- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

It started with Lew Hayman. Even before there was an NBA, there were interim coaches.

Twelve games into the 1946-47 season, the first for a league called the Basketball Association of America, Hayman replaced Ed Sadowski as coach of the Toronto Huskies, for one game. The Huskies would have two more coaches that season and then fold. Within three years, the BAA and the National Basketball League had merged into the NBA.

The Huskies are forgotten now. But let us remember Lew Hayman, career record 0-1, as the first member of a broad and often-downtrodden NBA fraternity: interim coach.

It is a fraternity that includes such well-known names as Jeff Van Gundy, Chuck Daly and Rudy Tomjanovich and some lesser-known names as Gene Littles and Bob Bass, the kings of interim coaches. One of the newer members is Darrell Walker of the Washington Wizards, who replaced Gar Heard on Jan. 31.

The concept of the interim coach is as ingrained in the NBA as stupid organ music. One minute you're an assistant whose main responsibility is picking where to eat after the game. The next you're yanking a guy making $10 million a year to the bench for dogging it.

Right now, four of the 29 NBA coaches are tagged as interim and that's a low number compared with past years.

The word "interim" derives from the Latin "in the meantime." The English translation is: "Don't buy a house." If coaches are hired to be fired, interim coaches are hired to ride a team to the finish line, then get off the horse and get out of town. In most cases, the situation is grim, if not awful. Teams generally don't make changes when they're 34-11.

"It's a terrible job," said Phoenix Suns senior executive vice president Cotton Fitzsimmons, once an interim coach himself. "When you go in and take over a club, it's a miracle for anything good to happen unless there were injuries and you get back injured players. Or, if you're replacing an [expletive] and you're a decent human being, you can get the guys to go to work."

But that's rare. The Wizards, playing better and harder under Walker, and the Detroit Pistons, 8-3 before last night since assistant George Irvine replaced Alvin Gentry as interim coach, are the exceptions.

"It's too much," said Bass, the Charlotte Hornets' executive vice president of basketball operations. "You don't ever get a training camp, and it's extremely difficult to just go in and make major changes. You have to do it gradually."

Bass knows something about being an interim coach, having done it four times with the San Antonio Spurs. As far as anyone can tell, no one in the NBA has done it more often.

Which begs the question: Why?

"Because I was there," he said. "They ask you to do it, and you do it."

This is one of the main requirements for the job being there. A team fires a coach and looks for the loyal company man to take over. That's what Bass did, first when the Spurs were in the American Basketball Association in 1974-75, most recently in 1991-92.

But unlike most interim coaches, Bass inherited pretty good teams. Disputes between coaches (Tom Nissalke, Doug Moe, Larry Brown) and management led to their departures, and Bass took over teams with players like George Gervin, James Silas and David Robinson.

The only mediocre team Bass coached was the 1983-84 Spurs, who got off to an 11-20 start under Morris McHone. Under Bass, the Spurs were 26-25.

Only once, following the 1974-75 season, did Bass remain coach. The Spurs went 50-34 in what would be the ABA's final year, and then Bass resigned. He said he never really wanted to be a coach in the first place.

But Gene Littles did. Littles was an interim coach with three different teams Cleveland in 1985-86, Charlotte in 1989-90 and Denver in 1994-95. Each time he welcomed the opportunity although, for the most part, he was stepping in quicksand.

"The reason you replace a guy is because something's wrong," he said. "Are you gonna be a miracle worker?"

Generally, no, and Littles certainly wasn't. Not that it was his fault. In Cleveland, Littles replaced George Karl when the Cavaliers were 25-42, and coached the final 15 games. That team was a mess. Bad drafts brought in the likes of Keith Lee and Melvin Turpin. World B. Free had become a major distraction.

"There were a lot of internal problems," said Littles, who went 4-11, and then returned to the less stressful life of an assistant.

Charlotte was a little different. The team was 8-32 in just its second season when George Shinn, an impatient owner, fired Dick Harter. Littles, who was the first person hired by the franchise, as player personnel director, filled in and went 11-31.

"It was fun," Littles said. "I think I did as well as I could with what we had."

Littles earned the job for the next season, and the Hornets improved by seven games. But Littles told Shinn he did not think the club would be playoff-ready the next year. General manager Allen Bristow told Shinn he could get them there, however, and was hired as coach. The Hornets went 31-51. The following year, with Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson, they did make the playoffs.

Littles stayed in Charlotte until 1992, then went to Denver as an assistant to Dan Issel, his old buddy from the ABA. But during Issel's third season, with the Nuggets at 18-16, Issel suddenly resigned or so the story went. It later came out that he didn't get along with general manager Bernie Bickerstaff and was fired.

