Remembering Jack Haley

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By Sam Smith| 3.17.2015 | 7:43 p.m. CT

Jack Haley, the onetime Chicago Bull who played parts of nine NBA seasons with four NBA teams and the Bulls twice, died Tuesday at 51. The cause was believed to be a heart attack.

Ironic and sad, really, because few had more heart, the way we use it colloquially in sports, more than Jack.

You’ll read and hear about Haley being the caddie or babysitter for Dennis Rodman on the champion 1996 Bulls, being the guy who waved the towel enthusiastically from the bench, sort of a 12th man punch line. That was Haley, sure. But there was much more to Jack and why in many respects, as much as Rodman and Michael Jordan and college teammate Reggie Miller and so many of the great players of that era, Jack was a guy to admire and respect and perhaps more so a model for the rest of us.

We couldn’t be like Mike.

We could be like Jack.

Except Jack made it to the NBA when hardly any of us could. And he stayed there almost a decade. You don’t do that waving a towel or driving someone to practice.

Jack Haley had no business being in the NBA with no real skill that relates not only to basketball, but playing with the greatest players in the world. He had a set shot and couldn’t really jump, didn’t see the floor that well, handle the ball or even take his sweats off effectively.

Doug Collins, who gave Haley his first NBA job with the Bulls in 1988, has a favorite story.

“He’d always sit close to me,” Collins recalled Tuesday. Early in one game we didn’t have any energy. I said, ‘Jack, you want to play, get in there.’ He jumped up and we had those snap away pants back then. He pulled them off so fast to get in the game one of the snaps broke off. It hits me in my eye and now I couldn’t see like half the game. He’s saying, ‘Coach, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I was, ‘Jack, just get in. Go play.’ He was ready, always ready. He wanted to play so badly.”

That’s what made Jack Haley special and a model for athletes and non athletes everywhere.

Jack wanted to play and he’d do everything he could to get on the court, whatever it took. Because he knew it was a privilege to be in the NBA, something only very few achieved and which so many desired.

Miller used to say Jack was the hardest working player at UCLA, where he was basically sort of a basketball version of a tackling dummy, not even having played basketball in high school. He was a surfer, dude. His dad had been a U.S. champion and the family was wealthy. They had a famous sea food restaurant; a sister was on the staff of First Lady Barbara Bush. Jack had lettered a badminton in high school.

You know those guys; he called you “dude” and had great looking sweaters. He was a big kid, about 6-10, rugged and good looking, but not particularly coordinated. I remember him telling me that first Bulls training camp in 1988 despite his size he’d be the last guy picked in games. It was humiliating, so he forgot team sports in high school and hung out at the beach. But there was that “what if” moment, a thought about having to never look back. So Jack gave basketball a try in junior college and then got himself into UCLA with the same force of will and character, if not talent. After all, he averaged six points in junior college.

That is as unlikely a nine-year NBA pro as you’d ever find.

Jack averaged about four points in three seasons at UCLA. But the Bulls in sort of a what-the-heck drafted him in the fourth round in 1987. Jack went over to Spain and actually averaged about 20 points, so the Bulls brought him to summer league in 1988 and he was knocking guys down all over the place. It was a tough time in the NBA and you needed tough guys. The Pistons were proud to be the “Bad Boys,” so the Bulls needed some bad.

I remember Sam Vincent saying Jack was sort of a Kurt Rambis/Rick Mahorn type, more physical than finesse. Not pretty to watch or play against.

When I asked Michael Jordan that fall about Jack being in camp, Jordan smiled and said he knew it would be a tough camp.

It’s something that’s often forgotten or overlooked about those pre-championship years. That team that Phil Jackson inherited in 1989 was becoming better and tougher, and it was because of guys like Jack and Pete Myers and Collins. Jack fought with Horace Grant every day, banging and hitting like Myers did with Jordan before. Collins helped imbue that team with a sense of desire, like when he literally was in a fight with Mahorn during a game after Mahorn attacked Jordan. Those teams weren’t talented enough yet, but guys like Jack began to prepare them.

Jack loved to tell the story of the UCLA/University of North Carolina alumni game. Jordan used to play in those things.

``I remember him getting the ball at the top of the key and thinking, `He`s gonna dunk on me on national TV.’”

I could still hear Jack today. He was a ham and loved to tell these stories. He didn’t have many on the court where he was the victor, at least not noticeably.

“I went after him as best I could. I got some ball,” Jack would say and with a pause add, “I also got a lot of him. I know he didn`t score.”

Michael would get his revenge, as he always did, Jack becoming one of his favorite foils in the regular card games. Michael quickly learned Jack had that family money and that his card skills weren’t much better than his basketball skills.

Jack made that Bulls team and didn’t play much, of course, averaging about two points in the 51 games he did play, though always there waving the towel, urging on his teammates, ready to go in, always ready to do anything to play in an NBA game.

“When I think of Jack Haley, I always think I don’t know of anybody who wanted to play more than him,” Collins said. “That guy competed; he brought energy, brought passion every day to work. In there battling every day in training camp, never taking a step back. I always say to young people when Jack sat on the bench when he wasn’t playing he didn’t go to the farthest seat where I couldn’t find him. He sat as close to me as he could and let me know he was ready every single second. He’d be saying, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready, put me in coach, I’m ready. I’ll guard that guy. I’ll give you a couple of minutes.’ I had so much respect for Jack because he gave every ounce of himself and he loved to play. He helped make our team better; he came to do his job.”

The Bulls needed talent, though, back then and let Jack go before the next season. He went to a bad Nets team where he had a week once, averaging 13.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in four starts for Derrick Coleman. He moved onto the Lakers while dabbling in TV commercials and even doing some backup vocals in the summer for M.C. Hammer. Jack loved the stage; he loved the attention. He loved life. You can’t touch that.

He befriended Rodman with the Spurs, which was where the babysitter thing began. Jack hated it. He spent two seasons with the Spurs as Rodman was leading the league in rebounding, melt downs and outrages. So when the Bulls brought in Dennis in 1995, they decided to try to lessen the potential risk with Jack. Jack wouldn’t play that season until the final game—that’s when guys rested back then—and have five points in seven minutes. He did get in a game for the NBA’s winningest team ever.

Jack wasn’t active in the playoffs, but did play one crucial role. After the two losses in Seattle in the Finals, Rodman decided he didn’t want to play anymore and wasn’t going to Game 6 back home. Jack, who was among the few Rodman trusted, persuaded Rodman it would be a good party afterward. So Dennis decided to go. The Bulls won 87-75 as Rodman had 19 rebounds, 11 offensive with five assists and nine points. Seattle coach George Karl always has said his team would have won the series if not for Rodman, whom Karl said won two games basically on his own.

Jack finished up his NBA career playing parts of two seasons in the CBA and on 10-day deals back with the Nets the same way, not much time in games but always the most enthusiastic, still thrilled to be there every single moment. And ready to set a hard screen or chase every loose ball when given the chance.

Jack stuck around with the Nets as an assistant a bit, then went back to Los Angeles to do some Lakers’ post game stuff. He did some acting, appeared in commercials and a few sports themed movies and in some music videos.

Jack wasn’t so much somebody you remember, but somebody you don’t forget. He was there when it all started for the great Bulls champions of the 1990s, and he played a role. Don’t doubt that. He also showed you can live out your dreams if you care, really care.