The Pistons bench and coach Chuck Daly get ready to celebrate as the final seconds pass in their win in Game 5 of the 1988 Eastern Conference finals. (The Detroit News)
They called him Daddy Rich for his fine suits and coiffed hair, and the moniker was perfect, but for reasons deeper than that. Freely and happily, Chuck Daly passed the wealth to those around him.
He rarely took credit for his vast accomplishments, from coaching the Pistons' Bad Boys to NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, to melding gigantic egos while directing the original Dream Team to the Olympic gold medal in 1992.
For Daly, who never was coach of the year in 13 NBA seasons, success always was about someone else -- about the players, about Isiah Thomas, about the Pistons' brain trust of owner Bill Davidson and general manager Jack McCloskey. He never professed to be the greatest basketball tactician and he didn't really care who knew it. But my goodness, the man knew how to lead and communicate without acclaim, with a feistiness that often melted to a rumbling laugh.
Daly passed away Saturday morning at 78 after battling pancreatic cancer, and his legacy is both large and simple and can be summed up like this: He changed things.
He turned the Pistons from a direction-less team focused on offense with the young Thomas, into the toughest-minded, toughest-defending team in NBA history. While the Pistons' coach from 1983-92, Daly altered a franchise and changed a league, the right leader at the right time. In his nine seasons, the Pistons reached the playoffs every year and never won fewer than 46 games.
The Pistons needed an identity, and in Detroit, the Bad Boys were as embraced as any group ever here. Daly was the no-superstar coach in a no-superstar town in a superstar-driven league, and he let his players do what they did best. He helped end the Celtics' and Lakers' dynasties and delayed Michael Jordan's rise, and along the way, forced the NBA (and its rule-makers) to recognize there were different ways to win than just collecting the best players and letting them run.
Substance and style
For all his style, don't ever, ever underestimate the depth of Daly's substance. He was a good and likable man, a Hall-of-Famer who took disparate pieces and dominant personalities and put them together, first with the Bad Boys, later with the Dream Team. He considered himself a steady manager of people more than an iron-fisted coach. He led strong-willed teams without taking himself too seriously, and it worked because the players respected him.
"We were all young kids, trying to find our way and carve out a niche in a place traditionally dominated by the big guys," Thomas said in an ESPN interview Saturday. "Chuck came along and put his arms around us and taught us how to win, gave us the courage to compete and stand up and not settle. The world wanted to see L.A. and Boston -- and Chuck gave us the courage to compete with those teams."
It wasn't Daly's style to trumpet how he directed the Bad Boys to their thrashing of the NBA's gaudy elite. In fact, when asked why he ramped up the defense and ferocity, he'd usually shrug.
"That was a special era, we were unlike any team in the NBA," he said. "But frankly, we couldn't do it any other way."
Thomas was brilliant and Joe Dumars wasn't far behind. But the other pieces -- Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Mark Aguirre -- were much less individually than as a whole.
Watch an old clip from a Bad Boys' game and listen in the huddle as the camera zooms in and Daddy Rich is crouching in his fine suit and yelling into the faces of his players, "No easy field goals! Make it tough, make it tough! No easy field goals!"
Substance over style, where it really mattered.
A true players' coach
As word spread around the league of Daly's passing Saturday, condolences and remembrances flooded in, and there was an amazing commonality to them. "A mentor and a friend" -- those were almost the exact words used again and again. Former Pistons coach and TV commentator Doug Collins said it. So did Thomas and Dumars and others.
Daly loved the good things in life -- good friends, a good meal (at his beloved Ginopolis' in Farmington Hills), a good suit and the occasional good, hard foul. He shared it all, the laughs and stories and basketball secrets, willing to embrace anyone. He took a young player out of a small Oklahoma college and made him believe he could do special things, and Dennis Rodman was never the same after Daly left.
"I thought he was a genius at making complicated things seem very simple," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But more importantly, he was a great guy to be around."
Daly's passing wasn't stunning -- he had been in grave condition for a while -- but it still stirred many emotions. If you marked the day by watching Bad Boys highlights, the eyes had to mist up a bit.
The man's simple genius was readily apparent, especially with his use of the infamous "Jordan Rules." The NBA didn't like the physical play. Jordan hated it. But while many abhorred the Bad Boys, they couldn't despise Daly. Even the sardonic Charles Barkley was moved Saturday to say, "I never understood how a great man, a nice guy, coached the Bad Boys."
Daddy Rich played all the big rooms and many of the small ones, rising through the college ranks at Boston College and Penn before finally landing an NBA head coaching gig with Cleveland in 1981. He was fired after 41 games.
So in 1983, the Pistons hired a coach with an NBA career record of 9-32, a 52-year-old guy who was doing broadcast work for the 76ers. Daly never forgot his humble beginnings and often said he'd coach only as long as the players let him. It was about them, not him, that was his mantra, and it never changed.
"He subordinated his ego to the team's ego," said Brendan Malone, an assistant under Daly in Detroit and now with Orlando. "He didn't want to be bigger than the players."
In his own way, in his vibrant style, Daddy Rich enriched many. As another of Detroit's great sports icons sadly slips into memory, Daly's impact will be felt forever. And no matter what he always said, that's to his credit, fully and finally.