Once again Gene Littles rode to the rescue, this time reluctantly.

"I said I didn't want to coach the team," he said. "I told Bernie it wasn't a good situation. It wasn't what I came here for. I came here to help Dan. But I coached a month and a half, and then Bernie took over. It was terrible. The team was in disarray because of Dan… . The players loved Dan. He hadn't lost control, and I was happy in my [old] job.

The discombobulated Nuggets went 3-13 under Littles before Bickerstaff grabbed the reins. Littles finished out the season. It was his last job as a coach. He is now a scout for the Seattle SuperSonics.

Littles said he would like to get back into coaching as an assistant and believes he is better off for having been an interim coach. Despite the difficulties and some unpleasantness, not to mention an overall 18-55 record, Littles has few regrets.

"Only a few guys get a chance," he said. And thus explains why there never will be a shortage to fill these jobs.

"I could have said no," said Jim Brovelli, a former Wizards assistant who replaced Bickerstaff and served as interim coach for the final 18 games last season. "but you never say no to a situation where there's an opportunity given to you. I appreciated the opportunity. I really relished the opportunity, and I'd do it again even though it's the toughest situation in coaching."

Walker was coach of the Continental Basketball Association's Rockford Lightning, preparing for a game in Yakima, Wash. against the Sun Kings, when Michael Jordan, his good friend and new Wizards VP of basketball operations, called. Jordan wanted Walker to be his interim coach. The first choice, Golden State assistant Rod Higgins, was unable to get released from his contract.

It took Walker about a millisecond to say yes.

"I think it's a great opportunity any time you get a chance to coach in this league," said Walker, who was 41-90 in 1 and 1/2 seasons as coach of the Toronto Raptors. "And I'm going to make the most of it."

Walker hopes what has happened to other coaches happens to him parlaying an interim job into the real thing. For all the negatives, it can lead to one big positive. Ask Van Gundy, who has remained as the New York Knicks coach since he took over for Don Nelson at the end of the 1995-96 season, or Tomjanovich, who replaced Don Chaney at Houston in 1991-92. Rudy T stayed on and coached the Rockets to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.

Being an interim coach with one team also can help (or at least not hurt) in landing a coaching job with another. Chuck Daly was an interim coach in Cleveland in 1981-82, saddled with a 9-32 record, before eventually becoming coach of the Detroit Pistons and winning a couple of championships. Bob Hill served as interim coach with the Knicks (1986-87) and Indiana (1990-91) before he was hired as San Antonio's coach in 1994. The Spurs replaced Hill during the 1996-97 season with Gregg Popovich, who kept the job. It helped that Popovich also was the general manager.

"The one thing you've got going for you is, after a coach has been fired, the pressure is on the players to make it successful," said Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh, an interim coach with Denver in 1978-79. "If they turn it around, you can get a contract out of it. But if a team doesn't turn it around, it can be a thankless task."

Brovelli didn't turn things around the Wizards went 5-13 but he did not see the task as thankless and is satisfied he did his best.

"I tried to motivate the guys and communicate to them that what we had left we couldn't throw out the window," he said. "I think we did that."

After the season, Brovelli interviewed for the fulltime job with then-general manager Wes Unseld before Heard was hired. Brovelli now coaches in the CBA, in Sioux City, S.D., where he hopes his record isn't held against him.

"I think people know how difficult the job is," he said. "If people know who the person is, it shouldn't hurt them. It's probably the toughest situation a coach has to go through. You're there just to hold things together… . It shouldn't hurt your reputation, and in some ways, you gain experience. It's just another thing along the way that helps you."

Bass said the key to evaluating an interim coach isn't his record, but "how well he communicates with his players… . If he gets a team to play hard, you have to consider him a prospect."

By that standard, Walker is making a pretty strong case for himself. The Wizards started out 1-8 in Walker's first nine games, but were 10-8 since then before last night, including a victory over Los Angeles Lakers that snapped their 19-game winning streak. But it goes beyond the record.

"This is a fantastic opportunity, and I think I've made the most of it," he said. "The guys respect me, they've responded to all I've asked of them. The team is what it is right now. What Michael and Wes wanted to see was guys competing every night. I think I've done everything I've asked them to do."

In most cases, though, it's a dirty job and someone's got to do it. Fitzsimmons, a coach for several teams, and interim Suns coach between Paul Westphal and Danny Ainge, reflects the tolerance and understanding, if not outright sympathy and compassion, given interim coaches.

"You should not be held responsible," he said.

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