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The NBA / Sam McManis : Schuler Had Ups and Downs in Portland

February 21, 1989|Sam McManis

His appointment as Portland Trail Blazers coach had just been announced to the gathered media, so Mike Schuler quickly slid one chair over to the microphone. The only problem was that Schuler missed the intended seat and wound up on the floor, unhurt but red-faced.

That night, May 28, 1986, television stations across the nation replayed the videotape of such an embarrassing start. Welcome to the National Basketball Assn., Mike.

You could say that Schuler's tenure ended the same way Saturday, with an inauspicious pratfall in which the Trail Blazers have fallen to fifth place in the Pacific Division despite possessing the talent to contend.

Not surprisingly, some television stations exhumed the videotape of Schuler's introductory press conference, then cut to Saturday's press conference announcing former assistant Rick Adelman's ascent to head coach.

In between, however, there were moments when Schuler and the Trail Blazers had a good thing going.

Schuler won the NBA's coach of the year award in 1986-87, guiding Portland to the franchise's second best record ever. His team won 53 games last season, making Schuler only the ninth coach in league history to win 100 games in his first two seasons. He even signed a long-term contract extension last season.

This season, however, the Trail Blazers fell as swiftly as Schuler did that first day. The Trail Blazers were 25-22 and in fifth place in the Pacific Division at the time of Schuler's firing, living down to their reputation as underachievers.

By all accounts except his own, Schuler was to blame. Less than three years after taking control, he had:

--Feuded for two years with Clyde Drexler, the Trail Blazers' best player.

--Feuded this season with Kiki Vandeweghe, arguably the team's second best player.

--Bickered with reserve forward Steve Johnson, upset with his role after being a starter most of his career.

--Angered many on the team by practicing on Thanksgiving Day, the only NBA team to do so.

--Systematically lost respect of nearly every other member of the team, to the point that even forward Jerome Kersey, once a staunch pro-Schuler supporter, said his firing was needed.

Proof, perhaps, that Schuler lost control of the situation could come from his comments after the firing. In speaking with a reporter from the Portland Oregonian, Schuler talked as if he said he was not aware of the problems that were so obvious to everyone else.

"They just didn't like the direction the team was going," Schuler said.

Privately--and, occasionally, publicly--players complained that Schuler was too strident, had too many practices, called too many meetings, was too structured and basically just took himself and his job entirely too seriously.

Near the end, even Trail Blazer front-office employees reportedly referred to Schuler as "His Royal Tightness."

After the firing, no one on the Trail Blazers criticized Schuler. But no one defended him, either.

"I was definitely surprised," Kersey said. "I don't think we were playing as well as we can. But I don't think just because they fire the coach, we'll be a totally different team."

Added Drexler: "We had philosophical differences, but it never leaked out on the court."

It finally got to the point, sources in the organization said, that either Schuler or Drexler had to go. Drexler, among the league's scoring leaders, won out, as did other players who feuded with Schuler.

Trail Blazer management had to swallow hard and eat Schuler's lucrative multi-year contract. They must pay Schuler for the remainder of this season, plus his salary for the next two seasons.

But on a team with four players boasting seven-figure contracts, and two others in high six-figures, it was obvious where the club's financial interests lie.

With Schuler gone from everywhere but the payroll, and Vandeweghe's trade imminent, the Trail Blazers can concentrate on trying to resurrect their season under Adelman, a former NBA player who is well-liked by the players, especially Drexler.

One of the first things Adelman did was confirm Drexler's star status and announce that Drexler will be the focus of the offense, something Schuler never did.

"I like that kind of talk," Drexler said.

It will not be easy for Adelman. Drexler is out for five games with a broken nose suffered against the Lakers. And, after losing to Seattle by one point in Adelman's debut on Saturday night, the Trail Blazers are in the midst of a grueling trip.

They lost at Chicago Monday, 102-98, play at Detroit on Wednesday night and at Cleveland on Friday night. Portland's first practice under Adelman will be today in Detroit.

Adelman is signed only until the end of this season, but Laker forward Mychal Thompson, a former Trail Blazer, said he has long been impressed with Adelman's knowledge and personality. "Rick is great player's coach," Thompson said. "If they can't play well and be happy under this guy, they should trade Clyde and whole team."

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