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Original Issue

Bench-jockeying, NBA style

With nine teams changing coaches, turnovers were the talk of the league

John Bach, the Golden State Warriors' new coach, won't be confused with Johann Sebastian Bach or with John Sebastian, although the NBA's annual meetings in New York last week could have been conducted to the strains of the latter's Summer in the City or the former's Goldberg Variations. Outside the Waldorf-Astoria, where the meetings were held, the temperature flirted with 95°. Inside, Michael Goldberg, executive director of the coaches' association, was wondering how he was going to keep track of his membership in the wake of the most sweeping reshuffling of coaching assignments in memory.

Along with Bach, the new jobholders are Bill Fitch (Houston), K.C. Jones (Boston), Kevin Loughery (Chicago), Mike Fratello (Atlanta), Jim Lynam (San Diego), Chuck Daly (Detroit), Stan Albeck (New Jersey) and Morris McHone (San Antonio). "We ran out of telex paper sending congratulations," says Atlanta General Manager Stan Kasten.

It's no accident that none of the nine came directly from a college job and that five (Bach, Jones, Fratello, Lynam and McHone) were assistants last season. "A former player has a difficult time jumping right into coaching," says Portland's Jack Ramsay, the dean of NBA coaches. "Same with a college coach. The rules, the schedule, the personnel are so different." And Houston General Manager Ray Patterson says, "It's a rare individual who can say, 'I'm the boss,' yet realize that it's the players' game. That's why coaches are paid a lot of money."

Three seasons ago no one was making $200,000 for coaching in the NBA. Within the next three years, Goldberg predicts, there could be 14 coaches at that level, and at least one making considerably more than $300,000 next year. That would be Billy Cunningham, who led the Philadelphia 76ers to the title and announced this week that he had signed a multi-year contract to return.

In a league that's still considered to have the financial shakes, the trend toward high-priced coaches was just one topic of conversation. While fending off teen-agers bent on catching a glimpse of the Puerto Rican rock group Menudo, lobbyists in the Waldorf spoke of:

Money. Four franchises that need it have gotten more of it. No, Gerald (Jiggs) Bagley isn't Utah's new point guard. He's a well-heeled Salt Lake developer who has become an equal partner with Jazz owner Sam Battistone. In Indianapolis, local mall developers Herb and Mel Simon have purchased the Pacers from L.A.'s Sam Nassi, who treated the team as he does his real business, which is liquidating. Two more brothers, George and Gordon Gund of Minneapolis, have relieved Ted Stepien of his ad agency and his Cleveland Cavaliers. And a consortium of Californians, including Frank (father) and Gregg (son) Lukenbill, have re-bankrolled the Kansas City Kings.

The draft. It's a terrific class, but there will be middling pickings on June 28. The reason: The Summa Cum Laudes of '83—Terry Cummings, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Clark Kellogg, Dominique Wilkins, et al.—are already pros. And after Virginia's Ralph Sampson, who will be taken first, by the Houston Rockets, the quality drops off precipitously. "Besides Sampson, there's not one player about whom you can predict greatness," says Dallas Player Personnel Director Rick Sund. "Take Steve Stipanovich. He could be a Jack Sikma or a John Lambert." Stipo, a 6'11" center out of Missouri, is the likely No. 2 pick of the Pacers, with forwards Rodney McCray of Louisville and Antoine Carr of Wichita State also expected to go early.

The Celtics. Once the epitome of stability and sanity, they now lead the league in off-season turmoil. General Manager Red Auerbach responded to the New York Knicks' stated intention to sign his free-agent Center-Forward Kevin McHale by signing three Knick free agents—Center Marvin Webster, Forward Sly Williams and Guard Rory Sparrow—to offer sheets within 48 hours. At the end of last week, New York had matched the offer to Sparrow. "McHale's an important asset," Auerbach fumed. "There's no way we're going to let him go to the Knicks. We're not going to be intimidated." O.K. But could Webster and Williams help the Celtics? "Is vindictive-ness getting in the way of logic?" one general manager asked.

