Of all the people Chuck Daly touched, he may be remembered most for something he touched that turned to Gold: The 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team that won the Gold medal in Barcelona. They will forever call it the Dream Team, but let’s not forget it had a dream coach, too.
“That was a classic, a sweet spot for Chuck Daly,” Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball, said Saturday in a phone interview. “Having that group of players under those circumstances, was he was the perfect guy.”
The reaction and tributes pouring out after Daly’s death from pancreatic cancer Saturday at age 78 speak volumes about his influence. His former players and assistant coaches dot the basketball landscape, making it virtually impossible to find an NBA team or major college program that he didn’t touch in some way. He changed the way defense was played – not only in the postseason, but in the 82 games preceding it. He was as gentle as his teams were ferocious, always the kindest and best-dressed guy in the room.
"Chuck was a great leader," Michael Jordan said Saturday in a statement released by the Charlotte Bobcats. "I only wish I could have played for him outside of the Dream Team."
The ultimate tribute from perhaps the greatest player Daly -- or anyone else -- ever coached.
Colangelo recalls the very first time he met Daly, who at the time was coaching at Boston College. Even then, Colangelo said, the man who would later become known as Daddy Rich was impeccably attired and genuinely kind.
“I was there to see some prospect; I don’t remember who it was back in those days,” Colangelo said. “But that was my first time and first impression. He was energetic, into the game, well dressed; that was his trademark, and he had the reputation that goes all the way back to being nattily dressed. And then, of course, the career that he had that really came into its own in Detroit. He was responsible for kind of changing how the game was being played at that time.”
It is a testament to Daly’s enduring ability with people that Charles Barkley, one of his Dream Team players in ’92, said Saturday, “I never understood how a great man, a nice guy, coached the Bad Boys.” Couldn't have said it better myself. Isiah Thomas, whom Daly regarded as a son, was famously left off the Dream Team roster. But Daly handled it with such class that Thomas, one of the all-time grudge-holders of NBA history, never held it against him. "Until the day he died," Thomas said Saturday on ESPN, "he was still coaching us. He was good to us. He was good to all of us."
And good for the game.
“The defense that the Detroit Pistons team had kind of set a tone,” Colangelo said. “The league has always been a league that goes in cycles, with the latest, newest way to play the game or nuances. And I think Detroit became so defensive minded, and the Bad Boy image if you will, the physicality that came into play, was kind of where the game was for a while. ... There was always realization and perception that the game was called differently in the playoffs than the regular season, and that defenses tightened up in the playoffs and in the regular season it was more open. And Chuck decided to try to play that way throughout the year, and that was a sea change, so to speak. That became a style.”
To this day. Just look at the teams winning championships in the decade since Daly last coached -- the Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, Heat, and Celtics. With the possible exception of the Lakers, who had a much better-defending Shaquille O'Neal in those days, they all did it with Daly-like defense.
Though Daly’s last coaching job came to an end a decade ago in Orlando, he never left the game. Never retired. Nobody ever expected him to, or wanted him to. When Colangelo took on the job of overseeing USA Basketball in 2005, Daly was one of the first people he called for advice.
“He was as receptive as you could imagine,” Colangelo said. “I held a meeting in Chicago for these former Olympic coaches and players, and it was a classic time together. And then I called on Chuck to be around us in Las Vegas while we were training and kind of used him for feedback on what we were doing and how we were doing it. He was always there and available for you.”
Lakers coach Phil Jackson, reacting to Daly’s passing Saturday, said Daly’s work with USA Basketball will be the most memorable piece of an enduring legacy.
“Probably coaching the Dream Team is going to be what people remember him by,” Jackson said. “Besides the fact that he was a well-dressed, handsome man who was kind of a gentleman. That went along with him. But he’s a great friend of the coaches and a very big supporter of the coaching fraternity that we have in the NBA.”
And Daly didn’t just change the landscape for coaches. He changed the fabric of players, too. Just look at the international flavor of the teams still alive in the playoffs – Pau Gasol, Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Dirk Nowitzki, Zydrunas Ilgauskas ... the list goes on. The globalization of the NBA, which will be commissioner David Stern’s legacy, actually started with Daly and the Dream Team.
“You look at the makeup of that team, the people, the great players – some of the greatest players of all time – and how they all kind of blended together and the impact they had on the world of basketball,” Colangelo said. “It brought the world of basketball to another level in terms of exposure and perception.”
Rockets coach Rick Adelman was coaching in Portland when the Dream Team played there in the Tournament of Americas leading up to the '92 Olympics. The players used the Blazers' locker room, and Adelman saw first-hand why coaching those immortals -- Jordan, Bird, Magic, Stockton, Malone, Barkley, Mullin, Ewing, and on -- wasn't as easy as it looked.
"I don’t know that they were ever going to get beat with the talent they had," Adelman said. "But he had to get all those guys to come together, get them to come with one goal, and they did that. ... I think he really got those guys thinking of one mind. There were a lot of superstars with that team and they were very talented, but they played as a team. They defended and they moved the ball and they played as a team, and he got them to do that."
Colangelo remembers the first time he met Daly, and he remembers the last time he saw him, too. This was in Las Vegas last summer before Team USA left for Beijing with the mission of restoring the United States to its rightful place on the world basketball stage – the place Daly had established as the standard.
“We had Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens there at our practice, and each of them addressed our team,” Colangelo said. “And we sat together and watched practice together. So I’ll always remember that, too.”
No one will ever forget. He’ll be missed.