Bill Fitch, who coached Celtics to 1981 NBA title, dies at 89

Coach Bill Fitch sits to the right of Celtics players Rick Robey, center, and Larry Bird.
Bill Fitch, right, led Rick Robey, center, and Larry Bird to the 1981 NBA championship.
(Peter Morgan / Associated Press)

Bill Fitch, whose 25-year career as an NBA head coach ended with a four-season stint leading the Clippers in the 1990s, died Wednesday at 89, the National Basketball Coaches Assn. confirmed.

Fitch was the NBA’s coach of the year in 1976 and 1980 and won an NBA championship coaching Boston in 1981. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.

Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, president of the NBCA who began his coaching career under Fitch, announced Fitch’s death in a statement Wednesday.

“He died peacefully surrounded by his loving family in Lake Conroe, Texas,” Carlisle said.


The Clippers hired Fitch in 1994. After a 17-65 first season, the team went 29-53 and 36-46 the next two, including a playoff berth in 1997 — the franchise’s only appearance in the postseason between 1993 and 2005. In his final season, the Clippers went 17-65 in 1997-98.

Fitch, whose father, Doc, was a former Marine drill instructor, was known for putting draft prospects through arduous workouts to test how they performed while fatigued, and coaching with a disciplinarian’s streak.

“A lot of times I’ve had great players that I didn’t expect to like me, and some of them became great players because they didn’t like me and I wouldn’t let them like me,” Fitch told The Times in 1994.

John Lucas, the former Houston star who later became a longtime NBA coach, said in 1994 that he was forever grateful for Fitch, saying the coach had “saved my life” by cutting him in Houston in 1984 because of Lucas’ cocaine addiction, then re-signing him only after he had finished rehab one year later.

“He taught me more as a coach about life and living life on life’s terms than anybody I’ve dealt with before,” Lucas said in 1994.

One draft prospect who passed Fitch’s trying test was Kobe Bryant, during a 1996 workout at the former Sports Arena.

Bill Fitch reacts after the Boston Celtics defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to win the Eastern Conference finals in 1981.
Bill Fitch is all smiles as he leaves the court after the Boston Celtics defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to win the Eastern Conference finals in 1981.
(Associated Press)

“He worked at his game hard,” Fitch recalled in 2020.

In a “long talk” with Bryant afterward, Fitch expressed to the high school prospect and future Hall of Fame guard that he had reservations about drafting Bryant in part because the Clippers were trying to make a playoff push and already had several guards, a situation that didn’t bode well for giving a player coming out of high school much opportunity.

As Fitch told The Times in 2020, following Bryant’s death, he shared with Bryant that he had concerns about bringing such a young player into an organization run by former owner Donald Sterling.

“He knew the Clippers were in need of a lot of help and were in dire need of a lot of things, including ownership,” Fitch said. “We had a lot of long talks about what he should do and where he should go and I said, ‘I can take you and you can play 48 minutes a game with anybody I got here, but it’s not going to be the career I want for you.’

“He benefited from us not taking him and money-wise he probably got more getting drafted where he did than he would have gotten out of Donald Sterling. I didn’t want him to have to go through all the things we were going through there.”

Fitch coached in college at North Dakota, Bowling Green and Minnesota before breaking into the NBA with Cleveland in 1970. He later coached Boston, Houston, New Jersey and the Clippers in a career that finished with a 944-1,106 record, including 55-54 in the postseason. Under Fitch, the Rockets won the Western Conference championship in 1986.