Sheila Loughery will never forget the first night she watched her husband coach in a professional basketball game. "He was beside himself on the floor," she says. "At home he never gets excited. I said to the children, 'What's going on with your father? I hope he isn't having a heart attack or something.' " That was back in 1973 when Kevin Loughery took over as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. And since then, with the Nets in both New York and New Jersey, very little has changed. If anything, Loughery has refined his act, which is unfortunate, because his many scrapes with the officials have somewhat obscured his talents as a coach.
Staying glued to a seat during a game seems to be as impossible for Loughery as frowning is for Miss America. No one coaching today has had more technical fouls called against him or paid more in fines. Some of his players say he is only protecting them. Referees say otherwise.
Actually, Loughery has never paid a penny for his 199 technicals, but his misbehavior has cost his owners more than $14,500 in six years. This season he leads all NBA coaches with 26 technicals, which now cost $75 apiece for the first outburst and a total of $225 for being ejected, which automatically results after a second technical. That happened last Friday night in Piscataway, N.J., where the Nets, who had been inching toward respectability after two dreary seasons, lost their fourth straight, all at home. This loss was to Kansas City 137-126, and before the game was over, Loughery had been ejected. While protesting his banishment he wound up bumping Referee Don Murphy and may be suspended.
Norm Drucker, the NBA's supervisor of officials, who called his share of T's on Loughery when he was an ABA referee, says, "In those days Loughery's outbursts were more isolated. As the years go on, he is reacting this way more and more during the games. What he's doing is unacceptable."
A week before, during a game with Houston, Loughery received a technical after only six minutes of play. "He got it for unsportsmanlike conduct and for badgering, which started from the opening tip," says Referee Paul Mihalak. "Some coaches take as much rope as you give them. It's our job to control the game, and we had to keep Kevin where he should be." On the bench.
Loughery admits that the Nets may lose some games because of his technicals, and there was a time three years ago when he tried to soften his approach. After receiving a record six technicals in one game and a $1,000 fine (the Nets were then in the American Basketball Association, which permitted unlimited technicals), he experimented with the sedentary approach to coaching. "I did it for a game or two," he says, "then realized it wasn't for me. Not only is it my style to get up and move around, but the games started bothering me. I wasn't getting my frustrations out. I can't possibly see how guys can sit there, but that's their nature. My style is definitely not for everyone."
That's a blessing. Loughery yells at officials, jumps out of his seat and runs up and down the sideline, sneering whenever he finds fault with a referee's judgment. Even when he stops yelling, his mouth keeps moving; he chews on a wad of sugarless gum throughout the game. When he leaps, he looks like a Raggedy Andy doll, his floppy shoulder-length hair—it turned gray when he was in his late 20s—and arms and legs going in all directions. Most of the time, he is yelling, "How come we don't get any foul shots?" or, "What about some calls on our end?" When not berating the refs he is calling about 85% of the Nets' plays, both offensively and defensively.
Earlier this season his courtside misbehavior caused Referee Richie Powers to give him three technicals in a game against Philadelphia, a punishment not permitted by NBA rules. The Nets protested the game, which they lost 137-133 in double overtime. Commissioner Larry O'Brien not only upheld the Nets' protest—the game will be replayed from 5:50 in the third quarter, which was when Loughery was hit with his third T—but also suspended Powers for five games without pay.
However, Loughery didn't have the last laugh after all. "I wish that the Philadelphia situation had never happened," he says. "Over the season we've shot 230 fewer foul shots than our opponents, and now I'm getting technicals that I can't believe. I'll get one three minutes into a game but I'll see other coaches out on the court, and they don't get anything. Maybe rightfully so. It's probably my history. But every time I get a technical early in the game we shoot 20 or so fewer foul shots and we lose. My technicals have hurt us this season, and that's why I've tried to cool it. But I seem to get one anyway. It's automatic now.
