The NBA coaching carousel is usually a study in perpetual
motion, but last week it spun especially fast as three coaches
jumped on board, two fell off and a sixth got himself a
Hall of Famer Larry Bird signed a contract with the Indiana
Pacers for a reported $4.5 million a season and partial
ownership of the team, sending residents of his native Indiana
into swoons worthy of Elvis worshipers.
Larry Brown, the man Bird replaced, became the new coach of the
struggling Philadelphia 76ers. By the time Brown resigned from
his Indiana job on April 30, he had already talked with Boston
Celtics officials about their coaching vacancy, but when it
became apparent that the University of Kentucky's Rick Pitino
was Boston's man, Brown quickly turned to Philly, which had
previously been spurned by Pitino. Sixers president Pat Croce
snagged Brown, a well-traveled coach (of two college teams and
six pro clubs) with a deserved reputation as a rebuilder of
young teams, by offering him all the money (five years, $25
million) and all the power (final say in all personnel
decisions) he desired.
Sacramento Kings coach Eddie Jordan deleted "interim" from his
title with a two-year, $1 million deal, but his signing was
dwarfed by the biggest coach's payday in NBA history: a 10-year
deal that Pitino says will pay him $7 million a year to coach
and serve as Celtics president for six seasons and another $2
million annually to continue as president from 2003 to 2007.
May 18, 1997
Pitino and, indirectly, Brown, were not the only beneficiaries
of Boston's largesse. Another was Tubby Smith, a former Pitino
assistant, whose five-year, reportedly $1 million-a-year deal to
replace Pitino at Kentucky represented a $395,000-a-year raise
on the salary he had been making at the University of Georgia.
Pitino's windfall also figures to affect the bank accounts of
Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson and of retired coach Chuck
Daly, who is on the Orlando Magic's wish list and may be
persuaded to return to the bench by the new pay scale.
Jackson's one-year, $2.75 million contract with the Bulls does
not expire until the end of the postseason, yet it's
increasingly apparent that Chicago has little interest in paying
market value for him. Sources say the Magic, the Golden State
Warriors and the Vancouver Grizzlies are willing--even eager--to
give Jackson's income a boost closer to the Pitino level. (The
Portland Trail Blazers, who fired P.J. Carlesimo last week, were
also in the market for a coach at week's end, but sources said
Mike Dunleavy, who recently resigned as general manager of the
Milwaukee Bucks, was close to signing a five-year deal.) "We're
just sitting here watching the coaching landscape change," says
Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger. "Two fine coaches who have
never won an NBA championship have just been paid exorbitant
amounts of money. What does that do to the worth of a man who
has won four titles and may win five?"
Even more intriguing than last week's events were two big
questions they posed, neither of which may be answered for some
The first: Can Larry Bird coach?
Revisit Bird's playing days. Late in Game 2 of the 1984 NBA
Finals, normally placid Celtics coach K.C. Jones grew agitated.
Boston was locked in an epic battle with the Los Angeles Lakers,
and the Celtics were sputtering offensively. Jones threw down
his clipboard and called a timeout. "The players came into the
huddle, and Larry grabbed me," Jones says. "He said, 'K.C., give
me the ball. I know what to do.'"
Jones said to Bird, "Shut up, Larry. I'm the coach of this
team." Then he turned to his other players. "Here's what I
want," he said. "Inbound the ball, get it to Larry, and
everybody else get the hell out of the way."
Jones will never forget the result of his exchange with Larry
Legend: Bird came up with a bucket, and the Celtics won. "Larry
was right," says Jones. "He knew exactly what to do. He was a
coach on the floor every night he played."
Boston went on to win the 1984 NBA title and another in '86.
They were the second and third of Bird's three championships
with the Celtics. In '92 he was forced to retire after 13
seasons with Boston because of an ailing back and swore he would
never coach in the NBA because of the rigors the traveling would
entail. (He particularly resisted the idea of coaching the
Celtics, with whom he wanted his image to remain untarnished.)
