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Original Issue


The Nuggets' Doug Moe, the NBA Coach of the Year, doesn't diagram plays or watch many game films

In 1961, when Doug Moe was playing basketball at the University of North Carolina, the Tar Heels found themselves on the same flight as Richard Nixon, then a former U.S. vice-president but already one of the most recognizable figures in the world. North Carolina coach Frank McGuire introduced himself to Nixon and walked him down the aisle, presenting him to Tar Heel players as they went. Moe is deathly afraid of flying, and when Nixon and McGuire reached him, he was reading a book to distract himself. It may have been the only book Moe opened that semester, but to Nixon it represented an obvious conversational icebreaker. "You must be the student in the group," he said to Moe.

Moe studied the figure standing before him for a moment—the shoulders hunched forward slightly and the gaunt, jowly face. The man was completely unfamiliar to him. Moe stuck his nose back in the book and then, in a dismissive tone, he said to Nixon, "What are you, a wise guy?"

These many years later, it's fair to ask Moe, who's now 50 and the coach of the Denver Nuggets, the same question. He's about to start his ninth season with the Nuggets, which, to the astonishment of practically everyone who knows him, means Moe has served longer with his current team than any Other incumbent NBA coach. What are you, a wise guy?

Last season Moe chalked up the 500th regular-season win of his NBA career—177 with the San Antonio Spurs, whom he coached from 1976-77 through 66 games in the '79-80 season, and 345 with the Nuggets. There are only 11 coaches in the history of the NBA who have more victories than he does. His .557 winning percentage (522 wins, 415 losses) is the sixth best among active coaches, and he has attained it despite a coaching philosophy that sounds a little like something he cribbed from Pee-wee's Playhouse. "My whole life I've managed to establish myself as a complete fool," Moe says. "Therefore, any success I've had has looked like an upset."

The Nuggets won the Midwest Division in 1987-88 with a fairly astonishing 54-28 record, closing with 17 wins in their final 20 games. Moe was given a lot of the credit for the year the Nuggets had, for doing a lot with a little. "It all depends on what you think a little is," Moe says. "We thought we had a good team. There are teams that have good players, but they play terrible because something is missing. They don't have a winning attitude." For coaxing that attitude out of the Nuggets. Moe was voted Coach of the Year.

But there were seasons when he was considered such a goofball that he probably couldn't have gotten elected coach of the year on his own team. In fact, that he's still coaching above the high school level is something of an upset, particularly since Moe has built an entire career around an offense that a lot of people aren't sure exists. Moe believes in allowing his players to do whatever they want, and then correcting them with feeling. When he first started coaching, in San Antonio, his offense confused the theoreticians. "Nobody knew what the hell we were doing," Moe says. "Other coaches were diagramming our plays on the blackboard, and we weren't running any."

For a long time there was considerable doubt whether you could actually describe what Moe was doing as coaching. Most NBA coaches regard their practice sessions as a chance to interpret the sacred text in chalk—exegesis and O's—but Moe insisted that hoops shouldn't be that complicated. "One time I sent him to scout a team, and he came back with no notes," says the current San Antonio coach, Larry Brown, Moe's good friend and old North Carolina teammate. Brown was referring to the 1972-73 and '73-74 seasons when he was coach of the American Basketball Association's Carolina Cougars and Moe was his assistant. "He walked into practice, and the only thing he said was 'If we can't beat those guys, we shouldn't be in coaching.' "

As a head coach, Moe decided his best players should only have to practice every other day, and his workouts frequently end with as many children of players running around the floor as players. When Moe was coaching in San Antonio, forward Coby Dietrick often whiled away practice by playing Frisbee with his dog. There was, in fact, a widely held view around San Antonio that Moe encouraged players to bring their dogs to practice so that when one of them made the inevitable puddle on the floor, Moe would have an excuse to go play golf early.

Of course, a lot of people couldn't help wondering what a team that almost never ran any plays could possibly have to practice. Moe had devised an offensive system built around crisp ball movement, lots of screens and constant cuts to the basket, called "the passing game," in which there were almost no rules—except not to hold the ball for longer than a two-count—almost no plays and almost no believers among the league's other coaches. "Every offensive set in the passing game is different every time down the court, and the only constant is that you take what the defense gives you," says Nugget assistant coach Allan Bristow. "You can't diagram it, you can't put a pencil and paper to it. If you do, you're doing an injustice to the system. And if you try to dictate to the players where they're supposed to be on the court, you completely defeat the purpose of it. That's why a lot of people think it's a joke."

