Coaching in the NBA in 1980

October 10, 1980

Once upon a time, the symbol of a professional basketball coach was a whistle. Now it's a briefcase.

Once upon a time, the National Basketball Assn. firmly believed that boys were boys and men were men and that the definition of the former was "college coach" and that the definition of the latter was "ex-NBA player."

This is no mere hyperbolic statement. Exactly fifteen seasons ago (1965-66), the NBA consisted of nine teams, eight coached by ex-players (familiar names all: Schayes, Gallatin, Seymour, Schaus, Hannum, Guerin, McMahon and DeBusscherre) and the ninth coached by the man who invented professional basketball, the estimable Arnold J. Auerbach. Teams ran a limited number of set patterns - who will ever forget Red's set-in-stone seven basic plays? Clubs relied on fast breaks to offset their lower level of shooting (Detroit, the lowest scoring team, nonetheless scored 110.3 ppg while shooting .409 from the floor). It was presumed that any player entering the league was skilled at time-honored staples of basketball play such as the pick-and-roll and the back-door cut.

Team defense, for the clubs unfortunate enough not to have Bill Russell (or even Wilt Chamberlain), consisted of a straight man-to-man, the intensity of which depended on the makeup of the individual practitioner. Directing people toward specific areas, trapping or other zone-related practices were largely unknown.

Training camp was an exercise conducted solely to get the veterans in shape. Teams played 15 or more exhibition games for conditioning purposes only. Midseason practices consisted of scrimmaging, followed by more scrimmaging. Professional basketball had more than a little in common with professional hockey in this regard, although the two were only dimly aware of each other's existence.

It was a compact, xenophobic world in which one did what one did because That's The Way Everybody Does It, and it was to the NBA of 1980 what a Model A is to a Porsche.

The world's greatest basketball league has now entered the computer age, and it has done so without sacrificing its inherent charm. Unlike the NFL, which operates in the sterile manner of a mini-Kremlin, the NBA is still an earthy, people-oriented league. NBA GMs not only return your phone calls, but they also have been known to send your wife flowers when the bambino arrives.

But we digress. The subject is coaching, and there is no question that coaching is not what it used to be. Remember our All-Men coaching lineup in 1965? Well, here's the new box score: Boys (college coaches) 14, Men (ex-pros) 9. Yup, 14 of the 23 NBA coaches have never played a second of NBA basketball.

The trend started in 1967, when then Los Angeles general manager Fred Schaus, himself a paid-up member of the Ex-Player's Coaching Club, recommended to Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke that he hire as his own successor, one William (Butch) van Breda Kolff, the highly successful coach of Princeton. True, college mentors (Eddie Donovan of St. Bonaventure, for example) had occasionally been employed during the '60s, but this selection of the bombastic Dutchman kicked off the coaching revolution, especially since VBK proceeded to take his team to a 52-30 season and a berth in the championship finals.

"I had seen Bill's teams play and was very impressed," Schaus, now the athletic director of Purdue, explains. "He was a good teacher of fundamentals, and yet his teams were loose. He knew how to use his teams' strengths and cover up his weaknesses, which is a lot of what pro coaching is all about, in my opinion.

"The basic problem in the league as I saw it was that very talented players were coming into the league lacking fundamentals. It was evident that more teaching would have to be done, so the place to look was the colleges."

But the man who really dragged the NBA into the 20th century was Jerry Colangelo, who has become to Phoenix basketball what Red Auerbach is to Boston. The story goes back to 1968 when Colangelo was working for Chicago and the Bulls were thinking about a college assistant to work with Johnny Kerr. "I had been to Pocatello, Idaho, to see a game between Idaho State and Weber State and I was attracted to Weber's coach, Dick Motta. I spent about three hours with Motta," explains Colangelo, "and I told our owner Dick Klein that Motta was sharp, bright and aggressive. Two months later I left Chicago to help start up the franchise in Phoenix and Klein hired Motta."

Though Colangelo was then thoroughly convinced that the college coach in the NBA was an idea whose time had come, he was nonetheless a pragmatic man. The sport was new to Phoenix and what he needed was a basketball salesman, preferably a funny one. Accordingly, he hired Kerr to coach the Suns. It wasn't until 1970 that he could test his theory, the subject being Cotton Fitzsimmons. Colangelo, who had, in a sense, discovered Motta, took another gamble in 1973 when he hired the largely unknown John MacLeod away from Oklahoma.

"My theory was that teaching was paramount," Colangelo reflects. The game was going to get more sophisticated. But a lot of people in the NBA were resentful of the college people at first. They felt it was an intrusion on the fraternity."

There is, of course, no absolutely right course. Nothing prevents an astute player from competing on an intellectual level with the college-traine d coach. However, it has become axiomatic that when an ex-player gets the job that he be augmented by a "professional" career assistant coach who can lay down the Xs and Os. Witness such combos as Don Nelson-John Killilea, Billy Cunningham-Chuck Daly, Jerry Sloan-Phil Johnson and the latest, Paul Silas- Bill (Brother of Paul) Westphal, the latter a successful small-college coach at Occidental.