But time--and the Pacers' lucrative financial package--changed
his thinking. On Monday, Bird was formally introduced as the
Indiana coach, with a contract that will enable him to move into
the front office in four or five years, when Pacers president
Donnie Walsh is expected to retire.
Snagging Bird was a coup for the Pacers, who plan to build a new
arena and want to guarantee that there will be fans aplenty to
fill the seats. The return of a native son (of French Lick) and
a local hero (for his storied career at Indiana State) is
expected to provide a boost at the box office for the Pacers,
whose attendance fell to 15,530 per game this season from 16,438
A celebrity coach may give ticket sales a quick surge, but over
the long run it's how a coach's team does on the floor that
determines fan enthusiasm. Bird has no coaching experience on
any level, which leaves his qualifications for success open to
question. "He's a natural," says Los Angeles Clippers coach Bill
Fitch, who coached Bird in Boston from 1979 to '83. "He's got a
love for the game, and he doesn't need the money, and that's a
Great players have not generally made great coaches (chart,
above). The Atlanta Hawks' Lenny Wilkens, former 76ers coach
Billy Cunningham and Bill Sharman, who coached three NBA and ABA
teams, excelled. Magic Johnson's brief stint with the Lakers
three seasons ago was a disaster. Similarly, Wilt Chamberlain's
brief time on the bench produced a 37-47 record with the ABA's
San Diego Conquistadors during the 1973-74 season. Bill
Russell's coaching record was 341-290 (.540), but if his three
seasons as player-coach for Boston are discounted, his numbers
drop to 179-207. Another Celtics Hall of Famer, Bob Cousy, who
enjoyed little success as coach of the Cincinnati Royals and the
Kansas City-Omaha Kings from 1969 to '74, has a cautionary tale
for Bird. He says the pressure on him as a pro coach was so
intense, he would retreat to his hotel room and guzzle glasses
of scotch. "And I wasn't even a drinker," Cousy adds.
Yet the men who coached Bird insist he has the right tools for
the job. Jones recalls an incident during Game 1 of the first
round of the 1988 playoffs, when Pitino was coaching the New
York Knicks and wreaking havoc with his trapping defense.
According to Jones, Bird signaled a timeout, grabbed the
clipboard and diagrammed where his teammates should pass the
ball to avoid New York's pressure. "It's instinctive with him,"
says Bucks coach Chris Ford, who played with Bird from 1979 to
'82 and coached him from '90 to '92. "It's a God-given gift that
enables him to see things and process them quickly."
As evidence, Ford points to Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern
Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. With the series
tied at two games each, the Celtics trailed by one with five
seconds to play, and Detroit was about to inbound the ball. As
Pistons guard Isiah Thomas prepared to put the ball into play,
Bird turned and ran up the floor with his head down, seemingly
not focusing on the action about to unfold. But the instant
Thomas inbounded the ball, Bird reversed direction, stole the
pass and fed driving guard Dennis Johnson with a textbook pass
for a layup. Boston won the game and the series. "You couldn't
have diagrammed that situation any better," says Ford. "You
can't teach guys to be that aware." And that may be Bird's
biggest obstacle to coaching success: He, like some other Hall
of Famers who have coached before him, simply may not be able to
understand that his players, no matter how hard they try, are
unable to play the game as well as he did.
Then there's the matter of how well Bird will relate to today's
athletes. "Larry was never very patient with guys who didn't
work hard," says former teammate Robert Parish, who at 43 is
still playing center for Chicago. "I can't see that part of him
changing, and that could be a problem." So could the Pacers'
first long slump; as a Celtic, Bird never lost more than four
games in a row.