"The passing game is basically doing whatever the hell you want," Moe says, "but tell me what coach is going to say, "We're a free-lance team?' It sounds like you're not coaching. Hey, if a coach gets some sort of thrill when the team runs a play right, that's good. I just happen to think differently."

The first skeptic Moe encountered when he took over as head coach in Denver was Donnie Walsh, whom Moe replaced and subsequently hired as his assistant before the 1981-82 season. "When Doug told me what he wanted to do, I told him he was out of his mind, that it would never work," says Walsh, now general manager of the Indiana Pacers. "But after a while I realized that whatever he was doing—and I never did really figure it out—he was getting the kind of good shots that every coach in the league wanted." In Walsh's first full season with Moe, the Nuggets scored an astounding 126.5 points a game and gave up an equally breathtaking 126 points, both NBA records.

The thing that made these scoring prodigies even more impressive was that Denver has never been particularly adept at running a fast break, supposedly the NBA's shortest distance to two points. "Teams always worried about our running," Moe says, "even when we couldn't run."

Surprisingly, Moe adopted his radical ideas from North Carolina coach Dean Smith, a noted conservative theorist. "Smitty thought the passing game would be fine if you had players who could do it, but he didn't think players were smart enough to do it all the time," Moe says. Other NBA coaches have come to Denver hoping to learn the passing game from Moe, the most notable example being then Phoenix Suns coach John MacLeod, another conservative, who tried it during the 1985-86 season—with almost predictably disastrous results—before returning to a lockstep offense he was more comfortable with. "I don't know if many people can coach Doug's offense because you need his personality to make it work," says Bill Ficke, one of Moe's former assistants. "Coaches would come up to me in coffee shops and ask, 'How does Doug make the passing game work?' But they never gave him the respect in public. Everybody made him out to be the NBA clown."

Moe didn't exactly go out of his way to change that image. He is the only coach in the league who seldom watches videotapes of an upcoming opponent's plays because he's afraid it might discourage him. "A lot of teams scout us and don't think we're that good," Moe says. "Jerry West [general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers] scouted us once and told me we stunk. I say, 'Fellas, that's why I don't look at films.' "

A reporter from Philadelphia called Moe before the Spurs' playoff series with the 76ers in 1979 to ask if he had watched any films. Moe thought about that for a moment. "Well," he replied, "Big Jane and I watched Gone with the Wind the other night." This, of course, is not the kind of thing you say if you're trying to build a cult following among hoops purists. "You've got to coach to suit your own personality," Moe says.

Most NBA coaches would probably have to have a personality transplant before they could accept giving up the number of points that Moe's teams routinely do. There have been times when the Nuggets appeared willing to give a basket in order to get one, as they did in a 1983 game with Detroit in which they scored 184 points, only to be beaten by the Pistons, who went for 186. "Most of my career, we've been first in offense and last in defense," Moe says. "But what people don't realize is that total scores have nothing to do with defense or offense, just the pace of the game. It's the dumbest statistic ever, totally wacko, and yet everyone uses the total scores as an indication of the kind of defense you play. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but as long as people go by that stat, I know there's someone out there dumber than I am."

Whether or not the Nuggets play a traditional scratch-and-sniff defense—and they finished second in the league at forcing turnovers last season, so there is solid evidence that they do play effective D—Moe seems to care passionately about it. "Eighty percent of the times Doug is having tantrums on the bench, it's about defense," Bristow says. Actually there's almost no time when Moe is not having tantrums on the bench, for it is during games that his carefree character suddenly vanishes and its nasty twin emerges. Moe used to be among the NBA's leaders in getting technical fouls, but nowadays his tirades are usually directed at his own players and not at the officials, although in 1983 he did feel compelled to throw a cup of water at a referee whose imagination Moe evidently thought had become overheated.

Then there was the time, during a preseason game last year, that Moe became so upset with the officiating that he put on a pair of sunglasses and began walking up and down the sideline like a blind man. But for the most part his behavior in 1987-88 was so decorous that he went through the season with only one T, an accomplishment he attributes to better communication with the referees. "Before the game I talk to them and try to explain that if I tell them to go——themselves, they shouldn't take it personally," he says. "A person with a vocabulary as rich as mine should get a warning on the first——."

None of Moe's players has ever stirred him to probe more deeply into the depths of his vocabulary than Kiki Vandeweghe did. A prolific scorer whose timid disposition made him a soft touch on defense, Vandeweghe played for Moe for four seasons before the Nuggets traded him to Portland in 1984, probably to prevent Moe, who was then on medication for his dangerously high blood pressure, from having a stroke. Vandeweghe was getting beaten so badly one night in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics that when Moe finally cornered him at halftime, the veins that were standing out in Moe's neck looked as if they were about to rupture. "Just go out there and hit somebody!" Moe implored. "Go out there and put your body on somebody."

