David DeBusschere was all of 24 years old when he sat down for a drink in an East Side Detroit bar in November, 1964 with Detroit Pistons brass.
The location was appropriate. DeBusschere had been a high school star athlete at Austin Catholic High School, on the city’s East side. He specialized in throwing—baseballs to the plate and basketballs toward the hoop.
Inside the bar that evening, Pistons owner Fred Zollner and general manager Don Wattrick floated an idea past DeBusschere, who by then had been entrenched as the Pistons’ star player after a ballyhooed college career at the University of Detroit.
The idea was pretty simple, yet bold. Others would use different adjectives for it, hardly complimentary.
Hey, would you coach the team? DeBusschere was asked.
Over beers, the plan was hatched and DeBusschere accepted. At 24, he would become the player-coach of the Detroit Pistons, a franchise that had moved to the Motor City in 1957 and which had already suffered some ignominious moments, such as playing playoff games against the Lakers in a Grosse Pointe High gymnasium, because Olympia Stadium was busy and Cobo Arena had yet to be built. There was also the time the team was sent a school bus instead of a chartered bus to transport NBA players to a game. Wilt Chamberlain, no less, somehow managed to curl his long legs enough so he could sit in the tiny yellow bus.
DeBusschere’s promotion had the expected results, i.e. it didn’t work. Dave was 79-143 as the Pistons coach before it became painfully evident that Zollner’s bright idea had not been so bright, after all. DeBusschere was relieved and Donnis Butcher took over as coach.
The Pistons, from their move to Fort Wayne to spring, 1983, had a reputation for burning through coaches every two years or so—if not sooner. Sometimes the coaches quit, saving the team from firing them. Many of the coaches were hated by the players. Some proved to be incompetent. But what do you expect from a franchise that, in the ’60s, moved their radio announcer (Wattrick) into the GM chair? Zollner, the owner, was an out-of-towner, based in Florida. He would occasionally jet in to take in a game or two.
Who does that sound like?
But in May 1983, the Pistons, forever cursed with bad luck, it seemed, finally had the basketball gods smiling down on them.
That was when Chuck Daly was introduced as coach by GM Jack McCloskey, who literally flipped Daly a basketball and told Chuck to “go get ’em” at the intro presser.
Daly, on the surface, didn’t have much on his resume for the fans to get excited about.
Daly was a college coach at Penn, which is where McCloskey coached for years as well. The pair met on the college coaching circuit in the late-1960s. When the Pistons hired him, Daly’s NBA “pedigree” consisted of 41 games as head coach of the Ted Stepien-owned Cleveland Cavaliers (9-32 record) and some time on the Philadelphia 76ers bench as an assistant to Billy Cunningham. That was it.
The Pistons got lucky, because Daly was at least the third choice of McCloskey’s, after Jack McKinney and Jack Ramsay turned him down. Phil Johnson was rumored to have turned the Pistons down, too.
From those less-than-stellar NBA creds, Daly ended up becoming a Hall of Fame Coach—a two-time NBA champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist.
But aside from Daly’s nine years in Detroit, the Pistons have always been a franchise that shoots coaches on schedule.
The roster of Pistons coaches from 1957-83, then again from 1992 to current, shows that longevity means staying on for three years.
So this deal of Pistons GM Joe Dumars changing coaches almost as frequently as we change the oil in our cars, is really nothing new to this franchise. The Pistons have been doing this for 57 years, with a nine-year break in between.
Maurice Cheeks is out, in the latest forced abdication from the coaching throne. Someone named John Loyer, Cheeks’ lead assistant, is in—for now.
The Pistons have done that a few times, too—promote an assistant into first chair.
One of those promoted coaches was Ray Scott, who took over for the fired Earl Lloyd in 1972.
“It’s not easy,” Scott told Al Beaton and me on “The Knee Jerks” podcast on Sunday night, mere hours after Pistons owner Tom Gores, the out-of-towner based in L.A., gave Cheeks the ziggy.
“The thing is, as an assistant, you know what the team should be doing,” Scott said.
Scott himself would get the ziggy, in January, 1976. Assistant coach Herb Brown, a disloyal opportunist, was promoted.
With Cheeks out after 50 games, Loyer has a 32-game audition. Gores wants playoffs or else. The Pistons are on the fringes of qualifying for a spot. And Loyer has 32 games to show what he’s got. And even then, it may not be enough to be offered the job beyond this season—especially when someone like Lionel Hollins is looming, unemployed as a coach.
It’s slapstick right now with the Pistons, but aside from Daly’s run and the success from 2003-2008 (three championships in those two eras), the Pistons have been bouncing basketballs off their sneakers and out of bounds since moving to Detroit in 1957.
Gores, like Zollner was, is proving himself to be an impatient, impetuous owner. That is actually a breath of fresh air in these parts, where the football team’s owner is patient and loyal to a fault.
With Cheeks dismissed, the spotlight turns to GM Dumars, whose contract expires after the season. The natives have been restless for a few years, but now even the national media is calling for Joe’s ouster. Lists of Dumars’ ill-advised moves have been compiled by those outside of Detroit and splashed onto the Internet for national consumption.
It is unclear whether Gores has a plan beyond his “playoffs or else” mandate. The owner flew into town a week ago Saturday, gave a less-than-thrilled assessment of the team to the media, and then flew back to California. Some say that Gores made up his mind to fire Cheeks on the plane out west, if not sooner.
John Loyer becomes yet another little-known assistant to become Pistons coach in mid-season, after guys like Herb Brown and Alvin Gentry before him. And Ray Scott, who wasn’t little-known in Detroit (a stellar playing career as a Piston ensured that), but who was also an assistant-turned head coach. So was George Irvine, who had head coaching experience before taking over for the deposed Gentry in 2000.
The Pistons even moved Bob Kauffman from GM to coach in 1977, to replace Herb Brown.
And don’t forget the ill-advised promotion of young player DeBusschere to coach.
Chuck Daly came in and restored order for nine years, winning two championships along the way.
But mostly it’s been calliope music, tents and three rings.