Fitch claims Bird played with enough teammates who took the easy
way out that the Generation X player won't be a shock. He also
points to Bird's use of psychology to motivate his teammates. In
the 1980-81 and '83-84 championship seasons, Bird publicly
heaped praise on Boston forward Cedric Maxwell and guard Gerald
Henderson, key players who often went unnoticed. He did the same
in 1985-86 with Dennis Johnson, who felt underappreciated in the
long shadows of Bird, Parish and forward Kevin McHale until Bird
proclaimed him "the best I ever played with."
Bird's status as basketball messiah in Boston is one reason that
McHale believes Bird is better off coaching the Pacers. "Once
you play for the Celtics, you get put on a different level in
Boston," says McHale, who returned to his native state of
Minnesota to run the Timberwolves. "Larry's comfort level in
Indiana is much higher. They revere him, but they leave him
alone. His friends are there. His family is there. I think it's
a perfect situation for him."
There are other advantages to the Pacers, even though Indiana
finished 39-43 this season and missed the playoffs for the first
time in eight years. The Indiana roster features veterans such
as guard Reggie Miller, center Rik Smits and forward Dale Davis,
who have been as far as the conference finals. "They remember
Bird as a player," says McHale. "He has credibility with them.
They're figuring, He's been to the top. Maybe he can get us
Bird solicited at least 30 opinions on whether he should take
the Indiana job, and nothing he heard scared him away from the
challenge. "I'll have fun watching Larry coach," says Ford. "He
never understood how tough it was. He'll find out."
The second question: Is Rick Pitino worth $7 million a year?
To Boston chairman of the board Paul Gaston he is. The Celtics
won their last NBA title in 1986. Some of the novelty of their
two-year-old arena, the FleetCenter, has worn off, as shown by
an attendance decrease from 17,874 a game in 1995-96 to 16,196
this season. Boston had a 15-67 record (second worst in the NBA,
after the Grizzlies' 14-68) and an abominable 1-23 mark in the
Atlantic Division in '96-97. Furthermore, ownership was worried
that Bird, the Celtics' special assistant and the fans' favorite
to take over from M.L. Carr as head of basketball operations,
would fly the coop, leaving Boston with a public relations
debacle. Gaston needed instant credibility from a dynamic coach
who could offset Larry Legend's departure, rejuvenate the fan
base and revive the team.
The choice was obvious: Pitino. By landing the college coach
most coveted by teams in the NBA, the Celtics reaped immediate
financial dividends, including 1,000 new applications for season
tickets in the three days following Pitino's hiring. Boston can
also rest assured that when its television and radio contracts
expire next summer, there will be plenty of bidders.
It is not coincidental that the Celtics' two most glaring
weaknesses on the floor this season--defense and discipline--are
Pitino's forte. The fact that Pitino will be paid more than any
player on the Celtics' roster (forward-center Dino Radja is the
top earner at $5.3 million a season) will further empower him.
So will his title as president, heretofore held by Red Auerbach,
who used to symbolize the Celtics. The 79-year-old Auerbach, who
now has the title of vice chairman, has been less active in the
past decade, leaving matters to a masthead top-heavy with
executives who often confused other teams looking to make deals
with Boston. Too often, general managers asked, "Who's running
the show up there?"
There no longer will be any doubt. Gaston ordered a
housecleaning of his organization before bringing Pitino aboard,
forcing the resignation of general manager Jan Volk and the
reassignment of Carr, who was director of basketball operations
as well as coach. He will now handle corporate development. Want
to talk trade? Pitino is now the Celtics. Period.
His charisma and his history of success with the Knicks and
three college teams (Boston University and Providence in
addition to Kentucky) should serve Pitino well as he looks to
revamp the Celtics' roster. Since its last NBA title Boston has
failed to sign a free agent of any significance. The Celtics
thought they had one when they lured Xavier McDaniel from the
Knicks in 1992, but the X-man couldn't return Boston to title
contention. Dominique Wilkins became a Celtic with much fanfare
in '94, but his career was clearly in decline. Meanwhile, top
potential free agents such as Alonzo Mourning, Horace Grant and
Danny Manning had no interest in what Boston was selling. The
Celtics hope Pitino will change that, the way Pat Riley did when
he assumed control of the Miami Heat. Does anyone believe that
before Riley's arrival, Mourning gave even a passing thought to
playing for the Heat?