The first time Seattle got the ball in the second half, Lonnie Shelton, a muscular 250-pound forward, tried to drive the lane and Vandeweghe decked him. The Nuggets' bench stood and cheered wildly. When Vandeweghe also leveled the next Sonics player who crossed his path, the officials were so aghast they didn't even call a foul. "What's Doug done to Kiki'?" asked referee Jake O'Donnell of Nuggets trainer Chopper Travaglini. "Whatever it is, the poor guy has taken so much abuse, there's no way I'm going to call a foul on him now. Tell Kiki he can do whatever he wants."

Despite Moe's tirades, he's generally well liked by his players, who indulgently allow for the fact that his brain leaves his body during games. "When Doug gets on you, his voice cuts through to your soul," Vandeweghe once said. "If you play poorly, he'll yell and scream and hate you during the game. But after the game you can still be the best of friends."

Unlike most coaches, Moe never holds grudges and rarely belittles his players in the press—an exception to this rule being forward Bill Hanzlik. Hanzlik, a kamikaze defensive player whom Moe once described as suffering from "brain lock," insisted on participating in training camp drills before last season despite having undergone back surgery in the off-season. "You know Hanzlik," said Moe appreciatively. "He's got nothing from the neck up. He's both stupid and amazing."

"At least I've got something from the neck down," replied Hanzlik. "Doug has nothing anywhere."

Actually Moe seems to have more than enough from the chin up and the nose down to keep the world both stupefied and amazed for the foreseeable future. It's safe to say he has never lost a minute's sleep worrying about saying the right thing. When the Nuggets barely qualified for the playoffs in 1987 and had to face Los Angeles in the first round, Moe—instead of going through the usual motions of outlining ways his team could upset the Lakers—announced before the series began that Denver had "no shot." When L.A. won the second game, Moe was stunned to learn that Lakers coach Pat Riley had angrily called his remarks a "discredit" to the Lakers because they indicated Moe wasn't taking the playoffs "seriously" enough.

Moe was bewildered. "I'm not supposed to say what everybody knows just because I'm the coach?" he says. "It's astonishing to me that I can call a team great, outstanding, too good for us to beat, and have them take it as an insult.... There's an ego involved somewhere along the line there.... Pat Riley needs a little humility." Denver had been hammered again, 139-127, in Game 2, playing so poorly, according to Moe, "even we could have beaten us." The Lakers completed the sweep with a 140-103 blowout, which left Moe feeling perversely vindicated and Riley still angry. "I have tremendous respect for Doug Moe as a coach," he says. "We're just from two different planets."

Echoing Riley, Bristow says, "Sometimes I have to remind Doug what world he's in." Anyone found taking himself too seriously on Moe's planet is fair game for his lacerating—and usually hilarious—attacks. One of his most frequent targets has been Hubie Brown, the former coach of the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks, whom Moe invited to appear on his weekly television show after feuding publicly with Brown for years. "Hubie would always say he was on an island [with Dick Motta and Jack Ramsay] and all the other coaches were garbage," Moe says. "So I'd tell people that if I had his record, I'd get out of coaching."

Moe doesn't spend a lot of time diagramming his pet sideline out-of-bounds play on his TV show, and with Brown he cut right to the chase. He reminded Brown how they had gotten to know each other in the ABA, when Moe would break up shouting matches between Hubie, who was coaching the Kentucky Colonels, and Larry Brown (no relation, no relationship) by loudly telling Larry, "Don't listen to that jerk." Sitting a few feet from Hubie in the TV studio, Moe turned to Brown and said, "You don't mind if I call you a jerk, do you?"

"You've done it in bigger places than this show," Brown replied.

Moe, who views himself as "a rinky-dink" in the grand scheme of things, was once accused by the league of undermining the integrity of the game, a charge that made him feel so important when he heard about it that he might have refuted it if it hadn't been for the honor of the thing.

It all happened during and after a game with Portland in 1983. Ramsay, an intensely serious man who has won more NBA games than any other active coach, was then coaching the Trail Blazers. He became infuriated when Moe instructed his team to just stand still and not play any defense in the final 1:12 of a blowout loss to the Blazers. Moe felt that the Nuggets had barely bothered to play defense for most of the game anyway, and when he found out that Portland was going for a franchise scoring record, he decided to let the Blazers have it. Every time Portland got the ball, the Nuggets simply stepped aside and allowed a basket. After the game Ramsay complained.

