When you understand that Del Harris spent 61 years as a basketball coach, 32 of them in the NBA, well, an argument can be made that the only guy with a career arc greater than his was named Noah.
Harris, the 2020 recipient of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award announced Friday by the National Basketball Coaches Association, didn’t simply grow up and begin a lifetime of coaching at an elementary school in small-town Indiana. He actually attended the famous 1954 state high school championship game between Milan and Muncie Central that inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”
Still has the ticket stub to prove it.
In fact, Harris’ connection to the NBA goes back further than that, all the way to the start. The fellow wearing No. 11 who jumped center for the New York Knicks in Toronto on Nov. 1, 1946, in what became the first NBA game in history, was a fellow native of Plainfield, Ind. Harris didn’t just know him – he worked as a teenager in the summer of 1952 for Weber’s homebuilding business.
What stands out especially in NBA terms about Harris’ career is how he has been at the forefront of so many developments, tweaks and changes in the game. And not just in a Forrest Gump way as a random bystander – the man has been part of some of the league’s greatest innovations in style and play.
The way Harris used first Rick Barry and then Robert Reid to initiate offense for the Rockets in the 1970s and ‘80s, a persuasive case can be made (and the coach has made it) that he was responsible for the wave of “point forwards” that followed, including Marques Johnson, Paul Pressley, Scottie Pippen, all the way to LeBron James.
He became an avid architect of zone defenses for Dallas when the NBA opened the door with a 2001-02 rule change. He thrived with a traditional, dominant low-post center in Moses Malone in Houston, then came up with an entirely different scheme in Milwaukee where Jack Sikma’s shooting range made him an arguable pioneer as a “stretch five.”
So Harris’ trademark as a coach likely was his adaptability, even though chameleons often don’t get noticed.
“I was flexible,” Harris said in a video news conference from his home that featured remote appearances by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Dallas Mavericks coach (and NBCA president) Rick Carlisle. “If it called for slowing the game down, pounding it in, we did that. If it called for a moderate pace … we did that. If it called for up-tempo with the Lakers, we did that.
“There are a lot of ways to win the game. And I’m telling you, the big man is not dead. There are two ways to get the defense to shrink in. One is off penetration, which they tend to do, almost all of ‘em now. And the other is to throw it inside, draw the double and then find open people.
“Don’t tell me that if Shaq were to play today he wouldn’t get in the game because he doesn’t shoot the three ball. He would get in the game. He would be the game.”
Harris became a giant of basketball in his own quiet way. Raised in basketball like so many kids in his state, he enrolled and played at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tenn., with the idea of becoming a pastor. But waiting for his girlfriend to graduate, and heeding the advice of a professor to earn a little money before heading off to the seminary, Harris took a job at King Springs Elementary, where he coached boys’ and girls’ teams.
After his boys started putting up 100 points a game playing six-minute quarters, people began to notice and Harris got hooked.
“I’m known as Kobe’s first coach, Magic [Johnson’s] last coach and I’m in the movie ‘Space Jam.'”
From there, everything has played out in an expansive, remarkable rush, from his climb up the high school ranks to the nine years he spent at Earlham College, a Quaker school where his teams posted a 175-70 record.
His love of the game led him over time to author six books about basketball and coaching. The first one, “Multiple Defenses,” became a popular teaching guide and got him a call from a team in Puerto Rico in 1971. The seasons were flipped there – basketball in the summer – so a number of NBA and ABA types would head there in the offseason for extra cash.
Harris made connections, one of whom was Tom Nissalke, an assistant coach who was bouncing between the two U.S. pro leagues. When Nissalke got hired to coach the ABA Utah Stars in 1975-76, he hired Harris as his assistant. Hurting more than most in a financially strapped league, the franchise folded a mere 16 games into what became the ABA’s final season.
But when Nissalke surfaced the next year as coach of the Houston Rockets, he again called Harris. And when Nissalke resigned in June 1979 (to take the Utah Jazz job 24 hours later), the Rockets chose Harris to step in.
By 1981, Harris, then 43, had led Houston to the NBA finals against the Boston Celtics – the 40-42 Rockets remain the only sub-.500 team to reach the championship series. He later coached the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, earning NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1995 after boosting L.A. from 33 victories to 48 – in the season before O’Neal and Kobe Bryant arrived.
Harris joked Friday about what some consider the highlights of his vast coaching career.
“I’m known as Kobe’s first coach, Magic [Johnson’s] last coach and I’m in the movie ‘Space Jam,’” Harris said, laughing.
It’s way more than that, though. Harris compiled a 556-457 (.549) record in 14 NBA seasons. He took his teams to the playoffs 11 times. He was an assistant coach for 18 years, including six in Dallas late in his career as reportedly the league’s highest-paid assistant under Don Nelson and Avery Johnson. He wrapped up with a season each in support with the Bulls and the Nets.
“Del is like an encyclopedia of basketball,” Dallas legend Dirk Nowitzki told Mavs.com, when informed of Harris’ Daly award. “I would always go to Del and see what he has to say because he knows so much. He’s been around forever.”
Harris held a variety of jobs, titles and gigs in and around his official coaching stints, including a heavy dose of international work as the NBA was gaining traction globally. He wound up coaching in more than 400 FIBA games for national teams in Puerto Rico, Canada and China as head coach, and assisting squads from the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.
He coached Yao Ming with China, one of dozens of great players and eventual Hall of Famers Harris touched over time. Seven centers he coached, including Moses Malone, Sikma, O’Neal and others, made it to Springfield, Harris recalled Friday.
Eight of his assistants went on to become NBA head coaches.
Harris, now 83, remarked that of the 14 previous winners of the Daly award, he went up against “about every one of them” in what he called a “golden era of coaching.”
Boston’s Tom Heinsohn was the first recipient of the award created in 2009 to honor longtime Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly. Other winners have included Tex Winter and Jack Ramsay in 2010, Lenny Wilkens in 2012, Bernie Bickerstaff in 2014, Jerry Sloan and K.C. Jones in 2016 and Frank Layden last year.
Recipients are chosen by a committee of some of the NBA’s top coaches and executives, including Pat Riley, Donnie Walsh, Gregg Popovich, Billy Cunningham, Phil Jackson and others.
|Season||Team||W-L record||Playoff result|
|1979-80||Rockets||41-41||Lost to Celtics in East semifinals|
|1980-81||Rockets||40-42||Lost to Celtics The Finals|
|1981-82||Rockets||46-36||Lost to Sonics in first round|
|1987-88||Bucks||42-40||Lost to Hawks in first round|
|1988-89||Bucks||49-33||Lost to Pistons in East semifinals|
|1989-90||Bucks||44-38||Lost to Bulls in first round|
|1990-91||Bucks||48-34||Lost to 76ers in first round|
|1994-95||Lakers||48-34^||Lost to Spurs in West semifinals|
|1995-96||Lakers||53-29||Lost to Rockets in first round|
|1996-97||Lakers||56-26||Lost to Jazz in West semifinals|
|1997-98||Lakers||61-21||Lost to Jazz in West finals|
|* = Resigned as coach
^ = Named NBA Coach of the Year
* * *
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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