Chuck Daly, Bill Laimbeer, and the formation of a basketball (junkie's) consciousness

Occasionally when a sports figure passes away it sends us into a mode of collective reflection in which we recognize the full extent to which the way they have shaped the way we perceive, understand, and play the games we love.

When I heard that legendary Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly had passed away yesterday, I instantly felt the void left by his departure.

And it was that void that I felt that made me realize how much of an impact Daly had on my "assumptive basketball world" -- the fundamental assumptions, beliefs, and values that inform how I relate to basketball. Whereas a breakdown in one’s assumptive world is normally considered something to overcome in traditional psychiatry, I think in this situation it forced me to recognize just how important Daly was to the basketball world and simultaneously how underappreciated he was in comparison to his modern NBA counterparts.

Daly didn’t have the championships of Phil Jackson, the smoothness of Pat Riley, the longevity of Jerry Sloan, or the pedagogical ability of Larry Brown. Daly was never named coach of the year, despite ending the dominance of the Lakers and Celtics only to be dethroned by an emergent star named Jordan. And yet Chuck Daly is undoubtedly one of the most influential coaches in basketball history, as described by Phillip Zaroo of MLive.com:

Daddy Rich, as John Salley dubbed Daly because of his impeccable styling, melded the big egos of a group of alpha males, and authored the defense that literally changed the face of the NBA. He did it with class and integrity the entire way.

Daly (and staff) created the "Jordan Rules" strategy and the NBA eventually changed rules in response to the Pistons' physical style of play. Despite the mythology and surface level perceptions, the "Bad Boys’" style of play was not just common street ball thuggery, but a coordinated system of gritty defensive basketball that aimed to completely disrupt the opponents’ offense.



It was probably the ability to meld the egos of a team composed of Isaiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, and Rick Mahorn into a coherent unit and later leading the (real) Dream Team that made Daly great (Shaq should still be mad that Christian Laettner was added to that team over him…but one more supersized ego on that team might have even driven Daly mad). When considering the fact that so many people perceive the NBA as an ego-driven one-on-one exhibition, what Daly did with the group of egos he was given is quite remarkable.

The obvious WNBA connection to Daly is Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, the coaches of the Detroit Shock. While the defensive mentality of Laimbeer is likely influenced by his time with Daly, a major difference is that his ego sometimes seems to overshadow that of his team whereas Daly sort of let the players shine.

But as I started to wonder about Daly’s impact on the WNBA, I slipped back into my own personal basketball history. And since petrel wrote a little basketball history the other day on the Pleasant Dreams blog, I thought I’d copy him and write my own, a history that Daly is actually right in the middle of.

You had me at hello

I’ve previously referred to the importance of narratives that shape the way we understand the sports we love. This late 80’s narrative was undoubtedly the narrative that made me fall in love with basketball, even before my dad was ever compelled to take me to a game.

When I first picked up a basketball in 1988, the basketball world was dominated by the Showtime Lakers but on the cusp of the transition to the all-too-brief Bad Boys era. As a Californian, the Showtime Lakers were the center of my basketball universe – my dad (who I revere) rooted for them, they had a rad point guard named "Magic", and an underrated shooting guard in Byron Scott (who quickly became my first favorite player).

That the Bad Boys not only challenged, but also dethroned the Lakers was enough to earn my 10-year-old respect. And on top of that, they were led by a guy who could dominate despite being the shortest man on the court in most cases – Isaiah Thomas.

The Bad Boys marked a huge shift in power in the NBA world, the emergence of "DEEE-TROIT BAS-KET-BAAALLLL" for an otherwise "uninteresting" Pistons franchise, and the introduction of a fascinating cast of characters into the annals of basketball history.

Think this is all over-dramatic nonsense? Not in the mind of a 10-year-old.

So the fact that Chuck Daly was at the center of this storm made him a larger than life figure in my mind.

The formation of a basketball (junkie’s) consciousness

The first blip on the radar of my basketball consciousness was actually sort of random –- the DePaul Blue Demons, the name of the first rec league basketball team I played for. While that sounds ludicrous now, they were actually a perennial NCAA men’s tournament team at the time. And the fact that my dad was co-coach for the team was even more reason to pay attention to the nuance of the game.

Dad was a college recruiter for a sales firm at the time so he told me where DePaul was and watched a game they played on television with me once or twice. I had previously watched basketball with friends and watched the dunk contest (when it was still worth watching) but I never had a reason to really pay attention to the game and internalize it. Dad talked strategy with me and often tried to find players I could model my game after.

From there, I started watching more basketball with dad…and that’s when I learned about the NBA. The Lakers became the center of the universe, the Celtics were this evil threat from across the universe, and then there’s that guy in Chicago (near DePaul) who can apparently fly based on his dunk contest performances. Then this team from some place named Detroit comes along and beats all of them led by Thomas, this little guy who never got the memo that the NBA is a game dominated by height.


I instantly fell in love with Isaiah Thomas. My second season in rec league basketball, I was determined to be #11. My younger brother – who ended up being totally indifferent to sports, despite being a pretty good soccer player – liked James Edwards, a guy who was just as tough as Laimbeer, Mahorn, and Dennis Rodman, but just did his job without a lot of fanfare.