The foundation for making Boston attractive to free agents could
well be laid this Sunday, when the order of the draft lottery is
announced. The Celtics have two high picks (their own and that
of the Dallas Mavericks, acquired in the trade that sent center
Eric Montross to the Mavs) and the best chance (slightly more
than 36%) of any team of landing the No. 1 pick, which they
would use to draft Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan. "You take
Pitino, the two draft picks and the Celtic tradition, and we'll
be back on top before you know it," says Auerbach.
Well, maybe not that soon. Though he inherits a potential
All-Star in second-year swingman Antoine Walker, who played for
him at Kentucky, Pitino is also stuck with several players who
have long-term contracts that reduce salary-cap flexibility,
among them Radja (three years left at almost $16 million) and
guards Dee Brown (three years, $11.2 million) and Dana Barros
(four years, $14.1 million). In the immediate future, Pitino
plans to reinvent the players he has. He recognizes their
shortcomings, but, he says, "I promise you, they will be in the
best shape of their lives."
Or else. With $7 million each season backing him up, Pitino
should have no trouble getting his message across.
History is no guide to how Larry Bird (left) will fare as a
coach. Of the players named to the NBA's list of 50 greatest
alltime, 15 have coached in the league or in the ABA (minimum:
10 games). Six have winning records, and four have led teams to
NBA titles: Billy Cunningham (76ers in 1983), Bill Russell
(player-coach, Celtics in '68 and '69), Bill Sharman (Lakers,
'72) and Lenny Wilkens (SuperSonics, '79).
COACH SEASONS RECORD
ELGIN BAYLOR 4 86-135
WILT CHAMBERLAIN 1 37-47
BOB COUSY 5 141-209
DAVE COWENS* 2 81-69
BILLY CUNNINGHAM 8 454-196
DAVE DEBUSSCHERE 3 79-143
MAGIC JOHNSON 1 5-11
GEORGE MIKAN 1 9-30
WILLIS REED 4 82-124
BILL RUSSELL 8 341-290
DOLPH SCHAYES 5 151-172
BILL SHARMAN 10 466-353
WES UNSELD 7 202-345
JERRY WEST 3 145-101
LENNY WILKENS* 24 1,070-876
FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BUCKS
Despite his many championships, maybe the Celtics' Red Auerbach
(above) was born too early, as shown by the appreciation of NBA
SEASON COACH, TEAM SALARY
1950-51 RED AUERBACH, Celtics $10,000
1970-71 RED HOLZMAN, Knicks* $65,000
1977-78 WILLIS REED, Knicks $125,000
1988-89 LARRY BROWN, Spurs $700,000
1992-93 CHUCK DALY, Nets $1.3 million
1995-96 PAT RILEY, Heat* $3 million
1997-98 RICK PITINO, Celtics* $7 million
*Duties include executive responsibilities and/or a share of
The $3 Million Club
Led by Rick Pitino (above), here are the NBA coaches who, as
things stand now, will earn the top salaries in the 1997-98
season. (Only George Karl, should he return to the SuperSonics,
would not have executive responsibilities and/or a share of
COACH SALARY (EST.) HIGHEST-PAID PLAYER
1. RICK PITINO, Celtics $7.0 million DINO RADJA,
2. LARRY BROWN, 76ers $5.0 million DERRICK COLEMAN,
3. LARRY BIRD, Pacers $4.5 million REGGIE MILLER,
4. GEORGE KARL, SuperSonics $3.5 million GARY PAYTON,
5. PAT RILEY, Heat $3.0 million ALONZO MOURNING,
6. JOHN CALIPARI, Nets $3.0 million KENDALL GILL,