Chuck Daly steps from his white Thunderbird wearing a blue suit, which is not surprising. One of the guiding principles of Daly's life is this: No one looks bad in a blue suit. Here's another: A sports coat-trousers combination "breaks you up," meaning that it does not give "the continuous smooth line" of a suit. Talk to Daly for five minutes and you may think you are in the presence of a world-class tailor instead of the coach of the NBA-champion Detroit Pistons.
The sounds of The Phantom of the Opera on the car's cassette player are still audible as Daly strikes an operatic pose before closing the door of the T-bird. "Sing! Sing!" Daly bellows, trying to replicate the voice of Colm Wilkinson, whom he had recently seen in the title role of a Phantom production in Toronto. Some coaches dream about point guards; Daly dreams about voices, like Wilkinson's, or those of what he calls "the true stylists"—Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormè, Nat King Cole.
It's early October, and Daly is paying a visit to Oakland University, in Rochester, Mich., where several Pistons are playing a pickup game. When the game ends, forward Dennis Rodman, who is about to start his fourth season in the NBA, walks around the hot gymnasium, hands on hips, gasping for air.
"Yo, Dennis! Your boss is here," says Piston assistant Brendan Suhr. "You going to say hello?"
December 18, 1989
Rodman strides over and exchanges a few pleasantries with Daly. When it's time to return to the court, Rodman gives Daly a good-natured jab to the gut. I Daly doubles over for a moment, then smiles and shakes his head.
There are many NBA teams on which a young player would not feel comfortable jabbing the coach in the gut, but probably none is as good as the Pistons. Nevertheless, with Rick Mahorn and his physical presence now in Philadelphia and with the Pistons still searching for a starter to replace him, Detroit has yet to return to its championship form of '88-89. At week's end, the Pistons (12-7) were third in the Central Division, a half game behind surprising Indiana and Atlanta. But because of their coach and their talent, the Pistons are among the league's most dangerous teams. No one in the NBA has forgotten that.
"Life is like a dogsled race," Daly says. "Unless you're the lead dog, the scenery never changes."
It was a long time before Daly, 59, saw anything but hindquarters. Last June, when his moment finally came at the conclusion of the NBA Finals, when Detroit had put the Los Angeles Lakers out of their misery in four straight games and Daly stood front and center, staring contentedly at the scenery, he felt nothing so much as an overwhelming sense of relief. Finally. I made it. No basketball coach in America deserved to say finally with the same, well, finality, as Charles Joseph Daly.
"People in our business were genuinely happy for Chuck," says Ron Rothstein, coach of the Miami Heat and one of several former Daly assistants who have become head coaches in recent years. "He worked his way to the top, from high school to college to here. Nobody ever handed Chuck anything."
As a player, Daly was good but not great. His brother, Bud, 1½ years younger, was better—he led the Kane (Pa.) High School Wolves to the state title in 1949, the year after Chuck graduated. Chuck earned a scholarship to St. Bona-venture, but there were too many players in front of him and he transferred to Bloomsburg (Pa.) State College, not exactly Hoops U. After college and two years in the Army, he began his coaching career at Punxsutawney (Pa.) High School. When you spend eight years in a town whose main claim to fame is a groundhog—that would be Punxsutawney Phil, who crawls out of his hole every Feb. 2 in search of his shadow—you tend not to take yourself too seriously.
Daly made it to the college ranks in 1963 by sending a letter to then Duke coach Vic Bubas, who later called, as Daly says, "out of the blue" to offer him an assistant's job. But it wasn't Daly's show, and even six years later, when he became head coach at Boston College, he was overshadowed: He took over from Bob Cousy, who could recruit players by spinning a ball on his fingers and showing old photos of his glory years with the Boston Celtics. Daly went 26-24 in two seasons (1969-70 and '70-71) at BC and then moved on to Penn for six seasons. There he had a .767 winning percentage, but the Quakers didn't reach the Final Four until two seasons after Daly left.
In November 1977, weary of Ivy League recruiting restrictions and the can't-win comparisons with Princeton coach Pete Carril, Daly put aside his reservations about the NBA—"I saw it as a place where great players went out and got themselves shots and that was about it," he says—and accepted an offer from coach Billy Cunningham to be an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers. Early in the 1981-82 season, mercurial Cleveland Cavalier owner Ted Stepien asked Daly to be his coach. Daly lasted for 41 games, 32 of them losses, before he got Stepiened on.
Daly went back to Philly to work as a color commentator on 76er games during the 1982-83 season, and—wouldn't you know it?—the Sixers won the NBA championship. When the call came in May 1983 asking Daly to be coach of the sad-sack Pistons, who had suffered through six straight losing seasons, he accepted. Actually, Daly had turned down Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey's offer of the job two years earlier because he didn't think the money was enough to warrant his leaving his assistant coach's slot in Philadelphia, a harbinger of his future difficulties in Detroit. But now was the time—Daly was nearly 53, and his coach's biological clock was ticking—so he signed on with the Pistons for less than $100,000, roughly the same salary that McCloskey had originally offered.
