It’s hard to imagine now, but there really was a time when NBA players didn’t rule the roost. There was a time—really, truly—when the players listened to the coach, obeyed orders, and felt privileged to play in the league.
The NBA coach of days gone by wore rumpled suits, chomped on cigars and taught things like the bounce pass and how to “deny” your man the basketball.
There were stars on the court, for sure. But for every Bill Russell, there was a Red Auerbach to rule with an iron fist.
The NBA coach had no assistant; he coached the team himself—offense and defense. He had the keys to the gym and made sure the trainer had enough tape. The coach helped make travel arrangements while also explaining the back door pass.
And the players listened.
It started to get away from the coaches during the late-1970s. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league and it became very evident that the fans paid to see superstar players play, not cerebral coaches teach and strategize.
Before long, the likes of Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan happened upon the scene and the coach became a foil—a second banana with a squirting daisy on his lapel.
It’s a player’s league, people say today. It’s a kind way of saying, “The coach can be replaced with a snap of certain players’ fingers.”
Today’s NBA coach is better off following the philosophy of the Pistons’ legendary Chuck Daly, who once described coaching the tallest millionaires in the world as akin to managing 12 different corporations.
Few coaches—if any—were better than Daly at making the players think that they were running the show, when it was “Daddy Rich” who was the real Great and Powerful Oz behind the curtain.
The so-called “player’s league” has chewed up and spit out another victim.
The New York Knicks, eons ago, lived in the penthouse of the NBA. Once, the Knicks were to basketball what the Canadiens were to hockey, what Shoemaker was to horse jockeying. Pro basketball and the Knicks went together like a pick and a roll.
It started as an East Coast game, pro basketball did, and you couldn’t get much more East Coast than New York City.
After some down years in the mid-1960s, the Knicks—with the help of a dreadful Pistons trade in which Detroit sent Dave DeBussschere to New York—not only got in the way of the vaunted Boston Celtics for league supremacy, they surpassed Auerbach and Bill Russell’s bunch.
The Knicks of Reed and Frazier and DeBusschere and Bradley won championships in 1970 and 1973.
The pro basketball team from Manhattan hasn’t won a championship since. They’ve only qualified for two NBA Finals—in 1994 and '99—since ‘73.
The Knicks tried it with a superstar center (Patrick Ewing) for about 12 years, surrounding Ewing with various and sundry mini-stars, but aside from ’94 and '99, they really didn’t come close to winning it all.
The latest victim of the “player’s league” is Mike D’Antoni.
D’Antoni resigned from the Knicks as coach this week, with the typical slings and arrows darting around him because of his supposedly tenuous relationship with superstar Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony, like Ewing, has the same amount of championship rings as you and I have.
D’Antoni joined the Knicks in 2008, in the midst of their latest state of disarray. It was yet another turbulent time inside Madison Square Garden, which was still shaking from the Isiah Thomas/Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment scandal.
D’Antoni then went out and did something unusual, for the Knicks: He brought some stability and a calming influence. It was only slightly less impressive than when Moses parted the Red Sea.
Then the Knicks acquired Anthony from Denver in February 2011, and the balance of power again shifted from coach to player.
The D’Antoni-Anthony drama was replaced on the back pages of the New York Post, temporarily, by “Linsanity”—the out-of-nowhere story of journeyman point guard Jeremy Lin and his ridiculous exploits in January and February.
The Knicks were winning games with Lin manning the point. They still weren’t anything close to elite, but they weren’t fodder for the Post’s cleverly stinging headlines on the back page—for a while.
Linsanity ebbed, the Knicks started losing again and the focus returned to D’Antoni and whether he had “lost” his players, something that happens a lot in this “player’s league.”
Stuck in a six-game losing streak, D’Antoni surprised everyone by turning in his coach’s whistle to his MSG bosses earlier this week.
Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, a firing victim with the New Jersey Nets a couple years ago, reacted with disgust to the circumstances surrounding D’Antoni’s resignation.
“That's a damn shame,” Frank told the Free Press before the Pistons faced the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
“Mike, one, is a hell of a coach, and a great guy. I'm sorry to hear that. That's ridiculous.”
Frank wasn’t done.
“(The Knicks) had to get their (mess) right,” Frank said. “They were over the cap, very high paid, underperforming, so they had to suck scum. They had all these guys on one-year deals. So finally, they go for it, without a true training camp, then they add talented players a couple weeks ago. It's a shame.”
It’s today’s NBA.
It didn’t do D’Antoni any favors that in their first game without him, the Knicks trounced Portland, 121-79.
Mike Woodson, an assistant and a former head coach himself, is the interim coach in New York. Good luck to him.
There were reports out of Orlando, in the days leading up to Thursday’s trading deadline, that Magic superstar center Dwight Howard had the power, if he wanted, to essentially have coach Stan Van Gundy fired.
The news barely made a ripple.
If reports came out of Boston that Bill Russell had the power to fire Red Auerbach, it would have been filed in the “man bites dog” category of journalism.
But that’s today’s NBA.
With all due respect to Lawrence Frank, et al, you gotta have a screw loose to want to coach these guys.