Sam Smith pays tribute to longtime NBA coach Stan Albeck, who passed away at 89 this past Thursday.
It's perhaps appropriate the Bulls Saturday are in San Antonio. Because it's a nice time to think about those evenings eating Chinese food at King Wah, the agreeable suburban restaurant where the host was one of Michael Jordan's favorite Bulls coaches, Stan Albeck.
Albeck, 89, died Thursday following almost two decades battling the effects of a serious stroke when he still was an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors. But even during these last 20 years, whenever the Bulls were in San Antonio, Albeck, a former Spurs coach, would be at the game, his eyes bright and his manner welcoming even as his speech was impaired. The basketball lifer that Stan was, he never was away from the game. His son, John, would accompany Stan, and the Spurs always treated him royally.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who actually was hired by the Spurs as head coach in 1996 when Albeck was a finalist to make a return to the team he led to two Western Conference finals, said about Albeck: "People like myself don't come close to loving the game as he did, and his whole family did. They participated in so many ways and followed him so many places. He would come to games, he would talk to players, talk to us as coaches; he always had a smile for us, a suggestion or two because he's a coach. He is somebody we always respected and he brought a bright light to wherever he was."
A 1986 photo of Stan Albeck coaching the Bulls against the Celtics at the Boston Garden.
Longtime Bulls broadcaster Neil Funk said Albeck would always ask to reminisce with the Bulls traveling party, many of whom would venture to Stan's restaurant the night before.
Perhaps the surprise was the type of food, if not the atmosphere and conviviality.
"Stan was a guy who just enjoyed life, a no pretense Midwesterner," said Mike Thibault, the longtime WNBA coach who was Albeck's assistant with the Bulls in the ill-fated 1985-86 season. "Stan was the kind of guy, someone would come off the street, a fan, a critic, and Stan would talk to them about everything. Great sense of humor. He could laugh at himself. He and his wife, Phyllis, were very much that way, down to earth.
"I remember going into Carson's one night after a game, the rib place off Ohio Street," recalled Thibault. "By the end of the evening, Phyllis and Stan, Phyllis in particular, had the entire restaurant seeing if they could balance spoons on their noses."
Which sort of described Albeck's one season with the Bulls as general manager Jerry Krause's first head coaching hire. Talk about your balancing acts.
Albeck, with his ball of frizzy whiteish graying hair, coached more than 500 NBA wins and added almost another 100 at Bradley near his central Illinois Chenoa boyhood home.
He coached small colleges in Michigan out of college before becoming an assistant coach for Wilt Chamberlain in San Diego of the ABA, an assistant for the champion Kentucky Colonels and the Denver Rockets in the ABA, an assistant for Jerry West with the Lakers and head coach with the Cavaliers, Spurs and Nets before being hired by the Bulls in 1985 to replace Kevin Loughery after the Reisndorf group purchased the franchise. Albeck had become one of the more revered NBA coaches, averaging more than 50 wins in three seasons with the Spurs and then guiding the forlorn Nets to their longest playoff run in their NBA existence. And which wasn't matched until the Nets went to the Finals in 2002. Albeck's life was the roadmap of American basketball.
Stan Albeck (right) watches on as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, sitting next to head coach Jerry West (center) and fellow assistant coach Jack McCloskey (left).
"Stan was a players' coach," said Thibault, who also was a Bulls assistant for Paul Westhead and Kevin Loughery before Albeck. "He understood when players needed rest, when to get on a guy, pat him on the back. He had a great touch with players."
And then three games into his first season with the Bulls, Jordan broke his foot. Welcome to Chicago. Jordan was out 64 games, but it was the return that ended Albeck's Bulls career. Jordan insisted on playing fulltime. The Bulls doctors said it wasn't worth the risk, that if Jordan injured the foot the same way his career could be over playing at that level.
It led to the NBA's first load management when Jordan and the Bulls compromised on a minutes playing limit. The episode produced many memorable—and painful—moments, including the classic conversation with team managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf which was related in the Last Dance documentary.
Because there was a chance of a career ending situation, Reinsdorf posed the hypothetical to Jordan about if he had a headache and had a bottle with 10 pills and one was cyanide, would Jordan take the chance? It may have been the first prime example of Jordan's transcendent competitiveness. He responded quickly that it depended on how bad was the headache.
The minutes limit became Albeck's Maginot Line. Jordan was begging, demanding to play, refusing to come out of games, jumping off the bench to try to sub himself back in. Management was warning Albeck to abide by the rules for the franchise's best interests. Jordan often commented over the years that Albeck was a coach who always had his back.
Thibault said Albeck understood he couldn't satisfy both.
Albeck coached Jordan during his rookie season.
The Bulls edged into the playoffs with Jordan playing increasing minutes as the season closed. The minutes restriction was removed in the playoffs and the Bulls were swept. But not before Jordan became, as Larry Bird famously said, "God disguised as Michael Jordan" with games of 49 and 63 points to open the playoffs.
"We still made the playoffs and even though we were swept, that series with Boston was one of the most incredible series," said Thibault. "Two weeks later we were fired."
But talking about basketball, coaching basketball, watching basketball and enjoying and entertaining the people around basketball remained a lifetime passion.
Albeck returned to his alma mater Bradley where he was an undrafted point guard to coach for five seasons. He then returned to the NBA in 1995 as an assistant coach with Nets, the Hawks and then the Raptors, where just before the start of a game in December 2001 he suffered a severe stroke.
But for almost the next 20 years, he remained a fixture at Spurs games, welcoming old NBA friends with a smile and a nod, if not another story, and reveling in the basketball inside life to his final days. That's what they really mean about the love of the game. Basketball will miss Stan Albeck almost as much as, but not more than, Stan Albeck missed basketball. Both the hot and the sour.