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They Are Voices of Experience : NBA Teams Turn Back the Clock by Hiring Dick Motta (63), Bill Fitch (60) and Del Harris (57)

October 28, 1994|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Del Harris was sitting by his hotel swimming pool at the Lakers' training camp in Hawaii when a woman walked over.

"You're Del Harris, aren't you?" she asked. "Coach of the Lakers?"

Harris nodded.

"You may not remember, but you coached against my grandfather," she

said.

And yes, he had. It was when Harris coached at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., in the mid-'60s.

*

Bill Fitch has been around so long, he is recycling families.

When he coached at Bowling Green in 1967 and 1968, one of his players was Walt Piatkowski. Fitch is coaching Eric Piatkowski, Walt's son, with the Clippers this season, his 22nd in the NBA.

*

Dick Motta, now in his second tour as coach of the Dallas Mavericks, can remember being a part-time reporter at road games when he coached the expansion Chicago Bulls in their first season in 1968.

"There were no beat writers on the road traveling with the team," Motta said. "It was nice. I would call in results to the newspapers when we won. If we didn't, I wouldn't."

*

And so it goes in the NBA, where coaching experience obviously counts, and never more than this season with the return to coaching of Harris, Fitch and Motta.

They have coached a combined 52 years in the NBA, 22 by Motta, who left Weber State for the wilds of the NBA when Lyndon Johnson was president.

Motta said he's coaching again for one reason.

"It's great, it's really great," he said. "But on the serious side, I was really concerned about some of the coaching assignments."

Anyway, they're back again, which represents either a coaching trend or a turn-back-the-clock promotion.

Harris is 57, Motta is 63 and Fitch is 60.

Who's coming back next? Red Holzman?

"Red might," Harris said.

For the record, there is a quartet of Reds who coached in the NBA--Holzman, Auerbach, Kerr, Rocha. Heck, bring 'em all back. We could call it the new good old days.

It is Harris' opinion that his presence on the sideline, and that of Motta and Fitch, represents a new philosophy in hiring coaches.

"It's not surprising to me that owners look at $200-million operations and they think maybe they should have an experienced person in there," he said.

"You have a novice and you wouldn't put him at the head of a company, like a construction company. The owner wouldn't say, 'Hey, you look good, how about taking over my $200-million company?' "

Harris quickly pointed out that some of the finest coaches in the game are former players, such as Don Nelson, Pat Riley, Lenny Wilkens, Rudy Tomjanovich, Phil Jackson, George Karl, Paul Westphal and Dan Issel.

Motta is the only active NBA coach who has coached in four decades. He has worked with the Bulls, Washington Bullets, Mavericks, Sacramento Kings and now the Mavericks again.

That means he has lasted long enough to note that whatever coaching trend we have now probably is going to change. Here's the cycle: from hiring former players to hiring college coaches to hiring former players to hiring--how shall we say it?--previously employed coaches.

Guess which particular philosophy Motta dislikes most?

"To see the NBA, the so-called elite basketball league, it's interesting to see we had a period of hiring quite a few coaches who had no experience of ever calling a timeout," he said.

Fitch has called zillions of timeouts, many of them during the dark ages of the expansion franchise in Cleveland when it was the only way to halt the onslaught.

Fitch has coached at Cleveland, Boston, Houston and New Jersey, all of which had major losers before his arrival.

This is great preparation for coaching the Clippers, an experience that isn't likely to chill his blood.

"I've been 200 games under .500 before," he said.

Odds are this won't happen in one season at the Sports Arena.

Fitch has his own reason for coaching again. After all, he could be back on his spread in Conroe, Tex., and playing golf every day.

"I do it because I like it," he said. "I did it 20 years ago because I needed it to make a living. I don't worry about the first and the 15th anymore."

It remains to be seen which of them--Harris, Fitch or Motta--ages the quickest. Chances are it will be Fitch, because his team needs the most work, but Harris has a head start because his hair already is totally white.

Motta said he thinks most fans believe Harris to be older than either he or Fitch because of the white hair.

"And that's OK with me," Motta said.

Harris, a barber's son from Indiana, has had white hair most of his adult life so it makes him look older. Sometimes it confuses people who know him.

"He doesn't look like he's 57," James Worthy said. "He doesn't look a day over, oh, 45."

Said Fitch: "Del was born with that hair."

Possibly working in tandem with the white hair, Harris has interesting things to say.

"When he opens his mouth, you'd think he invented the game with Dr. Naismith," Worthy said.

Harris hasn't been around that long, of course.

"I'm a very young 57," he said. "I don't want my 4-year-old son to feel like he's operating under a hardship."

You want hardship, you talk money. Harris' coaching career began at a junior high school in Johnson City, Tenn., in 1959. He made $2,750 a year, which is roughly the same amount that current players get for walking across the street.

In any event, Harris, Fitch and Motta are here again, proving that there is indeed life after coaching in the NBA. It's coaching in the NBA.

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