When I sat down to write about Chuck Daly, I didn’t know what to say. Sure, Daly was around when the Pistons were at their peak. But what part of that success belongs to him?
Daly was before my time, and the details and stories of his life aren’t as well known as say, Bo Schembechler. Daly has the reputation of a good coach, a good guy and someone with a lot style. But I didn’t know many of the details.
And that’s part of Daly’s magic.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who Daly mentored in Orlando, credited Daly with simplifying everything. From Tim Povtak of AOL FanHouse:
"I always tell my coaches now that I thought Chuck was a genius at taking things that looked complicated and making them very simple. He could sum things up. If you thought you had a crisis — and I had a ton of them in Orlando with the Grant Hill injuries – I’d call Chuck. There were times when I thought the whole freaking sky was caving in, and he’d say some simple thing, and I’d think ‘why didn’t I see that.’ "
"He just had a way of making complicated things very simple, not only for himself, but for others, for his players. I thought that was his secret.”
Behind all the simplicities I knew about Daly, there was a web of complications. Daly took myths and transformed them. He made them better. He made them real. There was always more than met the eye when Daly was involved.
Daly was a pure coach
Daly was named one of the top 10 coaches of all time in 1996. He coached the 1992 Dream Team. And the Pistons retired the No. 2 in honor his two championships.
But when he came to Detroit in 1983, he was a washout. Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien had fired him the year before (and replaced him with Bill Musselman, who he had fired the previous season and four coaches prior).
Stepien traded away so many first-round picks for marginal talent, the NBA instituted a rule prohibiting teams from trading consecutive first-rounders. He obviously didn’t know how to run a franchise, but Daly was just 9-32 in Cleveland.
Daly had been a successful head coach at Penn, but his NBA credentials were lacking. He had to take quite the pay cut to join the Pistons. From the Detroit News:
It’s believed to be a three-year deal for about $125,000 per season. Daly said he had a $500,000 deal over three years at Cleveland in 1981-82 where he lasted only 41 games and was fired with a 9-32 record.
"This one is not quite that good," admitted Daly.
Daly quickly turned his reputation around. The Pistons made the playoffs in each of Daly’s nine seasons at the helm. They hadn’t had a winning record in the six year’s prior to Daly’s arrival.
After leaving Detroit, Daly took the Nets to the playoffs both years he spent with New Jersey. And he upgraded the Magic from a .500 team his first year in Orlando to a .667 team the next year.
Daly was never named Coach of the Year in the NBA or NCAA. But maybe that’s because he hid all the troubles of coaching and made it look easy.
The Bad Boys were a collection of hard-working players that had great chemistry
Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Mark Aguirre, James Edwards, Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman were the stars of the Bad Boys era.
Because Chuck Daly let them be.
Coaching in the NBA isn’t about the Xs and Os. It’s about managing personalities. Talent, when properly channeled, wins out. And Daly knew how to get through to each player.
He pushed Thomas’s passion into defense and let Thomas feel like he was running the team.
He gave Laimbeer direction in the role of Thomas’s lieutenant.
He left Dumars alone.
He was a father-figure for Rodman.
He openly challenged Aguirre’s pride.
The list goes on and on.
Daly made the team work together perfectly. He knew which buttons to push. He had a collection of volatile personalities completing each other.
Most impressively, he made it look so easy he rarely got the credit he deserved for such a tough task.
Daly was “Daddy Rich”
John Sally nicknamed Daly “Daddy Rich” for his fancy suits. It seems Daly relished having the reputation of a big spender. It probably helped him connect with his highly paid players.
But it was just an image.
In reality, Daly was cheap. He grew up during the Depression. According to a 1997 Orlando Sentinel story, his high school nickname was “hungry” because his family couldn’t always afford to eat.
Matt Dobek has been head of Pistons public relations for 25 years and when Daly was coach and wanted to go out for dinner, he always made sure Dobek was with him to pay.
"He never picked up a check," Dobek said. "We could charge everything to the team. But that was Chuck. He didn’t like spending money."
When Daly was hired by the Nets in 1992, he received a three-year contract worth $4 million but he still insisted on a free condo and then got a deal for his expensive suits from Hugo Boss.
"Chuck had a deal for everything," Thorn said. "And I mean everything. If you had to pay for it, Chuck didn’t want it."
I thought about the times I would see him during the late 80s and early 90s when we would shake hands and he’d say, "Good to see you. Listen, you owe me any money?"
But Daly always knew when to spend money. More from McCallum:
And I thought about that time in November of 2005 when Chuck came to speak at a scholarship banquet I helped organize. When I had told him how much we could afford to pay him, he said, "What? Are you kidding me?" Then he flew round-trip from Florida to Pennsylvania and did the gig for nothing.
Daly was a nice guy
Charles Barkley fought with the Bad Boys as much as anyone not on the Celtics or Bulls. But he always respected their leader.
"I never understood how a great man and nice guy coached the Bad Boys," Charles Barkley said.
Daly spread that image, too. From the Free Press:
What, the reporter wanted to know, would Daly like as an epitaph?
"I really would rather not think about it," he said.
But he did, and he answered: "Nice guy. . . . I’d like to be known as a nice guy."
Death has a way of brining out the best in people, so Daly might be remembered that way.
But he shouldn’t be.
He might be a nice guy off the court, but you can’t ignore the years he spent on it. I don’t buy for one second Daly was above the Bad Boys. He put it together. He orchestrated it. He oversaw it. The Pistons played exactly how he wanted.
They were a team that embodied their city, perhaps, better than any other ever has. And the Pistons were coached by a guy whose roots were so Eastern.
Daly, who was born in Punxsutawney, PA, and coached Penn to four Ivy League titles, was much more Philadelphia than Detroit. But he made it work wonderfully.
And it looked so simple. Finally, I’m beginning to appreciate how well he did it.