"Jack made a much bigger deal of it than he should have," Moe says. "He should have kept his mouth shut." Moe was eventually fined $5,000 and suspended for two games. "I understand Jack, but he just can't fathom me," Moe says.

On being the way he is, Moe says, "My big advantage over other people is that I've always been less mature than my age. Even though my body is old and I can barely walk I he has two arthritic knees], mentally I'm still 12."

Moe's arrested adolescence began in a rent-controlled apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. "When I was growing up I didn't think there was any better place in the world than Brooklyn," he says. "We had everything there."

Moe can't remember a time when he referred to his mother by anything except one of her nicknames, the longest-standing of which was Big D, short for Dolores. "We also used to call her Big Klu, because she had arms like Ted Kluszewski," he says. One of Moe's few lasting regrets is that he wasn't named after his father, Gunar, whose name Moe felt had the perfect hair-trigger feel for a playground player. And Moe was such a standout on the Brooklyn playgrounds that he came very close to not playing high school basketball at all, preferring instead to stick to the less structured game of the asphalt courts and church leagues.

In the church leagues he played under a string of assumed names so he could pass for whatever denomination happened to be providing the uniforms. When he performed for the YMCA in a Protestant league, his last name was Chatterton; he was Martin on his CYO team; and in the Jewish league he was Moskowitz.

Despite playing for only one full season at Erasmus Hall High, Moe performed well enough in several postseason all-star games and was recruited by North Carolina, where he promptly racked up four F's and a D and was declared academically ineligible after only one semester. Moe, a 6'5" forward who could score and play tough defense, earned All-America honors twice before he was finished at North Carolina, which was no mean feat, considering that he was booted off the team twice for poor grades. "I always said if they were giving out A's at Carolina, Doug would have sent somebody to South Hall to pick his up," says Walsh, a college teammate. "That's how lazy he is." By the time Moe finally got his degree in education from nearby Elon College in 1965, he had been in school for six years, including summer terms (both sessions) for five years. "For a guy who didn't like school," he says, "I spent a lot of time there."

During the summer before his senior year in college, Moe drove to New Jersey to meet with some friends of a teammate named Lou Brown, who had been trying for several months to enlist Moe's aid in a point-shaving scheme. Although Moe says he had no interest in cheating, he agreed to listen to the fixers as a favor to Brown. "They told me it would be easy, that you didn't even have to lose the game for it to work," Moe recalls. "But they could've offered me a million dollars to throw a three-on-three game and I couldn't have done it." Moe heard them out, and when he was about to leave, one of the gamblers offered him $75 to cover his expenses back to Chapel Hill. Assuming he was doing nothing wrong, he accepted it.

When the wide scope of the point-shaving scandal became clear in the spring of 1961, Moe was called to testify before a New York grand jury investigating dozens of players nationwide who had accepted bribes to fix games. "I was scared to death and depressed because I thought they thought I did something," he says. One by one, the players suspected of participating in the conspiracy paraded into the grand jury room while Moe awaited his turn. "All of them but me and one other guy had agreed to do fixing," Moe says.

Moe was dismissed after five minutes in front of the grand jury, and all parties agreed that his involvement in the case was minor. The NBA Chicago Packers (now the Washington Bullets) had taken Moe in the first round of that year's draft. The Packers signed him but refused to honor the contract when the story broke.

"After that, I was blackballed by the NBA," Moe says. "It was kind of a numbing experience. All my life I wanted to play ball, and suddenly I was being told I wouldn't be allowed to. I didn't realize at the time how many people actually thought I did something. It hurt at first, but I was immature enough that life was still fun and games to me. There was nothing I could do. I was banned and that was it."

Moe tried selling insurance for a while, went into the Army for six months and eventually wound up playing basketball in Italy. He stayed there for two years.

At the height of the betting scandal, Moe had decided to marry Jane Twisdale, the only girl he had ever met who had no interest in trying to reform him. "The only reason I went out with Jane was because she didn't talk," Moe says. "I had the Brooklyn accent and she had a Southern accent, so we really couldn't understand each other. We didn't talk the whole first year we were married." At some point during those early years, Moe began calling his wife Big Jane, a tribute that often left the impression that she was slightly larger than life. "I'd tell people she was about 250 pounds," Moe says. "You'd be amazed how many people meet her even now and say they thought she was going to be seven feet tall."

