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Masters of the Game

Nov. 05, 1990
Nov. 05, 1990

Table of Contents
Nov. 5, 1990

Games
Breeders' Cup
Warren Moon
Holyfield-Douglas
NBA Preview 1990-'91
Scouting Reports 1990-'91
Perkins
Laimbeer
Books
Reminiscence
Point After

Masters of the Game

They're coaching in the NBA, not in the NCAA

More coaching goes on in the first 10 minutes of an NBA game than in an entire college season.
—STAN ALBECK

This is an article from the Nov. 5, 1990 issue Original Layout

Albeck uttered those words while coaching at Bradley—a year after leaving the Chicago Bulls in 1986—and now he feels, well, a bit sheepish about them. Not sheepish enough, however, to retract them. "There's one thing tougher about college," says Albeck, who coached eight years in the pros and 18 at four colleges before taking over at Bradley in 1986. "The demands on your time—community, alumni, recruiting, taping your TV shows. It's tough."

Besides that, Stan? He laughs and says, albeit reluctantly, "Well, no, as far as coaching the game goes—sorry—it's much tougher in the pros." He and former Atlanta Hawk coach Mike Fratello, who's now an NBC commentator, once figured out that because the pro game is eight minutes longer than the college game (48 to 40), an NBA coach makes at least 90 decisions a game, compared with 60 for a college coach.

Chuck Daly, whose Detroit Pistons have won the last two NBA championships, is, like Albeck, a product of the college system, having spent seven years as an assistant at Duke, followed by nine as head coach at Boston College and Penn. But last summer, when the Boston Celtics were considering hiring Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as their coach, Daly said, "Mike Abdenour knows more about the pro game than any college coach right now." Abdenour is the Piston trainer. Boston ended up promoting assistant coach Chris Ford.

Nobody, but nobody, is more of a "college guy" than Rick Pitino, who in the middle of a successful two-year tenure as coach of the New York Knicks (1987-89) admitted that he would be more comfortable back on a campus. Yet even Pitino, who had led Providence to the Final Four before taking the Knick job and is now coaching at Kentucky, believes the pro game is tougher to coach. "From the number of decisions a coach has to make, using the clock as a weapon, out-of-bounds plays, substitution patterns, everything," says Pitino, "much more coaching goes on in the pro game."

Adds Jack Ramsay, who coached in college for 11 seasons and in the NBA for 21 before he resigned from the Indiana Pacers in 1988, "I've seen guys who were head college coaches come into the NBA as assistants, and they are literally in a state of shock for two months. Their mouths are hanging open. They cannot believe the level of play, and they cannot believe the level of coaching required."

"The 24-second clock is the main thing that makes bench coaching much more difficult in the NBA," says San Antonio's Larry Brown, a former head coach at UCLA and at Kansas, where his team won the NCAA championship in 1988. "In the pros, there are so many changes of possession and so many decisions, it's impossible to plan for everything."

So let us put to rest two major myths of basketball: that NBA men are the no-brainers of the coaching fraternity, and that college basketball coaches are all-knowing. "Whenever you're dealing at the highest level of anything, it's more difficult," says Utah Jazz president Frank Layden, who coached in college (Niagara, from 1968 to 76) and in the NBA (the Jazz, from 1981 to '88). "Think it's not more difficult to direct Brando in a film than Joe Schmo? The stakes get higher, the job gets tougher."

Now, let's not go overboard. As the Philadelphia 76ers' Jimmy Lynam, another former college coach, says, "Coaching anywhere isn't exactly brain surgery." Daly wants to emphasize that point, too. He took heat from friends in the college game for the Abdenour comment—at a celebrity golf tournament last summer, North Carolina's Dean Smith, for whom Daly has great respect, told him, "Kinda tough on us, weren't you, Chuck?"—and Daly says he didn't mean to imply that NBA coaches are superior intellectually.

"It's just that the two games are so different," says Daly. "My point was that you just don't walk into the NBA and become a good coach. The rules, the mentality, the timeouts, the matchups, everything is different. And here's the most important thing: The NBA coach must realize that the players teach him. That's not the way it is in college."

