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Q&A: Del Harris, 2020 winner of Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award

Q&A: Del Harris, 2020 winner of Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award

On Friday, Oct. 2, the National Basketball Coaches Association announced Del Harris as the recipient of the 2020 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contributions to the game of basketball throughout his 32 years as an NBA coach and his impact on growing the game internationally.

Harris spoke with’s Brian Martin to discuss the award, a coaching career that spans 60 years and some of the great players he coached along the way.

Martin: Can you tell me how much this award means to you, especially since it is a recognition by your peers in the coaching fraternity and named for the late great Chuck Daly?

Harris: This is really a special honor because there’s nothing like being recognized by your own peers, people that you worked with or against. For it to come from NBA head coaches is extremely exciting and humbling because I was fortunate to be able to coach at a time when some of the greatest coaches in the history of the game were working and that’s who I had to go against. And Chuck being one of those who was a master coach and someone that everybody had the highest respect.

I just looked back at when I was first an NBA head coach in 1979, and look at the list of the 21 head coaches there were — there are only 21 teams then — and it’s just an honor roll of coaches that I had to go against as a rookie NBA coach. I wasn’t a rookie, I coached 20 years, but I was a rookie head NBA coach.

This was what I call — and many others call — the golden years of NBA coaching and of basketball itself in the 80s and early 90s. If you look at the teams in 1979-80 and see who the coaches were, it’s just amazing. Almost all of them have been highly honored right down to a man.

My first year I had to start out on the road. I had a one-year contract for $70,000. And in the first three games I’ve got to go against Bill Fitch, Dick Motta and Red Holzman, and then come home against Slick Leonard and Hubie Brown. That was my first five games right there. I got off to a shaky 2-7 start after nine games. And I was thinking, man, it’s going to be a short career. And then we won seven in a row; fortunately for me or would we wouldn’t be talking right now.

Which coaches were most influential to you in terms of the knowledge you gained from them and how you developed your style of coaching?

Keep in mind, this was 61 years ago that I started in 1959. I was going to be a preacher, but I was told that I should work at least a year before I went to grad school. And if I wanted to do that, my major professor had a job for me — coaching junior high boys and girls. So, I did that and it turned out so incredibly well, that just was a message to me that this is what I was supposed to do. And so that’s what I’ve done ever since.

During that time, I was able to learn from reading books and watching teams and great coaches. The guys that I leaned on the most were John Wooden and Dean Smith, and the recently late wonderful coach Garland Pinholster, who was a great writer of books and a great coach at Oglethorpe University.

There were just a few books out there and we didn’t have games on TV, just one game a week is all you could see. There just wasn’t the emphasis on the NBA; the NBA was fourth on the totem pole of pro sports at the time. As a result, I just learned from everybody that I could, and those guys were most instrumental, but I also learned as I went along and even learned from players that I coached.

When you reflect on your coaching career — from high school, college, the G League, the ABA, the NBA, FIBA competitions like the Olympics and World Championships — there have to be so many memorable moments. Are there any that stand out above the rest?

All of it just amazes me. I was blessed to be able to get those opportunities; it’s beyond comprehension really for me. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My parents were married at the beginning of the depression and I was born during the depression and grew up during World War II, so there was never any expectation of anything like this.

Probably the weirdest moment is that I would be the first foreign head coach in communist China. That didn’t fit my pattern, but it was a great experience. We had a bunch of super guys; of course, everybody knows the great Yao Ming, but there were so many others. Fortunately, it was a young team that they gave me in 2004, hoping that I could help them get ready for 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

As it turned out, almost every one of the guys I had on the 2004 team is now coaching at a high level in China. In fact, the national coaches of the women’s and men’s teams are two of my former players. The current champion was one of them as well as the top GM, and the head of basketball itself in China, Yao Ming. All those guys have done well, and I stay in touch with them as I’ve been back there several times.

I also owe so much to Puerto Rico. I was coaching small college ball at Earlham College in Indiana for nine years. In the last seven years, I had the great opportunity to coach in the pro league, the superior league in Puerto Rico. I was given the opportunity because they had read some of the stuff that I’d written in periodicals and books, and they called me up. I had never even heard of summer basketball in Puerto Rico, but I went down there and coached for seven years. I coached against ABA and NBA guys, and was fortunate enough to win three championships.

Tom Nissalke, the ABA coach at Utah Stars, asked me to come and be his assistant coach. I’d have never gotten there had it not been for Puerto Rico. I was coaching small college ball, and I could have won 30 games a year for 30 years and getting an ABA job just wouldn’t have happened. Looking back on these kinds of things makes me so grateful.