Here's what people in Detroit knew about their new coach: He was quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, and he looked terrific in a suit. But could he transcend his warmup-act status?
It took him six seasons, but Daly did it. And he did it at an age when most coaches have lost their jobs, their sanity, their sense of humor—and their hair.
Chuck acquired his sense of style from his father, Earl, and his high school coach, Stuart Edwards. Earl Daly, who died in 1954, was a traveling salesman from Kane, a small town about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. He was a sharp dresser with a breezy manner and an excellent tenor voice, which served him well in local theatrical productions. Chuck got the dressing and the breeziness parts down O.K., but his baritone singing voice is only average. He has dreamed of singing before an audience for a half century now, but it will probably never happen. "That's why K.C. Jones is one of my heroes," says Daly, only half-kidding. (Jones, the former Celtic All-Star and erstwhile coach of the Washington Bullets and Celtics, has an excellent voice and can be coaxed into a public performance with the request, "K.C, would you sing?")
Edwards looked like a coach. "He made such an impression on people," says Daly. "Well-dressed, always well-dressed. Good-looking man. He had presence. I modeled myself after him." Daly may have been born and raised in Kane, but no law said he couldn't dress like Billy Eckstine (whom Daly describes as "a heavy stylistic influence").
The larger point is this: Though Daly takes fashion very seriously, that does not mean he takes himself seriously. That's his saving grace. Shopping is a serious hobby, perhaps even an obsession, but he has fun with it. He freely admits, for example, that though he is a world-class window-shopper, he's not an extravagant buyer. He would rather face Michael Jordan every night of the season than pay retail prices. As his wife, Terry, who knew him in his college days at Bloomsburg, says, "He knows how to hit the sales."
Though he'll talk about clothes for hours, he steadfastly refuses—on or off the record—to reveal the extent of his wardrobe. He feels a little guilty about all those clothes—you can take the boy out of Kane but you can't...—so he makes jokes about them. "Look, if I showed you my closet, it would ruin the mystique," he'll say. "I've been saying for years that all my clothes are rented. And I can tell you it's tough to get them back before midnight in certain cities."
Come on, Chuck. Fifty suits? A hundred?
"No comment," he says.
A friend of Daly's who has seen his closet (though Daly doesn't know it) says that Daly probably owns 100 blue suits. And he has perhaps half as many in black, his second favorite color.
Daly's hair is as important to him as his clothes. His closest boyhood friend, Don Magnuson, vice-president of the Hamlin Bank and Trust in Kane, claims that Daly would rather lose a limb than his wavy hair. "You ever drive behind Chuck?" says Magnuson. "Every time he stops for a light his hands go to his hair, patting it, straightening it." During a visit to Los Angeles last summer, Daly made a subtle yet significant modification to his coiffure. While walking down Rodeo Drive—Daly has more memories of Rodeo Drive than the Gabor sisters—he entered a hair salon and told a stylist to redo his 'do.
"He threw me down in a chair—had no idea who I was—did some cutting, charged me 34 bucks and let me up," says Daly. "And you know what? I loved it." The top of his hair is the same, but the sides are considerably thinned out, making Daly look younger and less jowly—less like, say, the well-dressed head of the stevedore's union.
But Daly's concern for his appearance has cost him a price much steeper than retail. Over the years, the whole package—clothes, hair, the quick smile, the easy one-of-the-boys conviviality that he evinces weekly on his popular Detroit-area television show, Chuck Daly 's One on One—has led some observers to believe that he is, well, a show pony, a guy who puts....
"Style over substance, something like that?" says Daly. "Sure I've heard that. Many times. I can't do anything about that. I know that since I was a freshman in high school, reading John R. Tunis books, I never wanted to be anything but a basketball coach. Never. And I know how hard I've worked in this profession, how many times I drove hundreds of miles to hear lectures. I'm one of the few guys old enough to have heard Clair Bee, for god's sake. Frank McGuire. Adolph Rupp. All of them. I know the game. And the people who know me know I know the game."
He does. But that's not the main reason he has been successful in Detroit. The main reason is that after nearly four decades on a basketball bench, Daly knows people. That's important when your job is to stir the big beef stew of personalities that is the Pistons.
Daly has long been known as "a players' coach," but what does that mean?
"A lot of people think it means being buddy-buddy with his players," says Suhr. "That's not it at all. The players have to like him, and have the kind of relationship with him that they can come up and, say, smack him in the gut, as Rodman did. But they've got to respect him, too. He's got to be like a father to his players. The players have to know who's boss, and on this team. Chuck Daly is the boss."