But most of the Waldorf talk concerned coaching. Jones, 51, is the only 1982-83 assistant with previous experience as a head man, having won a conference title with Washington in 1975. Daly, 52, who coached Cleveland for 41 games in 1981-82, will introduce the porous Pistons to the same defense he installed in Philadelphia as an assistant from 1977-78 through 1980-81 under Cunningham. Fitch, Albeck and Loughery all moved by choice. The other four are in their first pro head coaching jobs.

When Knick Coach Hubie Brown wanted to add Fratello, then an Atlanta assistant, to his staff after coming to New York last summer, the Hawks demanded a first-round draft choice as compensation, but in vain. "At the time we thought that was outrageous," one Knick official says, "but now we can understand why they wanted it."

On the first day of the Knicks' training camp last fall, Fratello called the assembled players something unprintable. They soon began calling him Tattoo, for his resemblance to Hervé Villachaize on television's Fantasy Island, while around the front office he became known as Ditto, for his similarity to Brown in coif and temperament. Fratello had been a finalist for the Chicago job last summer, but at least one Bulls official was concerned that at 5'7", Fratello might not have the stature to deal with NBA players.

The record suggests otherwise. Fratello, 36, has already logged plenty of time in relief of his mentors, Brown and Loughery, both of whom have ejection complexes. In March of 1982, with the Hawks down by 22 against the Knicks, Loughery was bounced from a game. Fratello guided the Hawks back to win by six. The next night Loughery was banished again, with the Hawks trailing Detroit by 16. Fratello took over and Atlanta won by eight.

Bach is the only former NBA player among the neophytes. He appeared in 34 games for the Celtics in 1948-49, and his jersey is hanging in Boston Garden. Never mind that Bach, who wore No. 17, has John Havlicek to thank for that. At the age of 26 he got his first college head coaching position, at Fordham, where he had played. He stayed 18 seasons before moving to Penn State.

Despite his 28 seasons of directing college teams, Bach, 57, says he has learned a lot in the last four years as an assistant under Al Attles. "I've served admirals in the Navy," says Bach, who served during World War II as a lieutenant junior grade. "I understand organization." When Attles tore an Achilles tendon during the 1979-80 season, Bach stepped in for 21 games. And he coached the Warriors for the final four games of this season, while Attles was scouting.

The 41-year-old Lynam's two seasons as Ramsay's assistant in Portland helped him win the Clipper position. "We were impressed by Lynam's background in math," says Arn Tellem, San Diego's assistant general counsel. "He had an amazing command of statistics." He also hopped up during an interview to demonstrate how Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks cuts guards off defensively.

Lynam's reputation as a teacher also impressed the Clippers, who have several young players, among them Cummings and Tom Chambers. "A young team benefits most from Jim's abilities," Ramsay says. One student likely to be helped: Michael Brooks, who went to Lynam's high school, Philadelphia's West Catholic, and hasn't lived up to expectations as a pro.

As Albeck's assistant for four seasons in Cleveland and San Antonio, McHone delivered part of each practice and half-time spiel. "Stan is one of the reasons assistants are getting chances now," says McHone, 40. "He was an assistant [for L.A. and three ABA teams] who moved up and did a remarkable job in four years." After Albeck left, Spurs stars George Gervin and Artis Gilmore appealed to management to appoint McHone, who at $95,000 will most likely be the lowest-paid coach in the league.

McHone, who spent nine years under Hugh Durham at Florida State and Georgia, is from western North Carolina, married his hometown sweetheart and likes country music. "Mo's low key and low profile," says Albeck. "Maybe that raises doubts about discipline. But discipline comes with authority."

Without titular authority, though, comes obscurity. During a recent playoff game Referee Jack Madden whistled a technical. "T on you," Madden sputtered. "The assistant. Mashone."

He'll learn.


The NBA's reassigned nine for 1983-84: (from left) Albeck (Nets), Jones (Celtics), Fratello (Hawks), Daley (Pistons), Lynam (Clippers), Bach (Warriors), McHone (Spurs), Loughery (Bulls) and Fitch (Rockets).