'The Czar' gets his due: Mike Fratello receives 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award

The longtime coach-turned-broadcaster led the Hawks, Cavs and Grizzlies to a combined 667-548 record, with 11 playoff appearances in 16 seasons.

Mike Fratello has been involved in the NBA in some capacity — coach, assistant coach, or broadcaster — since the late 1970s.

SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Fratello, young Atlanta Hawks assistant coach, was 35 years old and stood 5-foot-7 inches (same as now) when he got the chance to interview for the Chicago Bulls’ top job for the 1982-83 season.

The process went well enough and Fratello already was home when he got the call that the Bulls had decided to hire Paul Westhead. The snag? One of Chicago’s co-owners had decided that Fratello was too short to command the respect of NBA players.

Recalling that slight Sunday, Fratello, now 75, said, “You earn respect.”

Fratello’s height might have been part of fans and opponents’ first impressions as the New Jersey native stalked the sidelines in those early years. But it mattered little or not at all as they watched him work, saw him manage and lead not just players but Hall of Famers, and show his coaching chops both as a competitor and as a broadcaster over a career that has stretched across more than four decades now.

Certainly, Fratello could walk proudly alongside the giants of his profession Sunday when he was named the 2022 recipient of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, presented annually by the National Basketball Coaches Association.

The longtime coach-turned-broadcaster led the Hawks, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Memphis Grizzlies to a combined 667-548 record (.549), with 13 finishes of .500 or better and 11 playoff appearances in 16 seasons.

In between and after those three distinct stints, Fratello transitioned to TV work as a color analyst, in essence coaching up millions of viewers even as he remained relevant to cross over and back in those roles. In fact, it was early in his broadcast gigs, alongside legendary Marv Albert on the “NBA on NBC” games, that Albert dubbed Fratello the “Czar of the Telestrator” for his on-screen diagramming of plays.

So you could say the NBCA added some Czar power to their presentation at Chase Center before Game 2 of the NBA Finals in making Fratello the 17th coach so honored.

“His teams always, to me, had one characteristic: They always overachieved, and they always played different styles,” said Rick Carlisle, Indiana Pacers coach and NBCA president. “Mike always figured out the best way to play. Some of his teams played really fast, some of his teams were extremely physical, some played the tempo game. But he always figured out the best way to put his players in a position to win.”

Fratello provided an example of his adaptability after Sunday’s ceremony, talking about his third Cleveland team, in 1995-96, that opened the season with five consecutive losses after reaching the postseason the previous spring.

“Every game was close, and then there was a stretch where we’d get outscored 17-3, 18-2,” he said. “We actually met with the team and said, ‘This is going to happen every game. Unless we change our style and only run on steals and blocked shots. We walk the ball down the court, we milk the 24-second clock. We pass the ball five, six, seven times. We make them suffer having to play defense. If we get a shot-clock violation, that’s on us.’

“We told them, ‘You guys vote on it. We’re leaving the room.’ Bobby Phills was our captain, he came out about 10 minutes later. He said, ‘We’re ready to try it.’”

That team went 47-30 the rest of the season and made the playoffs, the second of four appearances in five seasons.

“Coaching, he was incredibly detailed,” said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who followed in Fratello’s careers path. “Execution oriented at both ends. And the way he was able to win at such a high level in Cleveland starting four rookies or really young players that year, I think it was one of the best coaching jobs ever done in the NBA.”

As for any issues related to his stature, Fratello said Sunday: “Players judge you, like Chuck [Daly] said, on what you do. You have to show them you can teach, you have to show them you’re organized. They judge you in the last two minutes of a game, they want to know ‘Does this guy know what he’s doing?’ And one of the times you know players will listen is the playoffs, because they want to win. They don’t want to be embarrassed.”

Fratello, who grew up in Hackensack, N.J., and attended Montclair State, began his coaching career in 1970 as an assistant at the University of Rhode Island. Three years at James Madison on Lou Campanelli’s staff came next, followed by three years working for coach Rollie Massimino at Villanova.

He went to the Hawks in 1978 as an assistant under Hubie Brown and stayed four seasons, then spent one with the New York Knicks. Atlanta brought him back in 1983 as head coach, and he led the Hawks to five playoff berths in seven seasons, managing talents such as Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis, Tree Rollins and Spud Webb.

Fired after finishing .500 in 1989-90, Fratello dipped his toe in the broadcasting waters. Actually, he said, it was that Atlanta connection and locale that led to that.

“That’s what happens when you can’t keep a job. You have to go out and look for another one,” he joked Sunday. “I was blessed in the beginning because my first [team] owner was Ted Turner, and Mr. Turner was trying to start this thing called TBS, which nobody ever thought would survive. … So they would call and say, hey, could you do this, could you do that.

“I remember, they were televising — I guess it was the World Championships. I can’t even tell you how far back it was. But guess who the three-man booth was for that World Championship televised by TBS? Bill Russell, Rick Barry and Mike Fratello.”

“The Czar” worked with Albert calling all games of the “Dream Team” in the 1992 Summer Olympics, and Fratello eventually earned an Emmy award for his TV work.

Come 1993, he was back in the gym as the Cavaliers’ head coach. That lasted until 1999, after which he put on a headset again. He served as Turner’s lead analyst until 2004, when the Memphis Grizzlies named him head coach at age 57. Fratello sparked the Grizzlies to the postseason in the first two of his three seasons. In, around and since all that, he worked for TNT, NBA TV and regional networks, covering the Cavs, Clippers, Heat, Nets and Pistons.

“I worked with him and Marv one year,” Van Gundy said, “and I learned so much from both of them about how to do it. I remember my first time on camera, I looked like I was in a hostage situation. And he was so helpful and influential. And a true and dear friend.”

Asked for his memories of Fratello, Golden State coach Steve Kerr – another who has served both roles – said: “I think the perm in the ’80s was the first thing. Mike has a great sense of humor, so working with him in the booth, he was always in a jovial manner. Just willing to laugh at himself, laugh at Marv, laugh at me.

“As a coach, incredibly well organized and thoughtful and it showed in his broadcast, just the way he explained the game and the nuances of the game. He’s very technical as a coach, like really well-schooled defensively. His teams were always very disciplined.”

The NBCA award honors the memory of Daly, the popular Hall of Fame coach led the Pistons to consecutive NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. The eight-man selection committee is made up of Bernie Bickerstaff, Billy Cunningham, Joe Dumars, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, Donnie Walsh and Lenny Wilkens.

Previous recipients have been Larry Brown (2021), Del Harris (2020), Frank Layden (2019), Doug Moe (2018), Al Attles and Brown (2017), K.C. Jones and Jerry Sloan (2016), Dick Motta (2015), Bickerstaff (2014), Bill Fitch (2013), Riley (2012), Wilkens (2011), Jack Ramsay and Tex Winter (2010), and Tommy Heinsohn (2009).

Fratello knew Daly as a mentor and friend, and shared a poignant tale with an updated ending. The two had gone shopping for clothes (a passion of Daly’s) and were walking out of a store when Daly saw a jacket hanging on a rack and told Fratello, “You need to buy that jacket.”

Fratello scoffed, to which Daly responded: “It’s really special. You’re going to wear that one day at a very special occasion.”

It was a dark navy sport coat adorned with red and white vertical stripes. Fratello did as he was told, but said he only wore the jacket maybe once “for Fourth of July because of the colors.”

That changed Sunday.

“This jacket has been hanging in my closet for about 18, 19 years,” he said. “But as I was packing for this trip to come here, I said, ‘This is the time that the jacket goes to a special occasion.’”

Fratello slipped into the jacket and posed for photos with the Daly trophy.

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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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