Of all the rags-to-riches stories among NBA coaches, there was never one like Chuck Daly, who, for all his larger-than-life style with his big hair, big smile and $5,000 suits, arrived thinking he was the luckiest man they ever let walk the sideline, and left as a giant.
In a league in which talent overwhelmed Xs-and-Os (if your X was Wilt Chamberlain, it didn’t matter where they put their Os) and coaches customarily came from the ranks of the players, he was from as far out in left field as you could go.
In a subculture in which poverty and entitlement are soon intertwined, as with LeBron James, raised by a single mother and a superstar by age 17, Daly was Older than Old School, a Depression Baby, through and through.
For all the millions Daly made, and the clothes deals he got – if there was one irony in life he appreciated, it was that when you got money, all of a sudden, you didn’t need it – he never stopped being who he was.
When Daly finally reached the NBA at 48, as a 76er assistant, he used to tell young Doug Collins, “I don’t trust happiness.”
Collins, who, like many of his players, remained close to him, called him, “the Prince of Pessimism.”
That was Daly, gregarious, garrulous and always upbeat, even if he could always feel the darkness closing in on him.
“His gift,” as Detroit president Tom Wilson said, “was his charm, I think.”
Daly’s tenacity and his love for the game weren’t bad either. Only three coaches who started in high school have won pro titles: Jack Ramsay in Portland, Hubie Brown in Kentucky in the ABA, and Daly, who won two in Detroit, to go with his Olympic gold medal as coach of the one and only Dream Team.
Of the three, Daly was the 100-1 shot. Ramsay and Brown grew up in youth basketball hotbeds in Philadelphia and northern New Jersey, respectively. Daly was from tiny Kane, Pa., in the football-mad western end of the state, got no farther as a player than St. Bonaventure and Bloomsburg State, and spent eight years coaching high school in Punxsutawney, Pa., where the the closest thing they had to a star was a groundhog, and he also taught English and speech and coached the golf team.
"I guess I've paid every due you can pay," Daly would tell the Orlando Sentinel’s Tim Povtak when he coached the Magic in the ‘90s. "But I never thought I was anything special. I've always admired those other guys, tried to learn from them. I'm a very average coach of average intelligence. I'm a lifer, just a working coach. That's all I am. I got lucky to be where I am today and I'll never think otherwise...
"You can't change who you are and where you came from. I'm a product of my parents' genes. They were humble people. Sure, I enjoy nice things now, but you never really know for sure if you will still have them tomorrow. Anyone who grew up in the Depression will understand how I feel."
Joining a two-man Duke staff under Bubas – the other assistant was Hubie Brown – in the fall of 1963, Daly found himself sitting on the bench at the Final Four the next season, where the Blue Devils reached lost in the Finals to UCLA.
Had Daly become a career assistant, like Bill Guthridge, who sat next to Dean Smith for 30 years before getting his shot, and had never gotten a shot, Chuck would have still thought he was the luckiest former Punxsutawney coach who ever lived.
Nevertheless, Daly was going onward and upward, and in characteristic style, the hard way. He got a lot of breaks, but few that weren’t barbed, like fishhooks.
His first two years as a college coach were at BC, following Bob Cousy. His next six were at Penn, where Dick Harter had built the Ivy League school into a national power, Daly looked like the ordinary guy who turned up after the big guy.
In the fall of 1977 came a real break, an invitation by Billy Cunningham, the new 76er coach who had never coached a day in his life, to become his assistant.
Daly and Cunningham were friends, although Chuck’s NBA network didn’t extend much farther than that. The pros at that time were even more leery of college people than they are now. I was then covering the 76ers for the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the day they announced Chuck’s hiring, I ran into the other assistant, Jack McMahon, a beloved NBA warhorse in his own right, before practice.
“Now,” said Jack, laughing, “I can coach two coaches.”
With the 76ers becoming Eastern powers, Daly got more “breaks,” like the offer to coach the Cavaliers in the fall of 1981 in the madcap Ted Stepien era.
Knowing the odds, but unable to turn down an NBA job at 51 with no certainty of ever being offered another, Daly accepted... with reservations... staying at the Holiday Inn in Richfield, O., south of the city, near the arena they played in.