When the ABA was formed in 1967, Moe returned to the U.S. to play for the New Orleans Buccaneers, but by then he had developed such a severe case of hypochondria he was convinced he had only a short while to live. "He always thought he was dying of a brain tumor," says Walsh. "There were times when it got so bad he wouldn't come out of the house for weeks." The day he signed with the Bucs, he was standing on Bourbon Street with Larry Brown. He suddenly grabbed hold of a light pole and announced, "This is it. I'm dying." Not long thereafter Moe fainted dead away while working at Dean Smith's basketball camp and had to be rushed to a hospital. When he regained consciousness, his left arm and leg were completely numb, even though the doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him. He somehow overcame these phantom death rattles and finished second in scoring to Connie Hawkins during the ABA's first season. Then there's his fear of flying, which has led him to get off countless airplanes—sometimes even after they've pulled away from the gate—and drive to games. When Moe was traded to the Oakland Oaks after his rookie season in the ABA, Oaks coach Alex Hannum refused to give him a no-cut contract, despite the exemplary year he had had in New Orleans. Hannum told Moe he would have to accept Oakland's offer because he was getting old and had no bargaining power. "Alex, you don't know me," Moe told him, "and what you don't know is I do have bargaining power—because if I never get on another airplane again, it'll be fine with me." Hannum forthwith offered more money.

Moe, who played for four ABA teams in his five pro seasons, never intended to become a coach, but when his playing career ended in 1972 because of his bad knees, Larry Brown asked Moe to be his assistant with the Carolina Cougars. Brown and Moe were inseparable. Once when Brown was playing for Oakland he was home nursing an injury during an Oaks road trip. Moe decided to go out to dinner with Rick Barry, another teammate. When they got to the restaurant, Moe asked Barry, "What do I want to eat?" Barry, puzzled by the question, said, "Why are you asking me?"

Moe stared at him blankly for a moment and replied, "If Larry was here, he'd know what I want to eat."

As coaches, Brown and Moe made an odd couple on the bench, Brown in a velvet tux one day and designer overalls the next, Moe looking like a taxicab with its doors open every day. A few years before, when they were players with Virginia, Squires coach and general manager Al Bianchi took them to a New York clothier. "Doug got two suits—one blue and one brown," Brown recalls. "He said, 'Look, Larry, now I've got four outfits.' He was so proud."

Last season Moe was named the second-worst-dressed coach in the NBA by USA Today, and the feeling was that Moe would have won the title if Utah coach Frank Layden, the victor, hadn't gotten special treatment because he's fat. "I consider this all a very depressing commentary on my fashion statement," Moe says, hitching up his sweatpants.

His instincts run so naturally to sloth that Big Jane and Brown practically had to force him into accepting his first head coaching job with San Antonio. "I've always been a lazy person," he says. "I would have been happy to go on being Larry's assistant for the rest of my life." Moe had a winning percentage of .567 during his four seasons with the Spurs, but his job was in jeopardy from the beginning because team president Angelo Drossos didn't like him. Drossos was by profession a stockbroker who believed that long hours of hard work were the key to getting results, and he was infuriated every time he picked up a newspaper and read that Moe was practically living on the golf course.

The day before the 1979 draft, Moe was sitting in his office, and he watched in amazement as the NBA telex coughed out one message after another from coaches, giving hourly rundowns on their whereabouts and the phone numbers where they could be reached in case someone wanted to discuss a trade. "I'm cracking up," Moe says. "All these guys were taking themselves too seriously. So I figured I'd send my own message and shake these stiffs up." Moe sent out an urgent notice on the telex advising anyone who wanted to reach him that day he would be on the 9th tee at a San Antonio golf course. "They were all so appalled that I'd do that," he says.

After Moe was fired several months later, he received no offers. "The bad thing about acting the way I did when you're starting is that if you're fired, you might never work again," he says. "It's tough to get a job if you don't act like a coach or talk like one."

At this late date there seems little danger Moe will ever act or talk like a real coach. When Glen Gondrezick, one of Moe's former players, grew depressed over personal problems two summers ago and tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a rifle, Moe was at his hospital bedside the next day. As Gondrezick lay there, Moe tried to offer an inspirational thought. "I told him it didn't surprise me a bit he missed," Moe says. "Gondo never could shoot."

As this might indicate, Moe is rarely happier than when he's insulting people, particularly when the object of his abuse doesn't expect or isn't accustomed to such obloquy. "He's going to talk to Ronald Reagan or the Pope the same way he talks to you," says Bill Ficke.

Moe can usually talk himself out of a slump, but he was uncharacteristically glum after a tough loss at home to Detroit last season. His team had given up a lead in the fourth quarter, and for the rest of the day Moe was inconsolable. He looked so pathetic and depressed that anyone might easily have mistaken him for, well, a basketball coach. "But I woke up the next morning and I wasn't dead," he says, "so I decided I might as well have a good time. For me, the meaning of life is to enjoy it."