True, but the NBA coach must teach the players plenty, too, and right from the start. The league has always had the right idea about training camp—exhibition games begin a week after the first whistle blows—but that has fostered the notion that a roll-the-balls-out-and-read-the-newspaper type of coaching goes on in the NBA. Conversely, the long preseasons in college are perceived as being "classrooms" in which the geniuses of the sport—the Smiths, the Bobby Knights, the John Thompsons—divest their charges of the bad habits they learned in high school and reeducate them in a fundamentally sound and tradition-laden "program." (NBA coaches hold jobs; college coaches preside over programs.) Although the teaching skills of many college coaches can't be denied, the teaching that goes on in the NBA is more sophisticated.

To begin with, most college players come into the league with only a rudimentary grasp of how to play man-to-man defense. They might be experts at sliding from side to side in a 2-1-2 zone, but that is irrelevant. "In college ball, maybe once in a while a player has to fight through a down screen [a screen set near the basket down by the baseline]," says Indiana Pacer coach Dick Versace, who says he experienced "total shock" when he entered the NBA as an assistant in 1986 after 14 years as a college coach. "In the NBA there is no way to fight through a screen set by [Philadelphia's 6'10", 260-pound] Rick Mahorn. No way. So how do you defend the jump shooter you're guarding? There are several techniques you have to learn just to do that, things a player never even heard about in college."

Same with defending the pick-and-roll, which has almost no place in the zone-oriented college game. Then there's the constant presence of the illegal defense guidelines, which are nonexistent in college ball. The NBA coach faces an almost daily struggle of instructing his players in the vagaries of the guidelines while at the same time reminding them not to dwell on them. "If they're thinking too much about the guidelines, they won't be able to play defense," says Ford. "But if they don't know the guidelines, the players are going to be illegal all the time."

Here's one more thing college players never have to think about: defending Michael Jordan on Tuesday night, Isiah Thomas on Wednesday and, oh, maybe Magic Johnson on Friday. "A major factor about coaching in the NBA is how quickly the regular-season games come upon you," says Fratello. "For those times when you can't prepare, your training-camp fundamentals must hold up."

Indeed, NBA coaches run intense two-a-days in what little time they do have before the daily grind of preseason games begins, and that preparation is even more important than it is in college ball, in which games are more humanely spaced.

Probably the biggest change in NBA coaching over the last decade has been in the increasingly sophisticated manner in which teams prepare for opponents.

Says Daly, "My team expects a printed report of the opposition, offensively and defensively, plus a personnel description, for every game. And it gets even more detailed in the playoffs."

What's more, familiarity breeds not contempt but innovation in the NBA. "When Patrick Ewing was at Georgetown, we needed to stop him," says St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca, who coached the ABA's New York Nets for three seasons, "but we only played him two times. Now, you take the 76ers and the Celtics—they play him five or six times a year. They better come up with something."

Sure, the college coach has a variety of zone defenses to choose from, such as the complex matchup zone used by Villanova's Rollie Massimino and the "freak" defenses employed by LSU's Dale Brown, who firmly believes that college coaches are "far more creative" on both offense and defense than NBA coaches are. Sorry, Dale. For every college coach like you, who plays combinations, dozens of others simply sit in the same No-Doz zone, year after year.

Anyway, the assumption that zone defenses are not played in the NBA is false. The rules allow for full-court zone pressure, and because defenses are permitted to aggressively double-team the ball anywhere on the floor, teams play de facto zones in the frontcourt, top. To one degree or another, every NBA team uses some type of zone. Throw in the added pressure of "staying legal"—i.e., not violating the defensive guidelines—and an NBA coach can only laugh when he hears about a lack of creativity in the pros.

Granted, the NBA has a much more individual, one-on-one game than college ball. But that forces the pro coach to be more, not less, innovative. "Not many college teams will double-team a star player, not even a guy like Hersey Hawkins," says Albeck, who coached Hawkins, now a 76er guard, to the NCAA scoring title in 1987-88. "A lot of hard-liners in college say, 'O.K., here's our defense. Let's see you beat it.' When they do do something gimmicky, it's almost always in the nature of a box-and-one or a diamond, something you see a lot of. But in the pros, you have to be a lot more innovative to get your main man the ball."

Albeck should know, because he has coached three scoring machines-Hawkins in college, and Jordan and George Gervin in the pros. Daly's Pistons have an entire defensive game plan predicated on stopping Jordan.

NBA coaches must also be far more innovative on inbounds plays than their college counterparts, because those situations occur far more frequently in the pros and because the constraints of the 24-second clock often dictate that an inbounds play be a scoring play. "In college you're basically just trying to get the ball in bounds," says Ford. "In the NBA you're usually trying to do something with it."

