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Hall of Fame coach Bill Fitch dies at age 89

One of the top 10 NBA coaches of all time, as named in 1996, Bill Fitch led Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship in 1981.

Two-time NBA coach of the year Bill Fitch helped turn bad NBA teams into winners, and the Celtics back into champions.

Bill Fitch, a two-time Coach of the Year who led the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship in 1981, died Wednesday at the age of 89. His death was confirmed by his daughter Marcy Ann Coville via Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle.

Named as one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history during the 1996-97 season, Fitch coached for 25 years in the NBA. He spent time with five different franchises: the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets and LA Clippers. His Coach of the Year honors came in 1975-76 (with Cleveland) and in 1979-80 (with Boston).

Known to some as “Captain Video”, Fitch was one of the first coaches to use videotape to film and analyze opponents as well as scout talent. He was well known for his ability to turn around NBA franchises, something he did at every stop in his career.

Fitch made his NBA coaching debut in 1970-71 as the first coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. After five seasons of gradual improvement there, the Cavs broke through with their first playoff appearance in 1976. That crew — led by Jim Chones, Jim Cleamons and Campy Russell — knocked off the defending Eastern Conference-champion Washington Bullets in a thrilling, seven-game series. The series win was punctuated by a last-second layup by Dick Snyder in Game 7 in a game known as the “Miracle of Richfield.”

He resigned as coach of the Cavs on May 21, 1979, but two days later had another job — this time as coach of the Boston Celtics. Fitch’s arrival coincided with that of star rookie and future franchise icon Larry Bird and, over the next four seasons, Boston would experience a franchise revival.

Fitch turned around a team that had won 27 games the previous season, improving Boston to 61-21 in 1979-80 and a spot in the East finals. Boston won 60 games in three of Fitch’s four seasons there, with the high point coming in 1981 as the Celtics ousted the Houston Rockets in The Finals.

On May 14th, 1981, Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell teamed up to oust the Rockets in Game 6 of The Finals.

He left the Celtics and headed to the Rockets, where Houston was coming off a 14-win season 1982-83. But after adding Hakeem Olajuwon with the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft and with All-Star center Ralph Sampson already in tow, Houston’s fortunes changed.

By 1985-86 he had engineered another playoff upset — this time of the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers — with another iconic playoff moment. In Game 5 of the West finals, Sampson nailed an improbable off-balance jumper to clinch the series and send Houston to its second Finals.

The Rockets, however, would lose to the Celtics again in The Finals, as Bird and the rest of Boston’s frontline cruised to a 4-2 series win against their former coach.

Ralph Sampson hit one of the wildest shots in NBA history to send the Rockets to The Finals.

The Rockets fired Fitch as coach after the 1987-88 season in which Houston lost 3-1 in the first round to the spry Dallas Mavericks. After a year away from the game, the Nets hired Fitch and he turned them from a 17-65 team in his first season (1989-90) to a 40-win playoff team in 1991-92 behind young stars Drazen Petrovic, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson.

Shortly after New Jersey’s playoff exit in 1992, Fitch resigned as coach and took another two years off before landing his final coaching job with the Clippers in 1994. Much like with the Nets, the Clippers were 17-65 in Fitch’s first season, but emerged as a playoff team by the 1996-97 season before he finished his coaching career with another 17-65 campaign in 1997-98.

Fitch was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019 and received the National Basketball Coaches Association’s  Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. Several key contributors and future Hall of Famers coached with or under Fitch in their careers including Phil Jackson, Lenny Wilkens, Rick Carlisle, Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Eddie Jordan, Kevin McHale and Lionel Hollins.