Tough Enough : Despite Winning a Title in Boston, Bill Fitch Decided to Move On

Times Staff Writer

Bill Fitch is back in Boston Garden. He is down on one knee again on the sidelines, wearing that same mournful expression and still talking about the need for discipline, one of his favorite subjects.

“First, there is enforced discipline,” Fitch said. “It’s like training tigers. You’ve got to crack the whip. This is, after all, an animalistic sport.

“Then you get to a point where you let it go. My Houston players may feel I’ve mellowed because I don’t holler at them as much as I did before. But you don’t holler at them if they’re doing it right . You don’t have to crack the whip any longer.”

It’s been nearly three full years since Fitch left the Boston Celtics, who got the last lash when Fitch resigned and moved on to coach at Houston.


The rough-talking, tough-minded disciplinarian coached the Celtics to an NBA title in 1981, only to leave two seasons later in a swirl of controversy over his coaching methods.

Not too many coaches resign after 56-victory seasons, but that’s what Fitch did. Now, Fitch is right back in the championship series, coaching the Houston Rockets tonight in Game 2 against the Celtics.

So far, Fitch has spent almost as much time talking about Larry Bird as he has explaining why he isn’t coaching him or the the rest of the Celtics any more.

“It’s a long story,” Fitch said. “But it isn’t what you think it is.”

The story begins in the 1979-80 season. It was Bird’s rookie year with the Celtics and Fitch’s first season coaching Boston after nine years at Cleveland.

A year later, the Celtics took the NBA title, winning 62 games, then defeating Houston in a six-game final series.

The Celtics won 63 the next season but lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs. Then in 1982-83, the Celtics won 56 games, the fewest number of victories in the Bird Era, and were swept out of the playoffs by Milwaukee, 4-0.

This is where the story gets a little messy. Celtic players grumbled that Fitch was too strict, too much of an authoritarian, too much of a disciplinarian.

Fitch soon resigned. Although he landed on his feet in Houston within two weeks, Fitch left behind a tattered image in a city that could have been his but never was.

What went wrong?

It seems there was an undisguised clash of philosophies. The matchup was Fitch vs. almost everybody else.

Somehow, Fitch managed to alienate Celtic players such as Danny Ainge, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, all of whom developed a strong dislike for Fitch’s strong-armed coaching tactics and his occasional sharp criticism.

Of McHale, Fitch once said: “He’ll starve if he ever plays center in this league.”

McHale hasn’t forgiven Fitch for that comment, but others have gotten over Fitch in the time he’s been gone.

Ainge, who has complained loudly in the past that Fitch retarded his development as a player, said time has since mellowed his opinion of his former coach.

“It’s taken me so long to understand him,” Ainge said. “At the time, I didn’t agree with some of the things he was doing.”

What Fitch did was everything he could. No detail was too small to forget, no job was large enough to take for granted. One of the first coaches in the NBA to use videotape, Fitch drove the Celtics hard when they won, which they didn’t appreciate, so many deserted him when they lost.

Fitch had little use for K.C. Jones, who was one of his assistant coaches, but who succeeded him as head coach. Fitch shunted Jones off to one side, to the degree that Jones often had to ask reporters what time practice was.

Once bitter over the way he was treated by Fitch, Jones said he has forgotten it now. He didn’t sound totally convincing.

“With Bill, the assistant coach has nothing to say unless he’s asked,” Jones said. “He never asked. He was the head coach. I had to do whatever he wants. If he doesn’t want to use me, well, that’s what being his assistant coach meant.”

Jimmie Rodgers, the other assistant to Fitch, had the unlucky job of lugging around videotape equipment, which was one of his primary tasks. Rodgers could have followed Fitch to Houston but chose instead to stay on as the No. 1 assistant to Jones and has since developed a reputation as one of the NBA’s top aides and brightest minds.

“Bill was what you might call a dominant figure as a coach,” Rodgers said.

“At that point in time, his approach was needed because we were rebuilding.

“But sometimes, when you reach a certain level, like win a championship, you may have to alter that approach,” Rodgers said. “But Bill had his own way of doing things.”

It is not really surprising that from Fitch’s view, that’s not really the whole story. Sure, he was tough, he said, but Bird didn’t mind. In fact, Bird remains one of Fitch’s biggest boosters.

It was precisely Fitch’s driven nature, his preparation and his attention to detail that appealed to Bird, even if it was driving many of his teammates crazy.

So, if Fitch wasn’t forced out because the Celtics lost to the Bucks in the playoffs, if he didn’t leave because of player unrest or because of his penchant for discipline, why then did Fitch leave?

Fitch insists he chose to resign on his own when the Celtic owner decided he would sell the team. Fitch was buying some golf clubs when he got a phone call informing him that owner Harry Mangurian was going to sell out.

“I made up my mind as soon as he made up his,” Fitch said. “Nobody can understand that. They all think it was because I didn’t get along with Red Auerbach and I didn’t get along with some of the players.

“I read all that stuff,” he said. “If I had to coach a game the day I left, there wouldn’t have been one Celtic player who wouldn’t have carried out the game plan and I couldn’t have counted on.

“What really hurt and what really looked bad was that it came after we lost four games to Milwaukee,” Fitch said. “If we had won four games against Milwaukee, under the same circumstances, with the team being sold, I would still be gone.”

Jones, 54, is the coaching opposite of Fitch, 52. If Fitch is whipped cream, then Jones is pudding.

The manner of his coaching, Jones said, is the only way he could possibly be.

“My personality and my style, how else could I go?” Jones asked. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be me. If that’s what they hired me for, I’ll accept that. If it was because of coaching quality, I’ll accept that, too.”

The Celtics seem to be thriving on Jones’ easygoing technique and personality.

Said Ainge: “They both have different personalities. They have different ways to motivate players, which is what coaching is all about. It’s just that K.C. makes the game more fun than Bill. If not more fun, then more relaxed.”

Auerbach, who during the Fitch years shared a table at a Chinese restaurant with him four times a week, said Fitch and Jones have always been good coaches.

“Bill is tremendously well organized and he’s more of a disciplinarian than K.C.,” Auerbach said. “Things bothered him more than K.C. But both of them get results. I’m not saying one way is better than the other.”

On the eve of Game 1, Jones celebrated his birthday by singing with an orchestra in a hotel bar. His repertoire included, “Misty,” “Georgia On My Mind” and “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.”

Fitch never found enough somebodies to love him here.