By far the most complex facet of NBA coaching is matchups, a word that rarely enters a college coach's mind but one that haunts the NBA coach's every waking moment. The Dalys of the world must constantly evaluate the ebb and flow of a game and make their substitutions based not only on fatigue and team harmony but also on the best way to exploit an advantage or hide a disadvantage. "There are matchup situations in college, but you tend not to worry much about them," says Pitino. "If you find that a player is giving you all sorts of problems, you just throw up a zone or something. But matchups are a constant presence in the pros."

Consider the matchup headache presented by Philadelphia's Charles Barkley. He's probably too strong for your small forward, so you might move your power forward over to guard him. However, that reduces your power forward's rebounding ability. So you pursue another course, going with three guards and forcing Barkley to guard one of them so that he must work extra hard at the defensive end. Again, that exposes you defensively, because a guard can't handle Barkley, and besides, using a third guard may get you out of your best offensive game plan.

Other alternatives? Perhaps send a guard down to double-team Barkley. But then Barkley can kick the ball out to Hawkins for a jumper. Send the power forward? That leaves the boards wide open for Barkley's teammate, Mahorn, a rebounding fool. Send the center to double? Then Barkley can swing the ball over to his center, Mike Gminski, a deadly shooter from the corner.

"What you take away from one offensive guy in the NBA you give up to another," says Knick coach Stu Jackson, a former assistant at Oregon, Washington State and Providence. "It was generally the case in college that if we were well-prepared and could stop the opposition's top player, we won the game 85 to 90 percent of the time. That is not the case in the NBA. You are forced to make a multitude of decisions to stop a multitude of great players."

One thing pro coaches don't have to contend with, points out Krzyzewski, is the roller-coaster emotions of an 18- or 19-year-old kid. "There might be large parts of games, even an entire half, when I'm doing very little x-ing and o-ing," says Krzyzewski. "I'm on the bench thinking. Gee, Bobby Hurley and Billy McCaffrey [his possible starting backcourt this season] aren't really into it tonight. Wonder what's wrong with them. Sure, the pros have mood swings, too, but they're men. Coaches can be much more curt with them. Anyone going from the pros back to college better get back to being a little bit more of a couch person."

Well, Mike, someone who has done exactly that doesn't agree with you. "You have to worry about your players' emotional stability more in the pros," says Pitino. "Let's say [Knick forward] Charles Oakley is upset about something. He's not going to play well until it's straightened out, and you have to deal with that situation right away. You can't let it fester because there are so many games, and the stakes are so much higher."

Indeed, when the NBA coach has a spare moment or two, he can consider this cheerful thought: He is likely to be fired one day. Part of the reason why pro coaches have not been given their due is that they are, in effect, interchangeable parts, subject to the whim of their owners. While successful college coaches enjoy a security greater than that of most university presidents, Daly (seven years in Detroit) is the only NBA coach who has been at his job longer than five years.

Moreover, that teeth-gnashing mental burden is no worse than the enervating physical grind. Says Carnesecca, "Think about it this way—coaching one NBA season equals about three or four college seasons."

"We must have 20,000 meetings a year," says Daly, the acknowledged master of getting a lot out of his players while getting along with them. "On a game day we might have a prepractice meeting, a meeting during practice, a postpractice meeting, a pre-game meeting, a halftime meeting and a postgame meeting. During a game we have seven timeouts and two 20-second timeouts, and they're all meetings. All those times, as a coach, you are making demands—some of them subtle, some of them not so subtle. I tell you, in any other business you'd have people revolting against the boss. It's just not natural to be together that much."

The final word belongs to Pitino: "I came back to college because I really enjoy the life outside of the lines with the college player. But for actually coaching the game, for learning every aspect of basketball, there is nothing like the NBA. To coach at that level was a truly humbling experience."

TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHBROWN (OPPOSITE. GIVING DAVID ROBINSON A LESSON). DALY (LEFT) AND LYNAM ALL HAD COLLEGE JOBSPHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSNATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSJACKSON (LEFT) THEORIZES; PHOENIX'S COTTON FITZSIMMONS FUMESPHOTOANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBA PROPERTIESTHE DALY STRAIN OF NBA COACHING IS EVIDENT IN DETROIT