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a smoother fit than Daly and his Pistons, a more natural act than Daddy Rich—as most of the players call Daly—jiving and trading barbs with these ornery Bad Boys, alternately pushing them and protecting them. Daly himself is a charter Bad Boy, having gotten into a shoving match with Stan Albeck, then coach of the Chicago Bulls, during the 1984-85 season, before the Pistons wore the Bad Boys tag. (What a surprise: The incident was precipitated by Detroit center Bill Laimbeer's hard foul on Jordan.) Yet how many times have Daly's humor and tact defused a tense situation involving the physical duo of Mahorn and Laimbeer? For example, after Game 1 of a fierce Eastern Conference final series against Boston three seasons ago, Celtic president Red Auerbach blasted Mahorn and Laimbeer in the newspapers for what he considered dirty play. The following day reporters asked Daly to respond.
"Well, Red doesn't have to worry about it anymore," said Daly. "We've sent Billy and Ricky to charm school. They'll be all right now." Perfect. Reading situations—if you're smart, that's what you learn to do while sitting on benches from Punxsutawney to Pontiac.
"Chuck gave me the most important coaching lesson of my life," says Rothstein of an incident that occurred when he was a Piston assistant in 1986-87 and '87-88. "We're getting blown out in Dallas in the second quarter. We call a timeout, and I've got like six things written down to talk about. I mean, I'm going to blister some people, and I figure Chuck is, too. We get in the huddle and he says nothing. Makes one substitution, sets up one play, sends them back out there, and we win the game. 'That was a great lesson out there,' I told him after the game. 'Less was more.' "
Adds Edwards, Daly's role model: "Grace under pressure. That was always Chuck's forte when he was a player. He didn't get rattled."
Daly has never been a my-way-or-the-highway coach. Neither is he a "system" coach. He came to Detroit with a penchant for offense, yet he won the championship with defense after hiring assistants with defensive expertise, such as Rothstein and Dick Harter.
The one constant is that he listens. He realizes that the best NBA teams, which in this decade means the Lakers and the Celtics, are player-oriented. The players are the focus, not the coach. The players take care of most of the big problems. The coach is there to motivate, to prepare, to direct. But not to star.
"Chuck's greatest ability is to step back and not let his ego get in the way of his coaching," says Rothstein.
From a player's perspective, Piston captain Isiah Thomas says much the same thing: "Somebody once said that a wise leader is someone who picks smart people to work for him and then is smart enough to let them go out and do their job. That's Chuck. He establishes the boundaries and lets the players play. If he criticizes, it's constructive. He doesn't say something to hear himself talk."
This is not to say that everything is rosy in Piston Land. The relationship between Daly and McCloskey, who has the final say in all personnel matters (that is clearly stipulated in Daly's contract), has never been overly friendly. Before the 1985-86 season, McCloskey in effect prevented Daly from becoming the Philadelphia coach (for about $1 million over three years) by demanding from the Sixers a No. 1 pick for allowing Daly to break his contract. That's a general manager's prerogative, of course, but most of McCloskey's counterparts on other teams would have let their coach go, particularly if he wanted to go as much as Daly wanted to. He yearned to return to Philadelphia, which he considered home. Daly worked without a contract through most of the '86-87 season and throughout the finals in '87-88, which the Pistons lost four games to three to the Lakers, because he was unhappy with McCloskey's offers. There were whispers after the '87-88 season that Daly would end up as a CBS commentator instead of on the Pistons' bench. But eventually, CBS signed Hubie Brown and McCloskey re-signed Daly, who is now in the middle of a three-year deal at about $450,000 a year.
"Look, Jack has his ideas and I have mine," says Daly of his relationship with McCloskey. "They're not always the same. But the bottom line is that he is interested in getting a winner. So am I."
The metaphor that Daly uses to describe the role of a coach is that of a pilot flying a plane. There are always storms looming, even when everything seems calm. Coaches exist to be fired. Team chemistry that took years to build can blow up in an instant. Years ago, Daly was dubbed the Prince of Pessimism by columnist Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe, and though he has mastered the art of being pessimistic without being gloomy or humorless, the tag still fits. Who can say what will happen if the Pistons aren't able to repeat, or, worse, if they don't make it back to the finals? Daly has been fired before. He can be fired again.
Obviously his team's inconsistent start concerns the Prince of Pessimism. But he also seems more relaxed. In his own world, at last he's Bobby Short at the Carlyle, Colm Wilkinson at Toronto's Pantages Theatre. It may have taken a long time, but the coach with all those suits and all that hair has proved to be a man of style and a man of substance. And how many men like that are there?