Experience Necessary to Lakers : Pro basketball: After decades of hiring rookie coaches, they fill their latest vacancy with Harris, 56.
Mike Dunleavy didn’t want it.
Randy Pfund couldn’t keep it.
Magic Johnson didn’t need it.
So, for the fourth time in four years, the Lakers have a new coach in the job once considered among the most highly coveted in sports. After going with rookie coaches as they have back to the days of Bill Sharman, on Friday the Lakers tied their future to a white-haired, 56-year-old veteran, Del Harris.
Harris, who has eight years of head-coaching experience in the NBA, was signed to a multiyear deal, believed to be for three years for a total of $1.5 million to $2 million. No decision has been made on assistant coaches.
Johnson announced at the end of the season that his 16-game flirtation with the job had been nothing more than that, that he wouldn’t be back. Rick Pitino of Kentucky, Roy Williams of Kansas and Gary Williams of Maryland were all prominently mentioned. But Laker owner Jerry Buss insists it was Harris from the start.
“Del has been our first choice for coach for a very long time,” Buss said. “My feeling was, we should leave no stone unturned. We should go through everyone we thought conceivably might be a candidate. But quite honestly, our thoughts have been on Del for many months now. . . . We wanted to keep an open mind, (but) in the back of our mind, we always wanted Del Harris.”
The choice, however, seems to present as many questions as it does answers.
With a young, struggling team that had trouble relating to a superstar such as Johnson, himself only three years removed from the league, what chance does Harris have?
With upper management that has long been devoted to the wide-open, running style of Showtime, why hire a coach who specializes in defense and the half-court game?
Harris was not fazed by either question at the news conference.
He was quick to point out that his teams can run with the best of them when the opportunity presents itself.
“I made my reputation as a college coach by having teams that scored 100 points a game,” he said.
The master of Showtime was Pat Riley, the last Laker coach of the glory years--he was a rookie, too, when he took the job--but Harris said it was the circumstances as much as the man.
“Pat Riley became categorized as a Showtime kind of coach,” Harris said. “Now, he’s doing just the opposite.”
Riley, indeed, has built the New York Knicks into a title contender with a tough, bruising, defense-minded style.
“I believe a master coach must find a way to win with his particular talent,” Harris said.
Nor did Harris seem fazed by the problems Johnson encountered in trying to motivate a squad he saw lacking in the work ethic he and his teammates of the 1980s lived by.
“Respect comes when you know what you’re doing and the people that you’re working with perceive that,” Harris said. “I don’t think it comes because you go out and try to seek it. If your goal is to go out and get respect, you probably won’t find it.”
Harris didn’t see the age gap as a problem, either.
“I’m a young 56,” he said. “I have a 4-year-old son (Dominic). I know some guys who are 50 and have cashed it in. They’re dead. My father-in-law is 80 and he’s one of the most active guys I know. He even has a girlfriend.
“I want to coach forever.”
It sometimes seems as if he has.
After starting as head coach at Earlham College in Indiana in 1965, Harris became an NBA head coach with the Houston Rockets in 1979, after first serving as an assistant there under Tom Nissalke. Harris was 127-119 in his first three years in Houston, getting the Rockets into the playoffs in each of those seasons, and all the way to the finals in 1981, when his squad lost to the Boston Celtics. Harris left Houston after four years with a 141-187 record, including a 14-68 season after star center Moses Malone left for Philadelphia. He also coached the Bucks for a four-year span beginning in the 1987-88 season--he was fired after an 8-9 start in 1991--and has an overall NBA record of 332-341 and seven playoff appearances in eight seasons.
He remained with the Bucks in the front office until 1992, then spent the last season writing a book, “Winning Defense,” and serving as a consultant to the Sacramento Kings.
Harris, however, had not given up his dream of returning to coaching and pursuing the goal that has always eluded him--an NBA championship.
So, after Laker General Manager Jerry West, a good friend for more than two decades, called, they met last Tuesday and hammered out the basic points of a contract. The final touches were put on the deal Friday morning.
What impressed West the most, he said, was that Harris’ first question wasn’t, “How much does the job pay?” That, said West, made him stand out from other candidates.
Harris has been knocked for being bland. Several columnists have referred to him as “Dull” Harris for years.
But those close to him insist that is not the case. Beneath that peaceful exterior, it is said, is a taskmaster who won’t put up with the poor work ethic Johnson found.
Harris didn’t seem dull at the news conference. When long-time announcer Chick Hearn asked what Harris felt the team required, the new coach answered with a smile, “I think we need a new broadcaster.”
Back in the early 1980s, when he was coaching Houston, Harris said, he decided at one point to get to know Malone a little better.
“What did you do during the summer?” Harris asked Malone.
“Swimming pool,” replied Malone, never one to waste words.
“Oh, you built yourself a swimming pool?” Harris said.
“Went swimming. Shot pool,” Malone replied.
Communication between players and coaches was no better then than it is now. But Harris did fine with Malone, his favorite player.
The Lakers are counting on his doing as well now.
Tough Acts to Follow
A look at Laker coaches’ records in their first season on the job:
Year Coach Record ’60-61 Fred Schaus 36-43 ’67-68 Bill van Breda Kolff 52-30 ’69-70 Joe Mullaney 46-36 ’71-72 Bill Sharman 69-13 ’76-77 Jerry West 53-29 ’79-80 Jack McKinney* 9-4 ’79-80 Paul Westhead 51-18 ’81-82 Pat Riley** 50-21 ’90-91 Mike Dunleavy 58-24 ’92-93 Randy Pfund 39-43 ’93-94 Magic Johnson*** 5-11
* Replaced by Paul Westhead after being injured in a bicycle accident.
** Replaced Paul Westhead, who was fired.
*** Replaced Randy Pfund, who was fired.