It turned out to be a good move. Stepien fired him halfway through the season, after they went 9-32.
Two seasons later, Daly got an offer from a real team, if a real turbulent team, when Detroit GM Jack McCloskey, a former Penn coach, brought him in to organize their high-scoring circus with Isiah Thomas, Kelly Tripucka and Vinny Johnson.
Daly had a new thought – maybe we should guard someone – which would lead to a total makeover into the scourge known as the Bad Boys.
Before that, however, Daly had to survive, with owner Bill Davidson, the beloved, but itchy-fingered “Mr. D,” ready to fire him in his fourth season. Thomas, then the owner’s favorite of favorites, went to bat for Daly, giving him breathing room, which Chuck would never forget.
If Daly knew anything, it was how things worked. Brendan Suhr, who arrived as a young assistant from college where coaches rules, remembers Thomas messing up over and over in a game, prompting Suhr to ask Daly why he didn’t sit his butt down.
“He’s our guy,” Suhr says Daly told him, “and tomorrow, he’ll still be out guy.”
Reconfiguring the team around the hated Bill Laimbeer and the menace, Rick Mahorn (“McFilthy and McNasty,” Boston announcer called them), with more new defense-oriented young players like Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, Daly made it work in a whole new way, putting in his Jordan Rules to hold off the Bulls and their new wunderkind.
Essentially, they all helped on MJ, depending on where Michael was, and if he dared to drive the lane, heaven help him.
Today’s flagrant foul controversy stems from commissioner David Stern’s resolve to protect Jordan from the Pistons and later from Pat Riley’s knife-between-the-teeth Knicks, leading to new rules against violent play.
The Bad Boys lived up to their name and then some, starting with Laimbeer, the contradiction of contradictions, a rich white kid from the suburbs who was the biggest thug of all, a political right winger who was best friends with Thomas.
They had Comptitiveness coming out of their ears, fighting each other when no one else was available. Even Laimbeer and Thomas went fist city one day in practice.
Despised as they were, they had a class all their own. Leading the Lakers, 3-2, in their first Finals in 1987, they lost the pivotal Game 6 in the Forum, 103-102, after a ticky-tack call against Laimbeer in the final seconds put Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the line to win the game. Amid all the questions he got, Laimbeer never uttered a word of complaint.
They broke through in 1988, sweeping the Lakers, becoming only the second team to repeat since the Bill Russell Celtics the next spring, polishing off the Trail Blazers.
“That was a special era,” said Daly. “We were an unliked team in the NBA but frankly, we couldn’t do it any other way.”
Daly rode out the string in Detroit, leaving in 1991 and taking a higher-paying job in New Jersey, where he spent two years and got the Nets into the playoffs twice.
After a stint in TV, he returned with Orlando for an even higher-paying gig in 1997, going 33-17 in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, his last, at 68.
Money was never a problem after that, nor was life. Daly and his wife, Dorothy, retired to Jupiter, Fla., near Chuck’s pals, Billy Cunningham and Rollie Massimino, and they golfed from dawn to dusk.
It was retirement the way it was supposed to be. I sat next to Chuck in the press row in Auburn Hills for a game in the 2005 Finals, when the Pistons lost to the Spurs. An icon in Michigan, he still kept a place there because he had so much media stuff going.
He wasn’t one bit different than the Chuck Daly I met in 1977, and wouldn’t have been one bit different if I had met him in Punxsutawney in 1962.
This news that he had pancreatic cancer was a blow for everyone who knew him and saw him surmount so much. The NBA Coaches Association dedicated the postseason to him, with a lot of them wearing CD pins, and announcing the first Chuck Daly Award, to the winner.
Chuck passed away Friday at 78, with his family around him and and entire league mourning. I’m sure he went out the way he came in, finding the odds stacked against him... again... taking it to the limit one more time.
After he helped the Pistons win their second NBA title in 1990, Daly wrote his autobiography. It never sold very well. People were puzzled by the title. But he understood. He had lived it: "Every Step a Struggle."
Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter at @MarkHeisler