But the Bad Boys as a whole just had so many guys to root for. There was the quiet defensive intensity of Joe Dumars. And of course you can’t forget about Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson. John Salley was just a goofy guy. And at the time, Rodman was not quite a (public) nutcase yet, so you could still appreciate his hustle and energy.

No matter which individual on the team you liked best, what you had to appreciate is the way Daly got them to play as a coherent unit. Everyone had a clear role to fulfill, whether it be to score, defend, or rebound…or bust someone in the jaw with an elbow. From Zaroo again:

Those guys fought tooth-and-nail for every win, and they cherished each one like they'd never see victory again. They defined what a team should be about – winning, plain and simple. Though they weren't all best buds off the court, there was never any concern about who got the credit. The Pistons worked together as a team, and each knew he played an important role.

And as a budding basketball player who was rather scrawny and shy, this team was fun because they played tough and depended on the contributions of every single player to win.

There was a fearlessness with which the Bad Boys played that was just inspiring. They weren’t as flashy as the Lakers, didn’t have the (evil) tradition of the Celtics, and didn’t have a legend in the making like the Bulls. Bird, Magic, Jordan – those guys were pre-destined to win championships. And that’s what made this Pistons team fun to watch – they weren’t really supposed to be great; this team was like a disruption in a divine basketball plan. And as Jemele Hill reports, without Daly, none of it would have happened.

When I think about how I think about basketball, Daly’s legacy with the Bad Boys pretty much captures it.

The Daly-Laimbeer connection

But there’s still that nagging question of how exactly Daly influenced the coaching philosophies of players like Laimbeer. And at this point, I can’t find anything explicit. However, I find this quote from the AP article about Daly interesting:

Laimbeer, now coach of the Shock, said in 1990: "Chuck is our coach, but he is really our manager. He manages us. He doesn't know the X's and O's any better than anyone else, and his assistants know more about the game than he does. We do the playing, but he keeps us going. He manages all these personalities and brings out the best in us."

Daly has been caught a few times over the year’s praising Laimbeer’s potential as a coach. In fact, he even provided the Kings with an unsolicited recommendation for Laimbeer when the NBA’s Sacramento Kings were looking for a coach last year:

On why former Pistons center and current Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer can't land an NBA head coaching job: "I think it must be because Billy made a lot of enemies when he was a player. But I tell you what. He is as smart as a whip. Someone is going to get darn lucky in this league. They just have to take a chance. I talked to the Maloofs about him when they were looking for a coach (last year), and they would have talked to him. But Geoff (Petrie) wasn't interested."

But how has Daly’s legacy influenced the WNBA via Laimbeer?

Clearly, the defensive intensity that Daly (and staff) emphasized is readily apparent on the Shock. The Shock play with a very similar grit. And to some extent the frontcourt depth of the Shock is reminiscent of those Bad Boys teams.

But will Laimbeer ever have the same impact on basketball that Daly did? Probably not.

Daly’s skill at coaching and teaching made him bigger than life, whereas Laimbeer’s reputation really preceeded him…as a result of Daly. Nevertheless, one could certainly argue that Laimbeer’s mark on the WNBA in these early years of the league make him as important a figure in the expansion of professional basketball in the U.S. as Daly was for the expansion of the NBA worldwide.

Regardless, the WNBA needs a team with a catchy image who almost anyone – including a young Californian – can root for purely for the way the team plays the game. Yes, the Bad Boys were hated by many, but they also really took defensive basketball to a new level.

As much talk as there is about inter-gender differences in basketball, what made basketball great in that late-80’s/early-90’s era was the intra-gender differences in style – the Showtime Lakers, the Bad Boys, the Jordan Bulls, and the Celtics (shout out to the Blazers too) all played very different types of basketball. And as someone who loves the game in all of its forms – from 2nd grade YMCA leagues to high school championships to women’s professional basketball – I think it’s the variations in style and the individuals that make a style come alive that make the game of basketball great.

For me, Daly is as important to the basketball world as George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bird, Magic, and Jordan…and more recently, Kobe and LeBron. At a time when the league was increasingly emphasizing individual performance (and marketing), he was successful by subordinating individuals to the team concept. And that’s basketball at its best to me – harmony, balance, and continuity…and yes, a few elbows to the jaw as necessary (no blood, no foul).

You’ll be missed, Chuck.

Outtakes:

An 80’s pop culture analogy: The plot of the late 80’s NBA is similar to Cybertronian Wars in the 1986 animated version of Transformers the Movie – the Autobots (the Lakers) and the Decepticons (the Celtics) have been battling for years. Suddenly along comes Unicron (the Bad Boys) just eating planets whole and dominating the entire universe. Then at the end, a young Hot Rod (Michael Jordan) gains access to the power of the Matrix and destroys Unicron…and banishes Galvatron (the evil Celtics) into the depths of space. Or something like that…

Transition Points:

Apparently Debbie Schlussel is also a fan of Chuck Daly…

My love for basketball really took off when my dad took me to my first Warriors game in 1991. It was against the Lakers. The only thing I remember is the Warriors losing and the following message flashing on the scoreboard as the clock wound down: "It's not LA. Why are you leaving?" Funny.

Update: upon re-reading, I realize that Sparks coach Michael Cooper was never really anyone I paid attention to on the Lakers. I was much more interested in Scott, Magic, Kareem, and AC Green and Terry Teagle (I have NO idea why). Even James Worthy didn’t grab my attention actually. What a weird kid I was…

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