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Chuck Daly dies at 78; basketball coach led Pistons, Olympic team

OBITUARIES

The Hall of Fame coach whipped Detroit's Bad Boys into shape, winning back-to-back NBA titles over Magic Johnson's Lakers and Larry Bird's Celtics. He also coached the U.S. Dream Team in '92.

May 10, 2009|Mark Heisler

Chuck Daly, the Hall of Fame basketball coach who led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA titles and the U.S. Dream Team to an Olympic gold medal, died Saturday in Jupiter, Fla. He was 78.

Retired since 1999, Daly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two months ago. In his honor, NBA coaches have worn "CD" pins during the postseason.

"Chuck did much more than coach basketball games," NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement. "He positively impacted everyone he met, both personally and professionally, and his love of people and the game of basketball helped develop the next generation of coaches."

Born in 1930 in St. Marys, Pa., Daly was a Depression baby, literally and figuratively, who used to tell a young Doug Collins, "I don't trust happiness."

Collins, who would consider Daly a mentor throughout his career as an NBA player and coach, jokingly called him "the prince of pessimism."

Daly's rise was as improbable as that of his Pistons, a widely hated team that reveled in its nickname, the Bad Boys, as it unseated Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers.

Daly attended Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and served two years in the Army, then joined Jack Ramsay as the only two coaches to win an NBA title after starting at the high school level. He began humbly, if colorfully, at Punxsutawney High School, in a town best known for its groundhog, where he spent eight years teaching English and speech as well as coaching the golf and basketball teams.

In 1963, dazzled by his first trip to an NCAA Final Four game, where he bought a ticket from a scalper and sat in the last row, Daly wrote a blind letter to Duke University Coach Vic Bubas, whose Blue Devils had lost in the semifinals, applying for an assistant's job.

Hitting the lottery, Daly got the job, joining a three-man staff with Hubie Brown, who would also go on to become a Hall of Fame coach in the pros, winning an American Basketball Assn. title with the Kentucky Colonels.

Daly spent two years as head coach at Boston College and six at the University of Pennsylvania before coming to the NBA as a 48-year-old assistant under Billy Cunningham, who had just been hired as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

In 1981, Daly took the head coaching job in Cleveland under madcap owner Ted Stepien, who fired him after 41 games.

In 1983, Daly went to the Pistons, who had been through five coaches in six seasons with a high-scoring circus led by Isiah Thomas, Kelly Tripucka and Vinnie Johnson.

Introducing a new notion -- defense -- Daly turned them around, although it wasn't always smooth. It took an intervention by Thomas, the owner's favorite, to keep Daly from being fired in his fourth season.

Making up in competitiveness what they lacked in athleticism, the Pistons played defense by whatever means necessary.

Today's NBA controversy about flagrant fouls and suspensions stems from moves by Stern that began in the early '90s to protect stars, particularly Chicago's Michael Jordan, from being physically assaulted by the Bad Boys, who targeted him in a scheme Daly called the Jordan Rules.

Aside from Daly's toughness, perseverance and charm -- he had big hair, a big personality and favored expensive three-piece suits -- he was a shrewd realist.

Brendan Suhr, who arrived in Detroit as a young assistant from college where coaches rule, recalled seeing Thomas mess up over and over and asking Daly why he didn't take him out.

"He's our guy," Suhr says Daly told him, "and tomorrow, he'll still be our guy."

The Pistons, who had never won a title, broke through in 1989, sweeping the Lakers. A year later, Detroit beat the Portland Trail Blazers to become only the third team to repeat since the Bill Russell Celtics of the 1960s.

With the Bad Boys aging or gone, Daly left Detroit in 1992, subsequently coaching two-year stints with the New Jersey Nets and Orlando Magic.

His greatest honor, however, may have come with the U.S. Olympic team in 1992, the first one made up of NBA players.

The process was thorny, with Jordan reportedly dead-set against inviting Thomas, Daly's star, who was left off the team. Confident that Daly could soothe any personality conflicts that might arise, U.S. Olympic officials named him coach.

Retired since 1999, Daly lived with his wife, Terry, in Jupiter, Fla., golfing daily. The Pistons in 1997 retired a No. 2 jersey in honor of Daly's two titles.

Rick Mahorn, one of the baddest of the Bad Boys, said of Daly: "Without you, there wouldn't be us."

In addition to his wife, Daly is survived by a daughter, Cydney, and two grandchildren.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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