around, but Daly turned the job down at the time to remain a 76ers assistant coach under Billy Cunningham.
When Cleveland owner Ted Stepien offered Daly a three-year contract for $500,000 18 games into the 1981-82 season, he accepted. But it wasn’t long after Daly took over for Don Delaney (4-11) and interim coach Bob Kloppenburg (0-3) that he understood the enormity of the challenge. With Stepien meddling and a roster with precious little NBA-level talent, Daly – who spent all 93 days of his Cavs tenure renting a room at the Holiday Inn – lasted just 41 games, going 9-32 before Stepien fired him, too.
Ironically, the tipping point for Daly was Stepien doing an end run around him to trade Bill Laimbeer to the Pistons, shortly after Daly told him he thought the combination of Laimbeer in the high post and James Edwards – another important piece of the two Bad Boys champions – in the low post would be the key to Cleveland’s turnaround chances.
So Daly was available when McCloskey went looking for a head coach after the 1982-83 season.
“I know the record wasn’t good in Cleveland, but I knew he could coach,” McCloskey said. “(Cleveland) didn’t have anything. When I saw him in his college days, I knew he was a good motivator. I knew he had good communication skills.”
And McCloskey also knew Daly would coax a better defensive effort out of the Pistons, though the corner only really got turned in that respect when McCloskey made several dramatic moves after the 1985-86 season, trading Tripucka to Utah for Adrian Dantley and drafting John Salley and Dennis Rodman most prominently.
McCloskey and Daly were both fiery competitors, and they had their share of spirited debates over the years, but McCloskey recalls their relationship as highly respectful and collaborative.
“It was excellent,” he said. “It was, ‘OK, I’m going to get players for you and you’re going to coach.’ We had a lot of conversations, but Chuck was an excellent coach and that’s what he did – he coached the team and I gave him the players.”