1990-91 Remembered: Chris Ford on the Hot Seat

Before the 2007-08 campaign, the 1990-91 season was the last time I thought we had a chance to win it all. Of course, we didn't. But if you go out to Amazon, you'll find a book entitled "Unfinished Business" about the Celtics 1990-91 season.

The seminal quote is from the Bucks coach who said he thought that year's Celtics were playing as well or better than the 1986 squad.

That was before Bird got hurt.

In honor of the great basketball played before Bird's injury, I offer this series.

It was only an exhibition game, the final exhibition game, but Kevin McHale wanted one more test. And the guy to provide it was Karl Malone.

Coach Chris Ford, however, wasn't so sure he liked the idea. He told McHale to guard someone else. He already had seen enough of the Mailman. But McHale balked. And Ford retreated, somewhat.

"You haven't stopped him all night," Ford chided McHale. "What makes you think you can do it now?"

Afterward, McHale was asked about the exchange.

"Chris has an unbelievably good bench demeanor," McHale said. "I really thought he'd be a psycho when he became head coach because all he ever did was yell at us when he was an assistant. But he's pretty cool."

Ford's vast reservoir of cool will be tested for real tonight, when the NBA season begins and wins and losses mean something. He is the third Celtics coach in the last four years and one of six new head coaches in a league that turns over such jobs with frightening regularity.

So far, so good. The Celtics look to be improved and Ford hasn't gone ballistic more than once or twice a game. He has the Celtics running. He has them working on defense. He has their backing and their respect.

He is stepping into a familiar, yet difficult situation. He watched as his friend and immediate boss, Jimmy Rodgers, underwent a dramatic personality change, lost control of the team and, eventually, his job. Ford was spared, but then twisted in the wind while new basketball boss Dave Gavitt courted Mike Krzyzewski. Eventually, Gavitt came to the conclusion that Ford was the right man at the right time to resuscitate the Celtics.

There were no reservations about accepting the offer, only concerns about the nature of the job and the toll it takes. Ford's wife, Kathy, recalled the day the offer came through.

"It was right for us, but I had reservations about the pressures," she said. "I saw what Donna Rodgers went through, and it was traumatic. I see why I had those reservations. You can philosophize all you want and prepare yourself the best you can, but when it comes, you're still not ready for it.

"Chris watched what happened to Jimmy and K.C. Jones and learned from it," she continued. "Everyone told him, 'If your personality changes, we're going to kick you in the butt.' Then he said, 'What do you want me to do, say no?' "

He said yes. Now he has the job and the pressures that go with it. Despite the inherent drawbacks of the profession and the unending and sometimes unjustifed expectations of fans and management, Ford is ready to embark on his first head coaching job at any level. He is relaxed, confident and content. He also knows things can change just like that.

"Will I become stressed out? I don't know. I hope not. But you never know," he said.

Although he has not coached, this is not unfamiliar turf. He had been an assistant since the 1983-84 season. He spent 10 years in the NBA as a player, the final 3 1/2 with the Celtics. In those 10 years, he played for eight coaches, ranging from Bill Fitch to Dick Vitale.

He got an early introduction to the arbitrary nature of NBA coaching when Earl Lloyd was fired seven games into Ford's rookie season. He saw Jones step aside. He saw Rodgers disassemble when misfortune and management blunders stripped the team of its best players.

"I've learned every step of the way," Ford said. "I've seen it all every step of the way. Some things you have no control over and you still get fired. Jimmy won 52 games and got the ax. It happens. It's the nature of the beast. Players come and go. Coaches come and go. There's always turnover. That's just the profession I chose."

The Fords made a deal the day he accepted the job. Kathy wouldn't read the papers. "I'm too thin-skinned. I know it," she said. They also agreed that Kathy would screen all phone calls, though with four children, that isn't always easy.

"I don't think it's going to be a problem for Chris, I really don't," Kathy said. "I think he had more pressure as a player. The hardest part of all this was actually getting the job. All the waiting. Then I felt like the pressure was off."

But she acknowledges it soon will be on again. So does her husband. Coaching the Celtics in the 1980s meant one thing: Anything less than a title wouldn't cut it. The Celtics of the 1990s may feel that way, but there won't be the automatic assumption of greatness that accompanied Jones' clubs.

Ford wants to make it fun. He admitted it was not that way the last two years. If it's fun, he reasons, he'll get the most out of what he has.

"I think what I've learned is that you have to be flexible. You can't have an iron-fisted rule, a dictatorship. You've got to be able to bend," Ford said. "You don't want to give in. But you've got to be able to bend. You have to be a counselor to these guys. They are like 12 kids. You have to know when to prod them and when to give the needle. But you don't want to browbeat them.

"I'm proud to be the head coach of the Boston Celtics," he added. "I was thrilled to death to be a player on the Boston Celtics. These are things I enjoy. If it doesn't work out, I know I'm going to be able to say I gave it my best shot."


Michael said...

I just read that book. Pretty interesting overall. Kind of harsh on Johnny Most though, of all people.

Lex said...

I don't recall the Most discussion.

What did it say?

Michael said...

Well, I'm too lazy to transpose the actual text here, but pp. 95-97 get straight to the author's feelings about Johnny. McCallum was to varying degrees contemptuous and derisive of Most. He said Most's "legend" was largely due to the fact that he had good timing; he happened to be along for the ride that was the Celtics original dynasty. He thought Most was an ignorant homer basically and "otherwise intelligent" people in New England loved him for no good reason.

It seemed like McCallum also went out of his way to go at Red Auerbach. He didn't deny Red his greatness, but he had a good old time playing up Auerbach's decline and outdatedness. Obviously with 16 rings under his belt he couldn't really bash Red or his accomplishments, but he wanted to give an insider's look and demystify the Auerbach legend somewhat.

Call me a homer, but those parts rubbed me the wrong way.

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