A Man’s Man

Ex-Daly assistant Dick Harter, a tough guy and a great coach, dies at 81

Dick Harter was perhaps just as vital to the Pistons as Chuck Daly and Jack McCloskey were.
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Before there was the Bad Boys, there were three bad men. Jack McCloskey, Chuck Daly and Dick Harter – three of the best men to ever grace the Pistons – did the heavy lifting necessary when franchises need to be built from the ground up into champions. They were three former military men from America’s greatest generation who conferred the toughness, discipline and integrity they lived and breathed on a franchise that had been adrift before their arrival.

McCloskey and Daly deservedly reaped the glory. Harter, who died Monday at 81 in Hilton Head, S.C., where he lived with his wife, Mari, missed out on the back-to-back championships. But he lived a lifetime in basketball and left an imprint as wide as his smile and as deep as the drill-sergeant’s voice that commanded a room.

“He wore that Marine toughness on his sleeve and it was in a good way,” said Mike Abdenour, longtime Pistons trainer. “I don’t know of anybody I’ve ever come across in NBA circles – players or staff or executives – that has a bad word to say about this man. Respectful, jovial, tough – he enjoyed laughing at himself. That was the beauty of this guy.”

Harter left the Pistons after the 1985-86 season, eventually becoming head coach of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. He later would be an assistant in Boston, New York, Indiana and elsewhere, highly sought by all franchises looking to upgrade their defense and toughness. Harter’s roots were in college basketball, with great success at Penn and Oregon, where his “Kamikaze Kids” teams of the ’70s remain beloved. One of them, Ron Lee, became a Pistons favorite, an early McCloskey acquisition targeted by him for his non-stop motor and toughness.

“The fact that Dick was a former Marine and a disciple of Jack McCloskey, they added a certain toughness to the equation for the Pistons,” said George Blaha, voice of the Pistons for 36 seasons and one of Harter’s dearest friends. “Chuck had a great basketball IQ and an incredible way of rallying the troops. Certainly, his days with Dick Harter convinced him the Pistons needed to play tough, tenacious, physical defense. I believe that was the birth of the Bad Boys.

“The Bad Boys could do anything you wanted them to do offensively, and much of that came from Chuck. They could do whatever was necessary to stop you defensively and much of that came from Dick. That’s why they were so good together. When Dick moved on, the footprint he left in Detroit stayed on for as long as Chuck was coaching.”

McCloskey was an old Navy man who fought in the Pacific theater in World War II, Daly was an Army man and Harter a Marine.

“Jack would always say that it was his people who brought Dick to wherever they were going,” Abdenour said.

“Dick Harter will be remembered as a great man and one of the great coaches in college and the NBA,” Joe Dumars said via e-mail. “He was the first coach that took my under his wing and taught me the pro game. His work under Chuck Daly laid the foundation for the future successes that the Pistons organization enjoyed during the late 1980s and early ’90s.”

Dumars was a rookie during Harter’s last season under Daly. Pistons coach Lawrence Frank knew Harter only casually, but worked with many coaches and assistants influenced by Harter over the years.

“A lot of descendants of his tree have been very, very close to me,” he said after Monday’s practice in Salt Lake City before the Pistons flew to Sacramento for Wednesday’s game with the Kings. “I’ve known and studied coach Harter. He has had and still has a lasting impact on what goes on. You look at the top defenses in this league, a lot of it comes from coach Harter’s philosophy. A tremendous, tremendous coach. I have unbelievable professional respect for what he brought to the game.”

Abdenour said that what became known as the Jordan Rules – the defensive tenets the Pistons put in place during the late ’80s when they were battling the Chicago Bulls for Eastern Conference supremacy – were built on the principles Harter established before leaving Daly’s side.

When Larry Bird reluctantly took over as Pacers head coach, he wanted ex-teammate Rick Carlisle to run his offense and solicited input as to who should run his defense.

“He said to everybody around him, ‘Who’s the best defensive coach in the NBA?’ ” Blaha said. When the results came in, he said, “Whoever this Dick Harter is, let’s get him in here.”

It was Harter, as well, who Pat Riley brought on to run his defense with the Patrick Ewing-era Knicks as they battled the Bulls in the ’90s.

Harter was Daly’s only assistant coach during their time together with the Pistons in the days before the NBA became sophisticated and specialization grew to be the order of the day for assistant coaches.

“It wasn’t one guy breaking film down here and somebody else doing something over there,” Abdenour said. “No, these guys were in the trenches together trying to figure out how we were going to guard Larry Bird. That’s how it was.”

But all the defensive scheming Harter did – and he was at the forefront of the techniques today taken for granted in complex hybrid defenses and multiple ways of defending the pick and roll – was secondary to his ability to draw out toughness in his teams.

“Dick believed in physical basketball,” Blaha said. “One of his great statements was, ‘If a guy is hot, show him the lights’ – meaning put him on his back and he’s looking straight up, then you can get him thinking about something other than his jump shot. The Bad Boys were born out of all three of those gentlemen – Jack and Chuck and Dick – but of the three, nobody believed in physical basketball as much as Dick did.”

“One of the pictures I’ve seen that Dick had in his home was all five of the Kamikaze Kids surrounding the ball with one UCLA player,” Abdenour said. “Within this 8½-by-13 picture, all five Oregon kids were right there. That epitomizes Dick’s coaching.

“He was truly what the Marine Corps stands for because he truly was a Marine. The term is used very, very infrequently and it’s reserved for those who truly are: He was definitely a man’s man.”