PONTIAC, Mich. — Chuck Daly boarded the charter flight just after midnight. Boston's Logan Airport was gloomy and quiet, as was Daly's team. The Detroit Pistons trudged silently and single-file up the stairs, through the jet way, and ducked their heads--all of them except Isiah Thomas, who need not--at the door.
Their coach sat up front. He said very little. He had not said much since leaving Boston Garden, the scene of the crime, where Larry Bird's steal and Dennis Johnson's last-second basket gave the Celtics a nerve-rending 108-107 win over Daly's Pistons in Game 5 of the National Basketball Assn.'s Eastern Conference playoffs. Detroit now trailed in the series, 3-2, with Game 6 to be played tonight.
What Daly wanted to do was get past mad. That happens to be a favorite phrase of his: "Get past mad."
It is a reminder to himself, sort of a string around his finger, not to let disappointment linger, not to permit hardships to drag him down.
"Old friends used to tell me: When an Irishman gets mad, with or without your teacups to get you through it, you should stay mad for a minute or two, then forget whatever it was you were mad about and get on with it," he says. Get past mad.
So, Daly gave it a shot. He turned to another man on the airplane who was in charge of the team's equipment. He told him to haul out the portable video cassette recorder that the Pistons cart with them, wherever they go.
"OK," Daly said. "Let's look at the travesty."
For the rest of the flight, he watched a replay of the game.
He watched the highlights: Detroit's comeback from a dozen points down. Isiah Thomas' shot with 17 seconds remaining to put the Pistons on top by a point. Dennis Rodman's block of Bird's shot with seven seconds left. Rick Mahorn's effort to knock the ball out of bounds off a Celtic's leg.
He watched the lowlights: Robert Parish's left-right combination that decked Detroit center Bill Laimbeer late in the first half. Bird's swoop. Bird's feed. Johnson's layup. Daly relived the whole lousy experience, including his own inability to get his players' attention with five seconds to play, to get somebody to call a timeout.
It was a horror movie, worse than any late, late, late show he ever watched, worse than anything ever shown by Elvira. It was a sad, shocking film, with surprise and suspense worthy of Hitchcock. Worthy of, dare we say it, "The Birds."
Daly shut it off.
But he couldn't shut it out.
He drove to his home in the Detroit suburbs and thought about it all night. He never slept.
By Tuesday morning, he and the Pistons were sadder and angrier. General Manager Jack McCloskey called a press conference to vilify the Game 5 officials for calling nothing, not even a technical foul, on Parish for fat-lipping Laimbeer.
A $7,500 fine and one-game suspension for Parish appeased the Pistons only a little, since it did nothing to turn back the page to the one-point loss that already appeared in the score book, the loss that might keep the team from making the NBA finals for the first time since the franchise left Fort Wayne, Ind., and moved to Detroit.
And Chuck Daly, well, he was still steamed.
"For five years now, he has been almost a fatherly figure to me, and I've seen him in every kind of mood," Matt Dobek, Piston publicity director, said Tuesday. "But I've never seen him exactly like this. As of right now, he's still not past mad."
An hour before leaving for the game Tuesday night, Chuck Daly slumped back on a sofa in his Boston hotel suite, wearing a warmup outfit and sneakers. Such clothes look odd on him, partially because Daly, 56, the second-oldest coach in the NBA to Indiana's Jack Ramsay, is a fashion plate who owns hundreds of elegant suits, and partially because with his husky build, rugged face and mane of wavy hair, Daly has something of a Victor Mature look that would make him seem properly attired in a toga and sandals.
Before his coaching career took off, Daly did a lot of real-man jobs back in his native Pennsylvania. Out of high school, he did heavy lifting at a furniture and appliance store, and construction work, and even unloaded hides for a tannery, tossing them into lime pits until the blood and salt could be scrubbed from them, and the hair plucked off. That job left him so stiff every morning that he had trouble just walking up a small hill.
Sometimes, in his hometown of Kane, Pa., population 5,000 or so, 90 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and not far from the New York border--"Smalltown, USA," Daly calls it--Chuck and his younger brother Bud agreed to clean the swimming pool at the Kane YMCA, for $1 a day and the freedom to shoot baskets for as long as they liked.
They had a brand new Last-Bilt leather ball--a white basketball--that was the most prized possession on their block, a gift from their Uncle Kenny.
The Daly brothers were very competitive. "If we weren't playing basketball, we were playing pool or Ping-Pong or something, at least until we got into a fight," Chuck said.