Where Are They Now? Herb Williams
By Conrad Brunner
Little did anyone know at the time what a cauldron for coaching a 28-54 team could become.
This was a Pacers team, after all, that had four head coaches. Jack Ramsay started the season but resigned after an 0-7 start. Mel Daniels stepped in for two games, both losses. George Irvine then took to the bench, going 6-14, before Dick Versace was hired, going 22-31 the rest of the way.
It was the last team of a lost era for a franchise that made the playoffs just twice in its first 14 NBA seasons, but would miss the postseason just once in the next 12.
Having learned how it shouldn't be done, a number of the players eventually decided to put that knowledge to good use. No less than seven of the players from that team have gone on to become professional coaches.
The two most prominent were Scott Skiles and Randy Wittman. Skiles, who entered NBA coaching as an assistant with the Suns in 1997, was elevated to head coach in 1999 but resigned midway through last season with a 116-79 record. Wittman, whose coaching career began with the Pacers as an assistant to Bob Hill in 1992, moved on to Dallas and Minnesota before getting his first head coaching job in Cleveland. He was fired after going 62-102 from 1999-01, two injury wracked seasons, and is back on the bench as an assistant with the Timberwolves.
But many others are also on the path, although most are relative newcomers. Chuck Person landed his first coaching job last season as an assistant in Cleveland, where he has helped revitalize the career of his brother Wesley. Vern Fleming is entering his third season on Isiah Thomas' staff with the Pacers. Greg Dreiling is a big-man coach in Dallas. LaSalle Thompson spent most of a season as head coach and general manager of the San Diego Entry in ABA 2000.
The newest coach of them all is Herb Williams, 43, who joined Don Chaney's staff in New York after head coach Jeff Van Gundy resigned on Dec. 7, 2001 - the day before a game against the Pacers
"I have a great deal of respect for the knowledge Herb possesses and
for his dedication to the fundamentals of basketball," Chaney said, "and that respect is shared throughout our entire organization and the league."
Williams is in the Pacers' career top 10 in seasons (eight), games (577), minutes (18,455), field goals made (3,606), field goals attempted (7,576), offensive rebounds (1,152), defensive rebounds (3,342), total rebounds (4,494), rebound average (7.79), personal fouls (1,740), turnovers (1,420), blocked shots (1,094) and points (8,637).
A first-round pick (No. 14 overall) from Ohio State in 1981, the 6-11, 240-pound center-forward was traded to Dallas in 1989 for Detlef Schrempf. He moved to the Knicks in 1992 where he remained - with the exception of a five-day period in 1996 when he was traded to Toronto, waived by the Raptors, then re-signed by New York - through the end of his playing career in 1999.
Though he enjoyed the quality time with his wife Deborah and teen-aged children Erica and Jabriale, Williams couldn't stay away from the game. He spent some time in Indianapolis this past summer with Mark Aguirre, a fellow Chicagoan who had been brought in to assist Thomas with the Pacers' low-post players. But his heart was in New York, and he helped out wherever he could, filling in as a part-time radio analyst and watching most of the other home games from a courtside seat.
"When the opportunity presented itself, I went in and talked to coach Chaney, and he told me he would keep me in mind," Williams said. "I guess when they decided to (retain Chaney as the coach for this season) he gave me a call and asked if I would join the staff and I was very pleased about that."
"I never really made a conscious decision about coaching," Williams said. "I always heard people talking about me becoming a coach, but I never really thought about it. But from hearing people say, 'You should be a coach,' then being away from the game for a couple of years, you kind of miss it a little bit. With coach Chaney giving me the opportunity, I thought I'd give it a shot, see how I liked it and go from there."
Williams works primarily with the Knicks' post players, sharing the lessons learned in 18 NBA seasons that brought more than 1,100 games and nearly 12,000 points. He also has some work to do on himself, in terms of adjusting to the detail aspects of coaching as well as the long hours and frustration.
"I'm learning," he said. "There's a lot of learning right now. It's been fun. It's real time-consuming. There are a lot of hours put in. But other than that, it's all right. I did a lot of this kind of thing at the end of my career anyway, so it's kind of second nature. The only thing now is you're breaking down film, writing reports, stuff like that. It's not been bad at all. I probably couldn't come in under a better coach. Chaney is not a guy who wants you there from 7 in the morning till 8 at night. As long as you get your job done, that's all that counts."
Williams is not yet sure about his coaching future; this has been a tumultuous season for the Knicks and sweeping offseason changes are possible. But he at least has this experience to base decisions about his future - namely, if he has the burning desire to become a head coach one day.
"I don't know," he said. "I've got to get my feet wet a little bit, see how I adjust to things. When I'm on the bench, a lot of times I'm thinking, 'What would I do in this situation? How would I play this situation if I was the head coach?' So I'm running things over in my mind. But right now, it's a little too early to decide that."