Early Lessons

(Author’s note: John Salley, who will attend Friday night’s ceremony to honor Dennis Rodman with the retirement of his jersey, shared a number of memories recently. In the first installment, Salley talked about being teammates with Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant over the course of his career and compared them as competitors. We’ll have another installment later this week with Salley’s thoughts on Rodman.)

In addition to playing with a virtual roster of NBA Hall of Famers over the course of his career, John Salley played for two Hall of Fame coaches: Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson.

Both were master motivators who managed to dance above the fray, distancing themselves from the issues that swirl around less accomplished coaches and eventually drag them all down. Daly’s bench was loaded as the Pistons battled Boston and Chicago for Eastern Conference supremacy in the late ’80s – Salley, Dennis Rodman, Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards were among those who often or always began the game with their warmups on – yet Daly famously would say, “I don’t decide playing time – players decide playing time.”

Yet for all their success, Salley didn’t hesitate when I asked whether Daly and Jackson had more in common or more that separated them.

“More things that separate them,” he said. “Chuck Daly was a player’s coach. Phil Jackson was a player that became a coach. The difference is Phil Jackson knows when you’re (BSing) and so did Chuck, but if you put that much effort into making up an excuse because you were tired, you might as well win that one.

“He would say, ‘You can take off today, but I better not see it in a game.’ Phil Jackson would talk to you through the papers, too, which guys really don’t like. But Phil uses it to get back at guys. Chuck would never talk about you in the paper.”

Salley called Jackson a “separatist.”

“His favorite player wasn’t Michael Jordan – it was Scottie Pippen,” Salley said. “And when he had a chance to give Scottie Pippen a chance, he didn’t. That was amazing to me. I don’t forget stuff like that.”

That was a reference to the 1994 playoffs, during the time when Michael Jordan was away from basketball, and Jackson drew up a play in the last seconds for Toni Kukoc instead of Pippen. Pippen refused to re-enter the game. Kukoc made the game-winning shot to beat the Knicks.

Salley said while he was fond of Jackson, his feelings for Daly run deeper for the man he dubbed “Daddy Rich” for Daly’s affinity for fine clothes.

“To this day, I think about him,” Salley said of Daly, who died in May 2009 of pancreatic cancer. “Everybody else cries. I laugh. I smile. I was just blessed to have him come into my life.”

Salley remembers how Daly would find ways to connect with each of his players, citing a moment they shared before an NBA Finals game against the Lakers as a shining example.

“We were stretching and he walked up to me and said, ‘Look at my handkerchief. Now check my socks. Pat Riley doesn’t even change his damn pants. All he does is change his jacket.’

“We’re about to play the Lakers! One time he came by and he said, ‘Sal, I have a vent at the bottom of my pants. Look at it. It’s not there by mistake. It makes the pant fall better on the shoe.’ One, I was the only one who enjoyed fashion and, two, he knew it would make me relax. He knew how to talk to each of us.”

Daly sometimes communicated without talking at all, which factored into Salley’s “welcome to the NBA moment.”

Actually, there were two of them, a day apart, in his rookie training camp in Windsor in 1986.

“Chuck had this thing called a five-lap mile,” Salley smiled. “I used to be a runner. We had to run and the guards would take off and then the big men would take off. Back in the day, guys would come to training camp to get in shape. Not like now – you’d better come to camp in shape.

“So the guards take off and I start stretching my legs and I hear, ‘Young fella, pace yourself.’ Joe (Dumars) and Isiah (Thomas) take off and I’m right behind them. They turn around and look at each other and they take off faster, so I pick up faster. The last lap, it was me, Joe and Isiah – you would have thought it was the Olympics. Dennis had asthma, so he conked out in lap three. Bill Laimbeer was red – not from being angry. I think the beer was coming out of him at that point.

“OK, now it’s the next day. Rick Mahorn and Sid Green have a little fight. I don’t know why, but I stand between them and said, ‘C’mon, we’re teammates, man. Let’s get along.’ And Sid punched me in the jaw and Rick kicked me in the leg and they both stood over me and said, ‘Rookie, don’t you ever get in a grown man’s (business).’

“I’m sitting down, looking at the ground, and Chuck’s got his arms crossed and nobody’s helping me. I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m bleeding, I’m on the floor and I’m thinking, ‘This is different (stuff). One, I realized don’t ever show up the vets – ever! Two, stay out of grown folks’ (business).”