The day had gone just like Chuck Daly planned it, with no tears, no resentment, no regrets. Maybe this last year on the job had been pure torture, but this last day as head coach of the Pistons would be nothing of the sort. This last day was going to be on his terms, and on his turf.
This was his farewell party, and throughout his Great Northern restaurant in West Bloomfield, were family and friends, well-wishers and old adversaries. Everyone in the place laughed and joked and drank and ate and passed out a ton of good wishes. And Daly, the best professional basketball coach Detroit has ever seen, worked the room like any good Irish saloonkeeper would, bounding from the bar to the dining room, glad-handing patrons and players, good friends and perfect strangers, no doubt spinning a bit of the old blarney, too.
"This is an Irish wake," Daly crackled as he stood up in front of the crowd, "but I'm half Scottish, so you can only have one drink and just a little food."
There was not a hint of sadness or anger in his voice as Daly announced his resignation as head coach of the Pistons. He was saying farewell, even though we all know there is a lot of coaching left in him, coaching that will be done in some other city, with some other players, in front of an arena filled with strangers.
So why is he leaving? That is the nagging question that seemed to ring out in the room to all the outsiders who didn't know much about the inner heartbeat of the Pistons. Why was he leaving? This is the man who had come in here nine seasons ago and turned the Pistons into something worth watching. Back-to-back NBA crowns, three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, five straight visits to the Eastern Conference finals, three straight Central Division crowns. The most successful man to ever sit on the end of the bench. So why was he leaving?
"Because it's just time," Daly said with a crooked smile spreading across his face. "It's just time."
It was just time. That seemed to be enough to say. It was time to go because after nine long, often glorious years, the thrill was gone. The relationship between players and coach, coach and general manager, had simply run its course. It happens to the best ones sooner or later. It happened to Pat Riley in Los Angeles. It happened to Red Holzman in New York.
"After all this time, your voice loses a certain affect," Daly said. "How many times can a John Salley keep on listening to the same thing."
It is a shame, of course, that he has to go. Every coach and every player, no matter how great, has to leave sometime. But the shame in Daly's departure is that his farewell season did not provide him with a more fitting end to a wondrous run in Motown. It should have ended with Daly and the Pistons rolling downtown on another parade float with another gleaming championship trophy firmly in their hands. It should have ended in fine fashion.
Instead, it nearly ended with all this turmoil, with a championship team in decline. It nearly ended with this damned regrettable family feud spoiling everything, with all of us spending the 1991-92 season wondering if all these guys who had worked so well together to build one of the grandest franchises in the league were all going to end up killing each other, and overshadowing all the fine things that Daly has contributed to the Pistons.
Yes, it almost ended that way.
But Daly was simply too smooth, too cool, too wise, too classy to have it end like that. So he called us all together at his saloon on Orchard Lake Road and had his professional career in Detroit end the only way it should. With class, with no resentment, no regrets.
It was like he was accepting an Oscar or Emmy; he thanked everyone ... Zeke and Laimbeer ... Jack McCloskey and Bill Davidson ... Tripucka, Mahorn, John Long ... Aguirre and Dumars ... Dantley and Worm ... his wife and daughter. ...
And everyone left smiling, just like he wanted. No tears. No anger. "It's been a blast," he said. "It's been a hell of a run."
As the crowd began to thin out in the back of the restaurant, a tight circle of friends huddled around Daly and handshakes and backslaps were passed out. Now it was time for one final, fitting tribute to the best professional basketball coach the city of Detroit has ever seen. On the road, Daly and his three closest traveling companions -- assistants Brendan Malone, Brendan Suhr and trainer Mike Abdenour -- have a little dinner tradition. "Before every dinner, we make a little toast," Abdenour said. "'To our continued health and success.'"
But there would be no more dinners on the road for these four men. The gang was being broken up. Daly was saying goodbye. In the back of the room, the four good friends gathered together, filled four glasses with smooth Irish whisky, then raised them high for one final toast.
A ring of minicams and motor drives whirled and clicked, and the four men smiled at the bright, flashing lights. As the glasses rose high and touched, you could barely hear Abdenour's voice above the swirl.
"This time, I didn't say, 'to our continued health and success,'" Abdenour said. "This time it was only for Chuck."
And with that, an entire town seemed to be saying, "I'll drink to that."