I was sitting in front of my TV watching game 3 of the NBA Championship Finals, enjoying it immensely, when a startling thought hit me. I like these guys! No, not the players—everybody likes Michael and Magic and their teammates. I liked the coaches.
The exact moment at which this struck me, I believe, was when yet another overhead camera shot of the Los Angeles Laker bench focused on the top of coach Mike Dunleavy's head. There, for all the world to see, was what we refer to these days as male pattern baldness, friar's-crown variation, in full retro-bloom. There was nothing unusual about that, really. Millions of male baby boomers are all too familiar with this hint of mortality and its variations: the receding hairline, the widow's-peak gallop, the full-scale multidirectional cranium exodus, etc.
But the beauty here was that Dunleavy had parted the remainder of his medium-length hair exactly as he always had, as though each and every follicle were flourishing. No hair plugs, no little rug, no weave, no shoe polish. Best of all, no typical NBA basketball coach grandstanding: no slick back, no perm, no sideburn part, no 20-foot single-hair swirl, no Versacian cotton candy froth-whip. In L.A., no less. On a televised event during which the halftime analysts spend their time tousling each other's locks as if they were wash boys at Mr. Eduardo's.
Dunleavy takes the same casual approach to his attire, which is smart but not flashy, what my mother would call "nice." His appearance is merely a reflection of his coaching philosophy—straight ahead, no frills, no GQ covers, let the players play. And I love it.
Same with the Chicago Bulls' coach, Phil Jackson. His hair is a graying, irreverent mass, seemingly an irritating distraction to the man. His attire is cautiously natty, except for the occasional flowered-drapery tie that harks back vaguely to his days as a medallion-wearing SoHo hippie who also played a mean defensive forward for the New York Knicks. During games these days Jackson stays so out of the way and under wraps that sometimes you wonder if he even joins the players during timeouts. His most familiar coaching gesture is to fold his arms on his chest, tilt his head to one side and squint at the court as though perusing a TV set that needs fine-tuning.
And yet we all know that these two men have done their coaching. Jackson has brought a team that seemed destined to play forever in the shadow of the Detroit Pistons into a nearly perfect state of selflessness and grace. And Dunleavy has merely replaced the wet-look genius Pat Riley and taken the Abdul-Jabbar-less Lakers to the Finals.
Dunleavy played his NBA ball with the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks. He never stood on ceremony. While an assistant coach for the Bucks he occasionally ripped off his tie and suspenders and played guard, looking a little like a Wall Street investment banker hooping it up with the big boys. Which he was.
In their own unself-conscious ways, what Dunleavy and Jackson both are acknowledging is that basketball is truly a player's game. Of course, we've heard that refrain a thousand times, usually from coaches who then go out and call every play, every box-out, every footstep for every one of their players who enters the game. And the TV announcer and his sidekick (always a former coach) eat it up. This player's game, they inform us, thrives only because of the brilliant machinations of the Einstein-like hair piles in thousand-dollar suits raging on the sidelines.
Baloney. Basketball's a simple game. Kids understand it on second viewing. Here's how you coach the Bulls: "Michael, take the ball and dribble around. After you've drawn enough defenders, leap into the air for a few seconds and pass off. Or dunk. Scottie, bump the hell out of Magic." For the Lakers: "Magic, play every second and run the offense. Everybody else bump the hell out of Jordan."
Those are great strategies, and these have been great games, and I like these coaches for staying out of our way. I am sick to death of coaches kneeling on the sidelines screaming through rolled-up programs at point guards who have only played 100 games this season for those coaches. I can't take many more scowling, furious, stalking martinets like Bobby Knight or Billy Tubbs. Oops, that's college hoops. Well, tell me, is there some reason why college basketball can't be a player's game, too?
I remember, while spending the summer of 1974 in Brooklyn writing about playground basketball in Flatbush, seeing this freckle-faced white kid come to the park to play a serious yet joyful brand of pickup ball with the local black kids. That kid was Dunleavy, then a sophomore at South Carolina. He stayed out of the way and caused no ripples whatsoever, except when he played.
And I sometimes now see Jackson at the gym in suburban Chicago where I play buckets with fellow gym rats. It's the same gym the Bulls use for practice, and Jackson often will stop to look at us hackers as he leaves his office after a day of breaking down film or whatever he does in his windowless room long after his racehorses have left the premises.
He will tilt his head and squint at us and, often as not, will look bemused—just as he does when Jordan breaks the laws of gravity. It's a nice look, in my opinion, and good for the game.