He was the most colorful of all the Pistons coaches — including Dickie Vitale, because he lasted longer than Dickie and actually had some success. Plus, he quit. Dickie was last seen being dragged, kicking and screaming, from the Silverdome court during a game. A couple days later, Vitale was given the ziggy.
Bill (Butch) van Breda Kolff is gone. Dead at age 84. He was the Pistons coach from 1969-71, and boy, did he pack a lot of punch in his relatively short time here. But Butch spent a relatively short time everywhere he went. And he left stories in his wake.
There are a few I can recall, thanks to what I remember and what I’ve read. Butch met his future wife in the army brig; that’s pretty colorful. They were both in there for different transgressions, and sometime before they were released, the seeds of love had been planted. He loved beer and steambaths. Whenever he arrived at a new NBA town, he went in search for the nearest steambath house, when other folks were looking for the nearest pool hall or bar.
van Breda Kolff (right) as Princeton coach in the 1960s
VBK (that’s what they called him, probably thanks to weary headline writers) coached the Lakers in 1967-68 and ’68-69. Both years the Lakers went to the Finals. Both years they lost to the Celtics. In ’69, in Game 7, VBK famously left Wilt Chamberlain on the bench for some crucial fourth quarter minutes. Wilt couldn’t believe it. The press couldn’t believe it. But VBK had an attitude and a look that said, “BELIEVE it.” He was fired after that. VBK had a great line about Wilt and his lack of mobility. “If the basketball court was made of grass, Wilt would wear out a one-foot square patch,” Butch said.
So while the Pistons were in search (again) for a new coach in the summer of 1969, there was a well-known face at their draft table that June.
VBK was being courted, apparently, by Detroit. Although he failed to confirm that, even as he sat with Pistons executives on that draft day in 1969. But the Pistons did, indeed, hire VBK. And after the team drafted Bob Lanier in 1970, things took off — for a little while, anyway.
The ’70-71 Pistons streaked out of the gate at 9-0. It’s still the best start in franchise history. You can look it up. They finished, though, at 45-37 — stumbling toward the end and failing to make the playoffs. But it was the first time, since the team moved to Detroit in 1957, that any Pistons club had managed to win more games than it lost. It’s also the first season I remember following pro sports, and I have vivid memories of a TV news piece about VBK. The camera isolated on him on the sidelines. He was like an aerobics instructor. He was up. He was down. He lied down on the floor, on his stomach, looking for God knows what. He yelled at the refs. He yelled at his players. He yelled at the refs some more. He kicked a basketball into the crowd in anger. And this was one game.
The summer after that season, the Pistons gave VBK a shiny new contract. He wasn’t impressed.
“Hell, you can always quit if you want to. Or they can fire you,” VBK said of the written word.
In November ’71, his team 6-4, VBK quit, because he wanted to. He felt like the players were tuning him out. Just like that, his career in Detroit was over with.
He became a basketball vagabond after that, coaching in Phoenix for a little while, then New Orleans. Then some women’s team. A college. A high school. VBK did it all. Have whistle and chalkboard, will travel.
Once, while coaching in the ABA (he did that, too), VBK kicked another basketball. This time his shoe flew off with the kick. He was ejected and fined. He protested. The reason? The shoe, VBK pointed out, had traveled further than the basketball.
That was Butch for you.