With so much international competition experience — coaching and working with teams from Puerto Rico, Canada, China, Dominican Republic and the United States — can you discuss the importance of that work in terms of growing the game globally?

I really was in a situation to see the NBA grow and the international game. Coaching in Puerto Rico, I was fortunate enough to become a national head coach for two international events, filling in for the regular coach would could not participate at the time, and started coaching against Italy, Yugoslavia, Brazil and more.

I ended up going to Europe a number of times during the summer once I was in the ABA and NBA and did clinics and camps. I’ve taught basketball on five continents in 15 different countries. I have seen how things went from where nobody was in the NBA from Europe and South America, to where now you’ve got a little more than one quarter of all players in the NBA being , foreign born.

I started in the NBA in the year of the merger. I was coaching in the ABA with the Utah Stars and when that folded, fortunately, my head coach Tim Nissalke, got the head coaching job with the Rockets and asked me to go with him, which I did.

That first year of the merger is a pivotal point in NBA history because they brought in Dr. J [Julius Erving] and Ice Man [George Gervin], Moses [Malone], and all these great players. I saw it grow from that period of time. And when I was first head coach in 1979, the first game I coached was against Larry Bird in his rookie year. I faced Magic Johnson in his rookie year, and then lo and behold, I would end up end up being Magic Johnson’s last coach.

Then when I joined the Mavericks here in 2000, I saw Dirk develop into such an international star. Dirk really changed the stretch game, even though Jack Sikma had been the first seven-footer to shoot over 200 threes with me in Milwaukee. But Dirk just changed the whole nature of the outside game for big men. And then Steve Nash, he’s responsible as much as anybody for three ball we see today. The things that Steph Curry, James Harden and these players do, that paradigm was started in Phoenix after Steve left Dallas, which was unfortunate for us. And it’s just blossomed ever since.

In a career that spans 60 years, you’ve seen the game evolve and change through different eras, with multiple commissioners and transcendent stars from Magic and Larry, to Michael, to Shaq and Kobe, to LeBron and Curry, to Luka and so many others. Your first NBA head coaching job came in the same year the NBA added the 3-point line and now we’ve seen the game evolve from being dominated by big men to a 3-point revolution with shooters all over the court. What are your thoughts on the state of the game today?

I preferred the style of play in the 80s and early 90s, which was more ball and player movement, team motion, and involving all the players, a little less one-on-one but appropriate one-on-ones for sure. But I will say this, the big man is not dead. To think that Shaq wouldn’t be able to play in the league now, because he wouldn’t be able to shoot 3-pointers and he had trouble with free throws, is a stretch. You wouldn’t keep Kareem out of there because he wasn’t shooting three balls and so on.

The teams that are still alive in the Finals have key, big men playing for them. And they may not be low post players, but they are goaltenders and they do score in the paint. There’s still many ways that a big man can be used.

The 3-point shot depends on two things, the ball going inside and then kicking outside. There’s two ways to do that. The way they’re doing it now is all the dribble penetration, which makes the defense have to shrink and absorb. And then if it doesn’t, the player either gets to the rim or shoots a shot up there; if the defense does shrink in on him, then he kicks it out for an open look on the outside right away or after one more pass, something like that.

The other way to do that is to have a big man inside who can draw a double team — has to be good enough to draw a double team and then skilled enough to pass out and find open teammates. I was fortunate enough to coach seven centers over my career, I’m not going to say I developed them or anything, but I worked with them. Seven of them are Hall of Fame players.

I was also fortunate enough to have been involved on the same team with five of the top 10 scores in the history of the game. That may soon change. The only threat to the top 10 right now is Melo. He could pass up Elvin Hayes at 10 and could pass up Moses at nine, but they’re not going to get Dirk, Shaq or Kobe.

As you just mentioned, over the course of your career, you had the opportunity to coach some of the greatest players in the history of the game — Magic, Kobe, Shaq, Moses, Barry, Dirk, Yao just to name a few. What was it like for you to coach those players that would go on to become legends in the game?

When I talk about the big number of Hall of Fame players that I was able to be on the same team with in one capacity or another, it seemed like they were either really young or toward the end of their career. For example, I didn’t have anything to do with the development of Rick Barry or Magic or Sydney Moncrief or Bob Lanier, whom I was able to spend a little time with when I was working with Nellie [Don Nelson] the first year back in 1983-84.

The guys that I had as youngsters were Moses and Kobe, they were guys that didn’t go to college. I was first with Moses at the Utah Stars, but that didn’t last long because our team folded before the season ended –we folded at the end of November. I ended up coaching with the University of Utah the rest of that year. But without my relationship with Moses, I would never have gone anywhere in the NBA because we were able to get Moses to Houston the next year. He had gone in the expansion draft. He went to Portland, but they didn’t need him because they had Bill Walton, they traded him to Buffalo and Buffalo just didn’t use him.