Nelson is candid about the challenge confronting an ex-player who enters the new NBA coaching fraternity. "I knew all about the players and the NBA thinking and so forth," he says, "but I needed help on the Xs and Os, the scouting techniques and other aspects of the job. There's a lot more to it than I had ever imagined."

Scouting is a vital aspect of modern coaching. In an eight-team league scouting was unnecessary, since teams played one another frequently enough to know one another's habits and tendencies. But when Boston plays Phoenix for the first time on Dec. 30, it will be necessary for Bill Fitch to know something about the Suns. His source will be the scouting report of either Jimmy Rodgers or K.C. Jones, in addition to a videotape he will obtain over the next couple of months. Fitch is an admitted videotape freak. He exchanges tapes with friends all over the nation and he is able to see an ungodly number of NBA games in this manner. Pooling his resources, he can enter the game in Phoenix with a feeling of scouting security.

The point is that scouting techniques are often complicated. A lot of players discover they don't know much about breaking down teams, or even how to employ those squiggly lines on the scratch pads.

Coaching cannot be stereotyped strictly on background. Some ex-players favor heavy scrimmaging; some do not. Gene Shue is a half-court guy. Bob (Slick) Leonard, the longtime Indiana mentor, seldom ran his players. When Rick Robey arrived here via the trade route, he said that he had run more in two Celtic practices than he had in a half-season with Indiana. MacLeod is another coach who eschews scrimmaging. A typical MacLeod in-season practice lasts an hour and concerns itself mainly with half-court basketball, both offense and defense. Under Tom Heinsohn, an Auerbach disciple, the Celtics scrimmaged long and hard, as befits a running team.

The ideal coach has a basic philosophy but flexibility in his approach. At least that's the thinking of Dave Cowens, who coached the Celtics for 68 games two seasons ago, long enough to qualify him as a knowledgeable source on the subject. It's interesting to note that when he quit the job on the final day of the 1978-79 season, he recommended that Auerbach hire a college coach, someone who could teach. Following that advice, Red pursued Bobby Knight and Hugh Durham before landing Bill Fitch.

"I'm not saying a pro player can't get his point across," Cowens says. An ex-player has a better immediate feel for what is involved in the pro game as far as the players' thoughts and mentality are concerned. There is pro and con on the subject. It just seemed to me that we had a lot of young players at the time, and in our situation we needed a teacher. This year the players know Bill's offense better and there is a different situation. And I don't think this year's training camp was as hard physically as last year's, when he wanted to set the tone for his style of coaching.

"But after a while," Cowens continues, "it's just a matter of fine tuning. Then it helps if a coach eases up on the verbal part. Last year, we really needed that stuff. Personally, there are many times I just wanted to scrimmage, to work up a sweat during practice. Just let players scrimmage and see who is working and who isn't. This tells you a lot about your people. It's a long season and I think it's important for a coach to mix up his approach.

"I hope this doesn't sound like I'm criticizing anybody. Somebody might think, The guy retires and now he's sounding off.' I really think Fitch is a good coach. I'm just explaining what appealed to me as a player."

The trend to the college-trained coach is irreversible, if only because most of the coaching prospects among the players will inevitably be influenced by the college-oriented coaches they played for. Jerry Sloan, for example, is an extension of Dick Motta, albeit with his own particular brand of personal fire and dedication. Silas, though paying full homage to his Celtics' experience, remains an unabashed admirer of Fitzsimmons.

What this means is that Al Attles (Golden State), Kevin Loughery (New Jersey), Lenny Wilkens (Seattle), Gene Shue (Washington), Billy Cunningham (Philadelphia), Don Nelson (Milwaukee) and, of course, The Patriarch, Red Holzman (New York) are now a rump caucus. The Insiders have become The Outsiders.

So if you want your kid to grow up to be an NBA coach, get him off the court. Get him a Betamax and a clipboard and let nature take its course.

Where they got their coaching know-how

Here is the breakdown of the 23 NBA coaches with regard to their coaching background. In parentheses is the last school at which the college coaches worked.


Bill Fitch, Boston (Minnesota)

Jack McKinney, Indiana (St. Joseph's)

Bill Musselman, Cleveland (Minnesota)

Scotty Robertson, Detroit (Southwest La.)

Hubie Brown, Atlanta (Duke asst.)

Cotton Fitzsimmons, Kansas City (Kansas St.)

Donnie Walsh, Denver (So. Carolina asst.)

Stan Albeck, San Antonio (Denver)

Del Harris, Houston (Earlham)

Tom Nissaalke, Utah (Tulane)

Dick Motta, Dallas (Weber State)

Jack Ramsay, Portland (St. Joseph's)

Paul Westhead, Los Angeles (LaSalle)

John MacLeod, Phoenix (Oklahoma)


Red Holzman, New York

Gene Shue, Washington

Billy Cunningham, Philadelphia

Kevin Loughery, New Jersey

Don Nelson, Milwaukee

Jerry Sloan, Chicago

Lenny Wilkens, Seattle

Al Attles, Golden State

Paul Silas, San Diego

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