Coaches he once worked for love him. Coaches he has preceded in NBA jobs rave about him. Coaches who know him only as an opponent marvel at his knowledge of the game and welcome his return to their ranks.
The Lakers' announcement Friday that they have hired Del Harris to be their coach set off a cascade of compliments from his peers. Grim though the Lakers' prospects seem after a 33-49 record that kept them out of the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons, the consensus among NBA coaches was that if anyone can guide the Lakers back toward their former glory, Harris can.
"I'm extremely pleased for Del Harris," New Jersey Coach Chuck Daly said. "He is one of the outstanding coaches I have played against, and I am very confident he will help restore the pride in the Laker organization."
Golden State Coach Don Nelson, who was the Milwaukee Bucks' coach and director of player personnel in 1983 when he hired Harris as a scout, agreed Harris has the record, reputation and motivational skills to turn the Lakers around.
"I think the Lakers made an excellent choice in hiring Del Harris. He's worked with me as my assistant and competed against me as a head coach and I think he's one of the finest guys in basketball," said Nelson, who made Harris his top assistant in Milwaukee in June of 1986. Harris succeeded Nelson as the Bucks' coach a year later.
"I commend the Lakers on their selection. I think he's going to do a great job."
Nelson, whose relationship with Harris goes back more than 20 years, said one of Harris' strengths is his ability to communicate with players. That's no easy task, as Magic Johnson discovered during his 16-game term as coach after Randy Pfund was fired.
Johnson cited players' lack of diligence in practice and in games as his biggest frustration. Nelson said he expects Harris, known as a disciplinarian, to be firm enough to cope with players who become complacent once they have the security of a long-term contract.
"He'll do as good a job as anybody is capable of doing," Nelson said. "He's an excellent teacher, very perceptive and very patient and a good judge of character. There isn't a situation that will come up that Del won't be able to handle."
Mike Dunleavy, who gave up the Laker coaching job in May of 1992 to succeed Harris as the Bucks' coach and vice president of basketball operations, is another member of Harris' fan club.
Dunleavy also predicted Harris will instill a solid work ethic among his high-paid players and will create a much-needed atmosphere of calm on a team that has gone through two coaches in less than a season.
"I think first of all Del will give the situation some stability," Dunleavy said. "Also, he's one of the hardest-working coaches I've been around and one of the smartest as far as X's and O's. He understands the game as well as anybody, and I think he's going to do a great job.
"The game has changed in that regard (encouraging young players with lucrative contracts to work harder). The way the money structure has changed within the last couple of years has changed things a great deal, as far as players coming into this league making the kind of money they do and knowing their future is secure, instead of establishing themselves like the players of old. You carried bags, and you carried the 24-second clock. Now it's 'If I don't like it, I'm going to take my ball and go home.' "I think everybody is trying to figure that out. Instead of fining, coaches are going to have to go to suspending. I think Del is a really bright person. He's going to know how to handle whatever situations might come up."
The Lakers face many key personnel decisions, such as whether to buy out James Worthy's contract, where--and if--Doug Christie will play and whether they can afford to sign the "go-to" player they have lacked in recent years. The strong friendship between Harris and Laker General Manager Jerry West is likely to carry over to their working relationship, Dunleavy said, making such decisions easier.
"You look at that team and I think there's a certain level of competence," Dunleavy said. "There are some good players. The pieces are there. In some cases, they've got to figure out what roles this guy will play. I think Jerry as general manager and Del as coach are going to have to get together and figure out who fits and where those players fit. They have two great minds, two guys who are very good at what they do."