We were able to give them two first round picks and get Moses down to Houston my first year as assistant coach under Tom Nissalke. As a result, we went to the final four that year, and Tom was Coach of the Year. I then coached Moses as the head coach from 1989 to 1992-93, and he actually had his best three years numbers wise when I was head coach. His last year, he was MVP for the second time and averaged 31 points and 15 rebounds, but Philadelphia offered him $13 million. Our owner, who had just bought the team for $9.5 million, said no way he can go. So that’s the year my team won 14 games, with the expectation that we would get Ralph Sampson in the draft, which they did, but I never got the coach him.

I had Moses for those six years and then I was able to get him back when I was the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks near the end of his career. He and I remained friends until the very end. I talked to him two days before his death. We were in contact many times, many times over the years.

Then with Kobe, I only got to be with him his first two years plus 12 games. He was 17 when we signed him and had just turned 18 heading into his first year. He’d missed training camp because he broke a bone in his hand, he was playing outdoor ball at Venice Beach because he couldn’t wait for the season to start.

He was good by the end of that first year and was a big part of the rotation by the end of the year. The next year, I didn’t start him because we had a great team. We won 61 games and he was our third leading scorer and runner up for Sixth Man of the Year in the league. It was just worked out better that way. And I love using a sixth man. Ricky Pierce was my sixth man at Milwaukee. Calvin Murphy was my sixth man at Houston. I’m a believer in the sixth man, even going back to my college years.

The next year he was a starting lineup and I had him for 12 games [before being let go]. He was averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds, believe it or not. He ended up averaging a little less than 20 points and, and quite a bit less rebounding. We had already beaten San Antonio twice in those 12 games who won at all that year. But I was let go and I had to watch him from afar and well sometimes real close because he got 43 on us one time, 42 on us another time, and in the 16th time we played him when I was with the Mavericks, he got 62 in three quarters.

And he joked about that, how he hated me so much because I wouldn’t let him play, so he scored that 62 points for me. And he told me, “hey, I was just joking, they [media] took it serious.” I figured if he had that much animosity toward me, he would have shown it the first time he played against us in 2000, when he scored 16 points against the Mavericks and we beat them.

I didn’t buy that one and he didn’t either, but the media did, so it goes down in history that way. But I will say he had a winning record against us at the Mavs, even though our Mavs teams were really good. I mean whether I was with Nellie or Avery [Johnson], we averaged 58 wins for seven years. So, we were good, but Kobe was better.

And obviously the basketball world — and really the entire world — was stunned by his tragic passing earlier this year.

The tragic part about Kobe’s dying is that when he died, I was twice as old as him. I was 82 and he was 41. Over the last 10 years of his life, he had shown such maturity and leadership and concern for others that you know, it wasn’t there at the beginning because he was so singularly focused on being the best player he could be, that’s all he thought about for the first several years.

And, that’s really what it takes, I mean, that’s what the great ones do. I don’t care who — Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, any all-time great — whether it’s in baseball, basketball, football. If you’re going to be one of the all-time greats, it doesn’t just happen. It’s not just “Hey I’m on the team, I’m automatically going to be great.” You have got to be focused — and he was.

But then he really matured and changed. And my point is that it’s obvious with the stuff that he was doing with his organizations and things, the Mamba Foundation and all that, he was going to do more if he were able to live the 41 years that I got, he was going to do more in those years than he had done previously.

We just talked about some of the legends that you coached during your career, and speaking of legends, you’re still working in the league with the Texas Legends. At 83, I think you have earned the title of the ultimate hoops lifer. I’m curious why it’s important to you to still be involved with the game now. And, and what impact are you hoping to have on the players and the coaches and the teams that you’re working with?

I wrote my last book five years ago; I’ve written six of them and a number of articles and things over the years. With the clinics I’ve done around the world and in 30 states, it’s always been my goal just to help the game like it helped me.

I got whatever I knew from others and I’m willing to pass on whatever it is I have that people can use. I have quite a big correspondence with coaches around the world actually. Whether on LinkedIn or just here in the States and locally. So as long as anybody wants to ask me a question, they think I can answer, I’ll give it a shot. I just I like being around it.

Coaching is what I do in life, but it’s not my life. And there’s always a difference. I don’t think that a person should say his work is his life; life as much more than one’s work, but your actual life can put meaning into the work though. And that’s what I hope to do. And as long as they’ll have me, I’m available.