When Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov took over the Nets last year, the world heard about a confident owner’s plans to turn “Knicks fans into Nets fans” as the team looked ahead to its new Brooklyn arena in 2012. With Avery Johnson, a head coach with the best winning percentage in NBA history prior to last season and the mid-season trade of Deron Williams, arguably the best PG in the NBA, Nets fans have essentially been promised that these are not the same old Nets.
And yet I’ve heard this all before. In 1992, head coach Chuck Daly was every bit of a game-changer for the reputation and culture of the Nets organization as Prokhorov, Avery, and D-Will were for the 2010-11 version of the franchise. Except Daly had come to the Nets after accomplishing something significant – winning multiple NBA titles as head coach of the Detroit Pistons, and leading the first-ever Olympic “Dream Team” to a Gold Medal in 1992.
Prior to 1992, the Nets didn’t have anyone – coaches, players or front office staff – of Daly’s stature. He was the epitome of a living legend. A guy people wanted to play for.
“From our owners’ standpoint, they’re trying to show the world they are for real,” former center Sam Bowie said at the time of the announcement. “They didn’t go out and try to get a minimum-wage coach. They spent the money and now I’m excited.”
Nets Senior Vice President Willis Reed declared the Nets had won the “coaching lottery” that offseason, and few would have argued. The Nets hiring of Daly was a shocking, joyful and transcendent moment. It was one of the few instances during the 1980s and 1990s where Nets fans could say without question, they were thrilled with the state of the team they cheered for.
Not that coaching the Nets came without challenges – as it turned out, those were challenges that ultimately became too much for Daly as he left the organization after just two seasons. He was apparently fed up with the likes of Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, and irritated that his front office responded to the death of Drazen Petrovic and the departure of dirty-work defensive guys like Chris Dudley by opting to bring in players like Kevin Edwards and Benoit Benjamin, the former perhaps a bit underrated given who he replaced and the circumstances behind it, and the latter a colossal disappointment and sourpuss who even Daly — a coach of a team once dubbed the “Bad Boys” — was not interested in dealing with as a 64-year-old.
The Nets may have been perpetually stuck in the first-round under his watch, constantly being passed by organizations like the Knicks, Bulls, Cavs and Pacers, but the departure of Daly in 1994 let the franchise in shambles. The glue keeping this band of underperforming but talented misfits together was gone.
Myopically speaking, what upset me most about the passing of Daly in 2009, beyond the sad circumstances of his fight with pancreatic cancer, was the fact that with so much excitement and anticipation throughout the summer of 1992 his Nets experience was essentially just a blip on the big-picture radar. In Daly’s obituary, his championship experience in Detroit and his gold medal in Barcelona were first and foremost -– obviously. But that doesn’t mean he was any less of a game-changer when he came to Jersey.
I’ll argue until I’m hoarse that he’s still the greatest person to walk the sidelines as a Nets head coach. That if he couldn’t push that group of players to greater things, no one could have. Coleman and Anderson were uncoachable. Petrovic died and was likely on his way back to Europe anyway. The Nets ownership and front office let solid backups like Dudley and Terry Mills go. But Daly is an NBA great and a Nets great. If anything, perhaps his two-year stint in Jersey should remind current Nets fans that even the most significant game-changers – coaches, owners, players, arenas – can still become letdowns.