"Everyone would agree that I'm the hardest coach on the officials. Maybe it's not the referees who are at fault," Loughery added after spending a technical-free night on the bench Saturday in Cleveland where the Nets lost their fifth straight, 104-94. "I'll never be a totally sit-down coach, but if it's going to be stand-up coaching then I'll stay off the officials. The team shouldn't have to suffer because of my behavior."
In Loughery's first two NBA seasons with the Nets, when their overall record was 46-118, he had 38 fewer wins than technical fouls. And last season, for the third time in his brief career, Loughery was coaching a team with the poorest record in the league. In 1973 he replaced Roy Rubin at Philadelphia after the All-Star break and coached the 76ers to a 5-26 record as the team wound up 9-73, the worst figure in NBA history. Although he went on to win in the ABA, his achievements were belittled by those who thought that any coach could win championships with Julius Erving.
"It might be right that anybody can win with Doc," says Loughery. "The idea, though, is not to lose with Doc." Being the NBA's losingest coach has not been easy for Loughery, who won two championships and had a 168-84 record when the Nets were the showcase team of the ABA. Times never seemed as good to Loughery as they did in June of 1976. One month after winning the ABA championship, the Nets joined the NBA, bringing with them the incomparable Dr. J. However, only one day before the team's NBA debut, Roy Boe sold Erving to Philadelphia for $6 million.
Loughery was left with what amounted to a bunch of oysters but no pearl. He had shown that, with talent, he could win titles, and now that he no longer had the likes of Erving around he was showing that he could win at least a couple of games—22, in fact—with the least respected team in the NBA. After that first full NBA season Loughery signed a $700,000, five-year contract, while Boe proclaimed that "the most important asset the Nets have is Kevin Loughery."
Loughery, 38, worked to overcome the Nets' weaknesses by stressing defense and convincing his players they should sacrifice in one area to help the team in another. "It's always easier to sell the idea of roles when you're winning," says Loughery. "Then the role-players' pluses are magnified. When you're losing, they always get blamed. Shot-blocking and hustling after loose balls never mean much if the team can't score."
Denver Coach Larry Brown credits Loughery's success so far this season to this approach. "Kevin makes the players aware that he appreciates that they are sacrificing," says Brown. "That's the real key."
In doing so, Loughery is not exactly preaching what he practiced as an NBA player with Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia from 1962 to 1973. Former Net Assistant Coach Rod Thorn says, "I don't know if Kevin would like to have coached himself."
"He's right," says Loughery. "I would have tried to change my style. I couldn't pass and score at the same time, but when I played we were paid to score."
Loughery ended his playing career in Philadelphia on Jan. 25, 1973 when he became the 76ers' coach. "In Philadelphia I learned that instead of trying to make players fit my philosophy, I had to adjust to fit the players'," he once said. When Loughery had teams that could run, they ran, but now that he doesn't have that kind of talent, he asks his players to slow the game down, to control its tempo, especially on the road.
"Kevin understands the psychology of a professional player," says Bill Melchionni, a former Net player, assistant coach and general manager. "He accepts that they aren't going to play well every night and he won't hold a grudge against any player as long as he feels that player is working as hard as he can. I've known coaches who buried guys on the bench for bad games."
Loughery had a problem of a different kind recently when the Nets' leading scorer, Bernard King, was arrested for drunken driving, driving without a license and possession of a small amount of cocaine. King had come to the Nets from the University of Tennessee last season, bringing with him a history of arrests and off-court trouble.
"After his latest arrest, I went to see Bernard with the idea that I would chew him out," Loughery says. "But I've never seen anyone look so down and embarrassed by what had happened. I'm not condoning what happened, but there is a time for scolding, and it wasn't then." King has remained in the Nets' starting lineup while the team waits until Jan. 9 for his court hearing before deciding what action, if any, it will take against him.
The King arrest was a time for calm, not hysterics, and Loughery handled a difficult situation well. He has that reputation when his players are involved. But when officials are involved, look out.