Sleight of Hand : Next Trick for Bob Weiss, New Clipper Coach and Amateur Magician, Will Be to Make Fans Forget He Wasn't Team's First Choice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An accomplished amateur magician, new Clipper Coach Bob Weiss has performed at NBA meetings, where his sleight of hand has been a big hit.

Weiss can make an unlighted cigarette vanish, then reappear from his nostril.

"When you smoke, people always ask you if you inhale," Weiss joked as he did the trick.

He can make coins disappear, then reappear from thin air. And he does card tricks that leave astonished onlookers scratching their heads.

"When I was playing in Buffalo, there was a guy named Eddie Fetter, who was one of the top five magicians in the country," Weiss said. "I went to his magic bar at an old run-down, beat-up hotel.

"The act I do is basically his act. He started out with coins and then he went to cards and cigarettes. It's a world-class act because it's his act.

"I'm not a serious studying magician. I do it just for fun. But I'll probably wind up joining the Magic Castle now that I'm here."

Weiss's most challenging magic trick may be to maintain the momentum created by his predecessor, Larry Brown, who led the Clippers to consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 1976 before he fled last May.

Although the Clippers maintain that they are the winningest pro sports team in Los Angeles over the last two years, their image hardly matches the boast.

After Brown quit, the Clippers went 62 days before hiring Weiss as his replacement. Spurned by Lenny Wilkens, who replaced Weiss at Atlanta; former New York Knick coach Hubie Brown and

Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino, the Clippers finally turned to Weiss, who has compiled a 183-227 record in five seasons as an NBA coach.

Weiss dismisses not having been the Clippers' first choice.

"My wife had a couple of dates before I asked her to marry me and the marriage has worked out very well," he said. "I don't see any reason why this can't work."

The Clippers' eighth head coach since they moved to Los Angeles in 1984, Weiss has plenty to concern himself with before training camp opens on Oct. 8.

Forward Ken Norman signed a free-agent contract with the Milwaukee Bucks this summer. And all-star forward Danny Manning, who has asked to be traded, will become an unrestricted free agent after next season. Guard Gary Grant wasn't given a qualifying offer and might not return.

"If there weren't problems, I wouldn't have the job," Weiss said. "If everything was going terrifically, there would be no opening. You're hired to help solve problems.

"Would we rather have something for Kenny Norman? Yes. Would we rather have Danny Manning completely happy and signed to a long-term contract? Yes. But those are things that we're going to address and try to solve."

Weiss has experience at trying to solve the problems of NBA teams.

Hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 1986 to rebuild an aging team, he led them to a 59-105 record in two seasons and into the 1988 playoffs. Although Weiss was given a three-year contract extension, the Spurs were sold and Weiss was swept out by the new broom, Larry Brown replacing him.

The Spurs, who had won 31 games in Weiss' final season, won 21 in Brown's first season--before the arrival of David Robinson the following season.

"I was very, very happy that David Robinson didn't come out (of the Navy) the next year because Larry Brown had just won the national championship (at Kansas)," Weiss said. "I figured if David had come out, they would have won 50-plus games and it would have looked like I did a terrible job there. But fortunately, David didn't come out and Larry won 10 less games and that gave me a lot of backing among NBA people because they felt I did a pretty good job there."

San Antonio General Manager Bob Bass says Weiss didn't get a really good shot with the Spurs.

"He was in a rebuilding process," Bass said. "We had drafted David Robinson, but he was in the Navy for two years. The two years (Weiss) was here, he did the best possible job.

"He's great with the players and he understands the players. I have great respect for him as a coach and think he'll do a great job with the Clippers."

After spending a year as a TV broadcaster for the Dallas Mavericks and a year as an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic, Weiss was hired to coach the aging Atlanta Hawks in 1990.

He led them to two playoff berths in three seasons, and they missed the playoffs by only one game in 1992, despite having lost all-star forward Dominique Wilkins because of an Achilles' tendon injury.

But Weiss, who compiled a 124-122 record in three seasons at Atlanta, was fired after the Hawks had been eliminated by the NBA champion Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs last spring.

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Weiss, 51, spent 10 seasons and parts of two others in the NBA, playing for Philadelphia, Seattle, Milwaukee, Chicago, Buffalo and Washington.

Weiss comes from a family of athletes.

His brother, Don, 46, was a quarterback at Juniata College in Huntington, Pa., and played two seasons in the Canadian Football League with Winnipeg and Saskatchewan.

And his father, Vic, 78, played in the Brooklyn Dodgers' minor league system on a team with Carl Furillo and Gene Hermanski before going into the Army in 1942.

He became a high school teacher and coach in Athens, Pa., after he was discharged from the Army, mostly because he could make more money teaching than he could playing baseball. And he had a wife and son to support.

"Bob started very, very young," said Weiss' mother, Gertrude. "I put up a basket in the kitchen when he was 3, and that was always his favorite toy. He loved to shoot and dribble."

Weiss' parents realized early that basketball was his best sport.

"His dad coached the high school football team, but he wouldn't let him play football because he felt his future was in basketball," Gertrude said. "But he was also a good baseball player. He pitched a no-hitter in high school."

Vic Weiss also recalled Bob's basketball prowess.

"I didn't want him to play football, even though I was the head football coach, because I knew that his entering college would be based on basketball," he said. "He was that good when he was a kid."

It proved to be a wise decision. Penn State gave Weiss a basketball scholarship in 1961.

Selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the third round of the 1965 draft, Weiss struggled in his first two seasons, shuttling between the 76ers and the Wilmington, Del., Blue Bombers of the old Eastern Basketball League, forerunner of the Continental Basketball Assn.

"In those days, it was really tough to make it because there were only 10 teams and there was no European ball," Weiss said. "I was struggling (in the Eastern League) and was going to get cut. I had lost all my confidence, so I went to my coach (former Philadelphia Warrior star Neil Johnston) in Wilmington and he actually saved my career.

"I asked him why I wasn't playing and he told me that when a guard goes into a game, something has to happen. It was like flicking on a light switch. I said, 'OK, I'm going to make something happen.'

"So I started playing with reckless abandon, and I ended up starting on that team and we won the Eastern League championship."

Cut by the 76ers the next season, he was re-signed by the team after Larry Costello broke his leg in 1967 and was a reserve on the 76ers' NBA championship team.

Weiss went to Seattle in the 1967 expansion draft and was selected by Milwaukee in the 1968 expansion draft. The Bucks traded him to Chicago later that season.

Weiss spent six years with the Bulls before he was traded to the Buffalo Braves--the team that later became the Clippers--in 1974. After spending two seasons with the Braves, he signed with the Washington Bullets as a free agent in 1976.

After retiring in 1977, Weiss spent a year working for his former agent before he got back into the NBA, joining the San Diego Clippers as an assistant to Gene Shue.

"I never thought too much about being an assistant coach because there weren't many assistants in the NBA at the time," Weiss said. "But I was like a fish out of water in the business world."

After spending two seasons in San Diego, Weiss was hired by Dick Motta as the Dallas Mavericks' only assistant coach in 1980.

After six seasons in Dallas, Weiss was hired as the head coach of the Spurs.

Noted for his low-key coaching demeanor, Weiss says he got his style from his father, who spent 25 years coaching prep sports.

"I was never flamboyant or hotheaded, and I hope that some of that rubbed off on Bob," Vic Weiss said.

"Did I teach him all he knows? Yes, I taught him all he knows, but that wasn't near enough."

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