They are the Jacks-in-the-box of pro sports coaches. They bounce up from their chairs like someone rigged it with 5,000 volts. They do more pointing and screaming than a Manhattan traffic cop.
If you wanted to cast for an NBA head coach with any combination in Hollywood, past or present, you’d need Don Knotts, Robert DeNiro and Sam Kinison. And with John Gotti’s tailor.
They’re gym rats in sweats by day, models for the Men’s Wearhouse by night. Every one of them, it seems, speaks with an East Coast accent.
I have been following and covering the Pistons since 1970, and in that time Detroit has seen its share of doozies prowling the sidelines at Cobo Arena, the Silverdome and The Palace.
There was Bill (Butch) van Breda Kolff (1969-71), lover of steam baths, beer and technical fouls. VBK was leather lunged, cynical and impatient. After coaching his first home game as Pistons coach, VBK blasted the fans as less than smart.
VBK signed a two-year contract and when that ran out, he signed another. Not that he had a lot of faith in legal pacts when it came to coaching.
“Hell, they can always fire you,” VBK said. “And you can quit if you want to.”
Ten games into his third season—and that second contract—VBK quit the Pistons. He was fed up with the modern day player.
VBK was followed by Earl Lloyd, the first black player in NBA history—and a former Piston.
“When you sign on as a head coach, you’re signing your own walking papers,” Lloyd said. Seventy-seven games later, Lloyd’s walking papers were filed.
Next up was Ray Scott, a prince of a man and another former Piston who got you 17 points, 10+ boards a night, playing for some wretched teams in the 1960s. Scott put it into perspective when he got the job, promoted from assistant after his good friend Lloyd was fired.
“It was a bittersweet feeling,” Ray told the Detroit media from Portland, where the Pistons had given Lloyd the ziggy. “Like seeing your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Rolls Royce.”
Or something like that.
Scott won in Detroit, which was unusual, and was even the NBA Coach of the Year in 1974. Less than two years later, after admittedly losing his locker room, Scott got the ziggy.
Next up was Herbie Brown, a frenetic, nervous jitterbug whose fights with his players were often more the news than the game the Pistons played that night. Brown coached Marvin “Bad News” Barnes in Detroit, and in a crazy way, maybe Herbie was the most appropriate man in team history to have that as his charge.
The names are dizzying.
Brown gave way to Bob Kauffman, who was the GM and who had been a player in the NBA just a couple years prior. Kauffman coached for a few months then ran back into his GM’s office to hide.
In the spring of 1978, at a ridiculously bodacious ceremony at the Silverdome, the Pistons announced Dick Vitale as coach. Vitale spoke of “Pistons Paradise” and “ReVitaleIzation” and he never stopped talking until he was fired 94 games later—but not before he left the team bereft of draft choices, functioning as his own GM after Kauffman quit in exasperation.
Richie Adubato—Vitale’s assistant—was next, and he finished Vitale’s second season by going 12-58 and then returned to the anonymity of assistant coach for decades after leaving the Pistons.
Still with me?
Scotty Robertson was next and he was atypically cast. He spoke with the Southern drawl of an SEC football coach, for one. He was a heart attack survivor, for two. But he was refreshingly honest.
“We’re not very f***ing good,” he told the papers of his Pistons before they tipped the ball off for Scotty’s first season. He was right; the Pistons went 21-61 in Robertson’s first season.
Scotty actually lasted for three full seasons, which was the longest coaching stint of any Pistons coach since Fred Zollner moved his Fort Wayne team to Detroit in 1957.
But Scotty got the ziggy, of course, and Chuck Daly—whose resume was filled with the Ivy League and being a Philadelphia 76ers assistant and not much else—stepped in and stayed for nine years and won two championships.
Then it was Ron Rothstein, a former Daly assistant who was a broadcaster during Chuck’s last year and who campaigned vigorously for the job—shamelessly so—and then actually got the job and lasted one treacherous season.
The names continue.
Don Chaney. Doug Collins. Alvin Gentry. George Irvine.
The 21st century began with Joe Dumars as the GM and he hired Rick Carlisle as the team began to resurrect. Rick took the team to the NBA’s Final Four in 2003 but it wasn’t enough to avoid the ziggy.
Larry Brown, with a travelogue and a suitcase plastered with stickers, became coach and Larry led the Pistons to their third world championship and got a whisker away from another one the following year. But Larry was all about Larry, and his reported dalliance with the Cleveland Cavaliers—as he coached in the NBA Finals in 2005—spelled his doom in Detroit.
Flip Saunders, the old University of Minnesota guard and former Timberwolves coach, followed Brown and won a lot of games and lots of playoff series, but couldn’t get the Pistons back into the Finals.
Then it got tragic-comical.
Michael Curry. John Kuester. Larry Frank. Lots of losing, lots of internal fires to put out.
Forty-three years after Butch van Breda Kolff, here we are, with Maurice Cheeks about to begin his first season as Pistons coach.
Cheeks is the antithesis of an NBA head coach. He doesn’t scream. He actually sits down from time to time. He played significantly in the league—which hasn’t always been a prerequisite in Detroit.
Cheeks is lucky. He is the beneficiary of Dumars’ frantic off-season makeover of the Pistons roster—brought on by a win-or-else mentality brought forth by owner Tom Gores.
After watching some pre-season action, my take is that the Pistons are on to something. They’re a good mix of youth and experience, they’re athletic and they have a big man, Dre Drummond, who is already a beast.
And they have Cheeks, who has a champion’s pedigree as a player and who has had some success coaching in the NBA.
Besides, the Pistons can always fire him. And he can quit if he wants to.