Twenty years ago, Olympics viewers were blown away by the U.S. basketball team – the Dream Team. Chuck Daly led that team to Olympic gold. Originally published May 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.
If you've been watching the NBA playoffs this year, you may have noticed that along the bench, every coach is wearing a small pin on his lapel with the initials "C.D." written in elegant script. Those were worn in solidarity for Chuck Daly who, less than a year ago, was diagnosed with cancer. Daly died on Saturday at the age of 78, but not before witnessing the outpouring of support from the profession that he stood atop of during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Daly was the astute and dapper coach of the rough and tumble Detroit Pistons championship teams in the 1989 and 1990. They were a fierce bunch, known as the "bad boys," for their hard-scrabble defense, eruptive emotionality the disruptive menace on the court. Daly organized the personalities on that team by stoking and controlling their fire with well-considered lineups, hard plays and a commitment to defensive basketball, which has since become basketball orthodoxy.
But even in the grind of Daly’s system, transcendent play emerged: Isiah Thomas running the fast break, Joe Dumars dishing to a shooter, Dennis Rodman battling for a put back tip. There was even poetry in Bill Laimbeer staring down an opponent or larger-than-life teddy bears Rick Mahorn and John Sally rumbling down the court.
The team and the city coalesced those years, both resembling the spirit of the other: hard working and blue collar, a definitive shift in basketball style since the Hollywood flash of the Lakers’ dynasty of the mid-80s.
In 1992, Daly was pegged to represent more than just Detroit, or the industrial mid-west (he was born in western Pennsylvania). The Olympics were allowing professional basketball players to compete in Barcelona for the first time that year, and the U.S. picked Daly to lead a legendary collection of basketball greats, The Dream Team.
USA basketball coach Chuck Daly talks with the team during their preliminary round basketball game with Croatia at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona Monday, July 27, 1992. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and a host of other hall-of-famers filled the roster for that team, and Daly easily managed them to a gold medal finish. The task was more of an honor than a crack assignment. The U.S. dominated their opponents so readily that Daly never had to call a timeout, never needed to regroup, never really needed to coach the way he did in Detroit for 9 years, or the way he did at the University of Pennsylvania before that.
Among the great coaches of the NBA over the last 2 decades, Daly stands out by blending in. He wasn’t as flashy or sartorially adept as Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers and Heat to championships. He wasn’t a Zen practitioner who plied an esoteric offensive system like Phil Jackson. He was Chuck Daly, who found success through hitting the floor hard and inspiring his team to dictate the course of play.
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