As coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team that spawned the globalization of basketball, Chuck Daly didn’t call a single timeout over the tournament’s eight games. When you have Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on your squad, and are beating the awestruck Angolans, Brazilians and Puerto Ricans by an average of 43.8 points, any coach worth his whistle would have just let them play. But even if the Dream Team had been challenged, Daly, who died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday morning, at 78, might not have seen the need to lecture his team. Unlike most coaches, who are first-degree control freaks, Daly never stole the spotlight. Like any good boss, Daly always trusted his talent, and knew his guys would find a way to win.
No coach massaged pro egos better than Daly, who won 638 games over 13 NBA seasons. Just look at Daly’s Bad Boys, the thuggish band of Detroit Pistons who elbowed, kicked, brawled, their way to back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. Great teams often take the character of their head coach but, in Detroit’s case, the polar opposite was true. Within basketball, no one disparaged Daly. He was a blue-collar Pennsylvania guy who just worked his way up the coaching tree, from Punxsutawney High School, to Penn, where he won four straight Ivy League titles in the 1970s, to the NBA.
He was one of the good guys in the game. But his Pistons were, in fact, very bad. Isiah Thomas manipulated his mates. Bill Laimbeer whined, flopped, and was, rightfully, despised throughout the NBA. Dennis Rodman, though not yet blonde, pierced, and cross-dressing, was a dirty player. Yet Daly knew that if Detroit wanted to win a championship, he had to let the Boys by Boys. He permitted Isaiah to control the ball, because Daly realized that would keep his point guard happy and insanely productive. He knew the Pistons fed off Laimbeer’s antics, so go ahead Bill, be an a–hole. Daly saw that Rodman needed a father figure, so he mentored the troubled player, who would become one of the most prolific rebounders in hoops history. With Michael Jordan’s Bulls emerging in Chicago during this period, Daly created the Jordan Rules, which were very simple: if number 23 flies soars the lane, knock him to the floor. Jordan and the Bulls would get their titles. But not before Daly’s Pistons got theirs.
After leaving Detroit and coaching the Dream Team to gold in Barcelona, Daly landed in New Jersey to coach the woeful Nets in 1992. He always deserved more credit for his brief stint in the Meadowlands swamp. Daly turned the Nets into legitimate Eastern Conference title contenders until John Starks of the New York Knicks broke the wrist of Nets point guard Kenny Anderson during the 1993 season. Then the team’s scoring machine, Croatian shooting guard Drazen Petrovic, died in a car accident that summer. Daly left the Nets in 1994, and coached the Orlando Magic for two seasons in the late 1990s before leaving the sidelines, weary from the travel, but already in the Hall of Fame.
Daly wasn’t flashy, but he dressed the part. Another Piston player, funnyman John Salley, named him “Daddy Rich,” for his snazzy suits. Daly’s coiffed hair, and intense stare, will live long in the mind of the millions of fans who fell in love with the ’80s NBA, an era of great players and even greater rivalries, most of which involved Daly’s Pistons. Sure, Boston-Los Angeles received the top billing, but the Boston-Detroit, Chicago-Detroit, and Los Angeles-Detroit playoff series are all classics. “I think Chuck understood people as well as basketball,” Pistons great Joe Dumars once said. “It’s a people business.” Hoops lost a good one today, a pillar of the sport’s last golden age.