Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Lessons Live On

Rick Mahorn’s coach once told him he’d make a great coach someday, but the remark hardly registered. Not yet 30, Mahorn was in the prime of his NBA career. He had no interest in worrying about life after basketball. The coach didn’t bring it up again.

But that remark, Mahorn says, is when Chuck Daly “planted the seed” for the career in basketball he enjoys today.

On Wednesday, Mahorn, at 50 a former CBA head coach entering his fifth season on the Detroit Shock coaching staff, will put training camp preparation aside and fly to Florida to pay his final respects to Daly, who passed away Saturday from pancreatic cancer at age 78.

In the days since his passing, Daly has been credited for nothing short of revolutionizing the NBA for his emphasis on physical defense, a strategy that between 1988-91 led the Detroit Pistons to four straight conference finals, three consecutive NBA Finals and back-to-back world championships.

The players who implemented that strategy to a notorious degree– Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer, now head coach of the Shock – are Daly’s most loyal coaching progeny. They demand the same hard-nosed defense, all the while exhibiting trust in their players, an approach that is anything but in their face. In following Daly’s guiding principles, Laimbeer and Mahorn have shook up the WNBA in much the same way their mentor did the NBA two decades prior – by winning. A lot.

Laimbeer on Daly

Advised by Daly "not to be fake," Laimbeer is a “straight shooter” with his players, said Katie Smith (icing her knee).
Garrett Ellwood (NBAE/Getty)
No member of the Bad Boys played for Daly more than Laimbeer, who was a second-year center when he was traded from Cleveland to Detroit during the 1981-82 season. The Cavs coach when the deal went down? Daly, winding down a forgettable 9-32 stretch in his first pro head coaching stint.

They were reunited when Daly took over the Pistons before the 1983-84 campaign. In nine seasons Daly spent 851 games on the Pistons bench. Laimbeer played in 848 of them. He remembers the future Hall of Famer and leader of the Dream Team as a work in progress at the beginning.

“He went from a person who was trying to find his way to somebody who was confident [that] he had the right formula,” said Laimbeer, who also will attend Wednesday’s services near Palm Beach, Fla.

In 2002, Laimbeer also was a first-time pro head coach thrown into a messy midseason situation. In 2003, he orchestrated a historic turnaround as the Shock won their first WNBA championship. Detroit upset two-time defending champion Los Angeles in a manner reminiscent of the Bad Boys’ ascendance to the 1989 NBA crown.

“I take a little bit of pride in the fact I think our ’03 team changed the way the WNBA was played,” Laimbeer said during the 2008 Finals. “It became more of a physical, up-tempo, highly competitive basketball game.”

This season offers Laimbeer a third opportunity to win back-to-back championships after title defenses in 2004 and 2007 fell short. Laimbeer has taken some cues about handling a defending champion from Daly, who led the Pistons right back to the title in 1990.

“As you get better and better you’re able to release the team a little bit more, you’re able to trust them more,” Laimbeer said. “You don’t work them as hard physically because they’re already so mentally attuned. So that’s kind of how we did it as a player (under Daly) and how I do it as a coach.”

You don’t have to take the coach’s word on that account. “He prepares well but he also likes to have a good time. You get in, you do your work and you go (home),” said Shock guard Katie Smith last fall. “As a professional it’s not about grinding you for a couple hours. It’s about working hard when you get in there.”

Mahorn on Daly

Even after Mahorn joined the coaching fraternity, Daly wanted to “talk about his grandkids and my kids growing up.”
Domenic Centofanti (NBAE/Getty)
Mahorn went straight into coaching after his playing career, taking over the CBA’s Rockford Lightning for the 1999-2000 season. The novice head coach followed the best example he knew.

“I let the players be accountable for themselves, and basically the players played the game. The only thing I could do is put them in position to be successful,” Mahorn said. “He [Daly] did a lot of that for us.”

Daly made his players and staff responsible for the game plan by opening it to review. If you thought you had a better strategy, anything could be brought to the table for discussion. But once a decision was made, you had better see it through. Mahorn said open dialogue is encouraged in the Shock locker room.

“Chuck never had an ego. If he did, I never knew about it,” he said. “He had some diligent assistant coaches with Brendan Suhr, Brendan Malone, Ronnie Rothstein and Dick Versace, so he wanted input from his coaches but he also wanted input from his players. He’ll ask the players, ‘How do you all feel about this?’ If we committed [to the plan] as players, then we had to do it.”

Mahorn, who switched teams five times (playing for Detroit twice) during his 18-year career, never again captured the kind of rapport he shared with Daly from 1985 to 1989.

“I was more confident and comfortable playing for Chuck Daly as my career progressed,” he said. “That’s when you look back and say, Chuck Daly was a major influence, not only as a coach but as a person.”

A Time To Reflect

Daly’s playoff winning percentage with the Pistons was .628. That’s also Laimbeer’s postseason success rate with the Shock (27-16).
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
The Bad Boys’ glory years have been reminisced a lot lately, 2009 being the 20th anniversary of the 1989 championship, the first in Pistons history. Last spring the franchise also celebrated its 50th season in Detroit, including a pregame ceremony honoring the All-Time Team that brought Daly and many Bad Boys together again under The Palace roof.

Then longtime Pistons and Shock owner William Davidson passed away in March, and the memories flooded back as the basketball world mourned its loss. This week, the nostalgia and tears flow anew. As the years pass, the Pistons’ accomplishments under Davidson and Daly seem to grow in stature. Both men were enshrined to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, first and foremost for their transformation of the Pistons.

“I said when we won the championships to anybody who’d listen that it would mean more in 10 years from now than it did then,” Laimbeer said. “Because while you’re doing it, yeah, it’s great, you’re elated, you’re excited about it, but there’s no time to reflect upon it because you’re still playing. There’s still more tasks to be done.”

Laimbeer and Mahorn will take time to reflect Wednesday, and then it’s back to work. WNBA training camps open Sunday, and the Shock are the defending champions. They need to indoctrinate the newcomers, finalize the roster and find a way to pull off that elusive back-to-back. The highly anticipated opener at Los Angeles is three weeks away. There is a lot of work ahead.

And heaven’s watching.

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