The NBA / Sam McManis : Dick Versace Brings Many Faces to Pacers

Presumably, the woeful Indiana Pacers were only looking for a good basketball coach, not some type of renaissance man, when they hired Detroit Pistons assistant Dick Versace late last week.

Turns out, the Pacers got both. Victories over the Clippers and the Pistons on consecutive nights last weekend signaled a change for the better in the Pacers’ play. And, as a bonus, Versace has proven to be a true character, someone who makes quirky coaching colleagues Jerry Reynolds and Doug Moe seem tame by comparison.

This eclectic--eccentric?--man once studied plant pathology in college, entertains romantic visions of chasing Ernest Hemingway’s ghosts in the cafes of Paris, spent time in the Coast Guard and was a high school football coach of some renown at Forrest, Wis., the self-described “Egg Capital of America, and That Ain’t No Yoke.”


Perhaps it takes a man with an adventuresome streak and Hemingway’s macho posturing to coach the Pacers, who have been a movable feast for NBA opponents this season.

At the time of Versace’s hiring, the Pacers had lost 45 of 61 games since last February, including 6-23 this season.

“I will not accept losing with this team or any team I coach,” Versace said at his introductory news conference. “When I speak to the players, that will be my opening comment.”

That pep talk must have done wonders, because the Pacers are 2-0 under Versace. They beat the Clippers by 35 points Friday night and the Pistons by 14 Saturday night.

Versace, who guided Bradley University into the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament and subsequent probation, had a secure and successful job as Chuck Daly’s top assistant at Detroit before the Pacers came calling.

Radical career shifts are nothing new to Versace, 48, so he did not hesitate when asked to replace George Irvine, who replaced Jack Ramsay as coach. Despite victories in Versace’s first 2 games, the Pacers still are at least a season away from respectability.

Versace, however, says he is used to challenges. He had a winning record with that Wisconsin high school football team he coached, as well as starting a fashion trend in town--the wearing of derby hats. In 8 seasons at Bradley, he turned a losing program around, guiding the Braves to a 32-3 record in 1985-86. However, Versace was asked to resign in the wake of NCAA probation.

Versace said his personality and coaching have been shaped as much by Hemingway as former Marquette Coach Al McGuire, both of whom he considers influences.

“When I started to read Hemingway, I started to realize it was not unmanly to love nature and to be contemplative and philosophical,” Versace said. “I was considering being an expatriate in Paris for a couple of years. It sounded like an interesting way to live. I could sit around the outdoor cafes, plan my day. That’s what they do. They wrote poetry and novels and short stories and traded ideas, went to the flea market, had love affairs. It was a really exciting period of time.”

Versace’s time as the Pacers’ coach doesn’t figure to be boring. But if he eventually is fired, he can always take up plant pathology again.

“I was going to be a research scientist,” Versace said. “But I was too much of an extrovert to sequester myself in a greenhouse doing research on corn rust.”

Then again, maybe not.

If you aspire to be an NBA head coach, it is recommended to first serve as an assistant to Chuck Daly at Detroit. Versace is the third of Daly’s former assistants to become an NBA coach. The others are Dick Harter at Charlotte and Ron Rothstein at Miami.

“Chuck doesn’t want anyone working for him who doesn’t want to be a head coach,” Versace said. “He’s the quintessential man’s man.”

Maybe that’s why Brendan Suhr, the assistant general manager and scouting director of the Atlanta Hawks, resigned to take Versace’s vacated position at Detroit, which would appear to be a step down.

Folks in Atlanta weren’t happy to see Suhr join the Hawks’ archrival in the Central Division. In fact, Stan Kasten, Atlanta’s general manager, pulled what he called a good-natured prank on Suhr when he gave his notice.

When Suhr arrived at the Omni for work, he discovered that his name on his parking space had been painted over and that another car was parked there. Suhr’s name also had been removed from his mail slot and office door.

However, Kasten did pay for Suhr’s plane ticket to New Jersey, where he scouted a game later that night.

The team most likely to make a major trade figures to be the ailing San Antonio Spurs, who want to improve their supporting cast before David Robinson joins the team after fulfilling his Navy commitment.

Red McCombs, the Spurs’ owner, said he wants to make a blockbuster trade similar to one he completed as the Denver Nuggets’ owner in 1984, in which the Nuggets acquired Fat Lever, Calvin Natt and others for Kiki Vandeweghe.

McCombs apparently had a meeting with Coach Larry Brown and General Manager Bob Bass to plan strategy.

“Something obviously is missing,” McCombs said. “We spent an hour on it. We asked, ‘Do we stay as we are?’ The answer is no. We have to do better.”

It is no secret that the Spurs want to acquire Vandeweghe, back from a chronic back ailment, from Portland. But the videotape of Vandeweghe in practice that the Spurs recently received didn’t stay a secret long, even though the Trail Blazers did it with a hidden camera. Brown’s reaction to the Vandeweghe tapes: “It was like a tape a father would take of his son in high school.”

Denver Coach Doug Moe recently watched talk-show host Morton Downey, an archconservative, on TV, and he knew he had seen him before. In fact, Downey signed Moe to his first professional contract with the American Basketball Assn.'s New Orleans Buccaneers in 1967.

“After a few months, he got fired. But he spent a lot of money,” Moe told a Denver newspaper. “I don’t think management liked that too much. I caught his TV show a couple of times. I’ll give him this. He’s one of the all-time showmen. You sit and laugh. He likes to stir things up, and you know I’m in total agreement with that.”

A New Year’s resolution from Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers:

“I think I’ve got to make a strong commitment to my girlfriends and my family. Well, don’t write down my girlfriends,” said Barkley, emphasizing the plural.

It was a rough week for New York Knicks Coach Rick Pitino.

First, he was fined $3,000 by the league for failing to leave the court after being ejected from a game. Pitino, in fact, sat in a seat near the corridor and relayed messages to his assistant coaches through a public relations man.

That, however, was minor compared to the turmoil that surfaced between Pitino and rookie guard Rod Strickland. Pitino is not taken with Strickland’s attitude, and Strickland is not happy with his playing time as Mark Jackson’s backup at point guard.

“Rod is nowhere near the player you guys make him out to be,” Pitino told New York writers. And, at one point in a recent game, Pitino was overheard saying to Strickland, “I’m tired of your Joe Cool attitude.”

Pitino’s criticism of Strickland drew criticism from Knick General Manager Al Bianchi, who told Newsday that he plans to reprimand Pitino.

“You don’t knock your players to the press,” Bianchi said. “You keep it inside.”

According to one report, the Knicks are trying to put together a 3-way trade that would send Strickland to the Indiana Pacers, Indiana’s Wayman Tisdale to the Portland Trail Blazers and Vandeweghe to the Knicks, who have long coveted the Trail Blazer forward.

Recently waived Utah Jazz guard Brad Kofoed filed a grievance through the NBA Players’ Assn. last weekend, seeking about $80,000 of his $125,000 guaranteed contract this season.

Kofoed was waived after a fight with teammate--and friend--Bobby Hansen at a New Year’s Eve party. Hansen suffered a broken cheekbone and underwent surgery last week. Club officials said Hansen probably will need a second operation and may not return until late April.

As a result, Kofoed was waived and not paid. David Checketts, the Jazz’s general manager, said Kofoed violated a good-citizen clause in his contract.