By BRANDON HURLEY
The confidence is undeniable, even at the ripe age of 87.
There may not be a Larry Bird or Hakeem Olajuwon without his guiding light.
One of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s most recent inductees, Bill Fitch, never was one to mince words.
That bravado allowed him to pile up nearly a thousand victories as an NBA coach. He convinced his players to work harder than they already were.
Today, the two-time Coach of the Year and the first Iowan to coach a team to an NBA title (Boston Celtics in 1981) relishes the time he spent in the league. Fitch doesn’t consider his career coaching some of the game’s greatest athletes a stroke of good fortune, but one of immense dedication.
“They were damn lucky to have me,” The Davenport native said with a laugh during a phone interview Wednesday. “Olajuwon was running the only plays he knew. If we were working in the gym and I said run the back door play, he’d probably run for the exit. He was still learning the terms.”
It didn’t take long for their relationship to turn into gold, as the Rockets reached the Finals in Olajuwon’s second year.
Fitch, who’s coaching disciples include notable names such as Rick Carlisle, Danny Ainge, Don Chaney and Lionel Hollins, keeps a close eye on the world’s top basketball league today.
It’s fitting, too, as Toronto Raptors head coach and Carroll Kuemper Catholic graduate Nick Nurse joined the prestigious championship club last week, Fitch took a few moments to reflect on a 40-year coaching career that included playoff appearances with five different teams and back-to-back Final Fours.
The Cedar Rapids West High School graduate was recently named a member of the 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame class, along with Bobby Jones, Sidney Moncrief, Jack Sikma and Paul Westphal.
Like Nurse, Fitch never locked himself into a particular system or offensive scheme. He relied on his ability to bring teammates together and of course, a strong defense. A Coe College (Cedar Rapids) graduate, Fitch felt his success was always dictated by the players he had at his disposal.
“Style depends on the talent you have. I don’t think you can go with any one system,” the coach said. “The most important thing you had to have big man in the middle that could lead everybody (on both ends) of the floor, make the stars available to do their job.”
Fitch coached for 25 years in the NBA, securing a coach of the year award with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1976 then again with the Celtics in 1980, Larry Bird’s rookie year. He was named one of the NBA’s 10 greatest coaches of all time in 1996 and still to this day, holds the Celtics record for highest winning percentage at 73.8 percent.
Fitch’s career rise is well documented, as he become known for his ability to turn around struggling franchises. It’s a far cry from the pressures Nurse faced as he took over last fall. The Raptors hired him to win a title, simple as that. He was tasked with taking a team already used to winning to the ultimate prize. Fitch, on the other hand, had to instill a winning tradition almost anywhere he went in the NBA.
“They were winning in Toronto and he had a different type of pressure,” Fitch said. “When you are building a team, normally, you have to have talent and talent that meshes together. Sometimes it’s adding players, sometimes it’s getting players in shape mentally and physically and working our tails off.”
Skill obviously plays a big role in the NBA, but working those elite players into a roster of eight or so guys can often be a bit challenging. It’s something Nurse has mastered in recent years, taking two depleted NBA D League teams to a championship, as well as a notion that Fitch thrived off of. He was there to win, and darn it, you better be willing to buy into that as well. Fitch wasn’t in the coaching business to make friends.
“We were pretty hard on our guys,” the Cedar Rapids Wilson High School graduate said. “I was in the Marine Corps and my dad was a drill instructor. I never cared if they liked me or not. Misery loves company. That kind of brought them together.”
The key was getting the players to buy into each other, forming a cohesive unit on and off the floor. If they were close friends, it would show on the court.
“If you get into a situation where you worry too much about whether the players like you, you’ve got problems,” Fitch said. “I was more interested in if they love each other. Once you get a team together like that, they can hate the coach all they want, as long as they listen to him. One of the reasons teams I coached got better was because they bonded together.”
Fitch is one of just two coaches in history to string together three straight 60-win seasons, which all came during his time in Boston. He also helped turn around struggling franchises with the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New Jersey Nets. Each of those teams won no more than 30 games a year prior to Fitch’s arrival. Almost immediately he got to work, pushing each team to the playoffs in under five years. Winning boils down a belief, Fitch said, a notion Nurse has locked into throughout his career.
“Once a bunch of talented guys find out what it’s like to win, that’s important,” the coach said. “A lot of the times, winning wasn’t as important in their lives as it should’ve been. There’s no one way to win.”
With the help of Hakeem Olajuwon, Fitch returned to the NBA Finals for the second and final time of his career with the Houston Rockets in 1986, which, coincidentally, they lost to the Boston Celtics, 4-2.
The thrill was turning losers into winners, building a suitable confidence in his players.
“You go from maybe we win to we ought to win,” the coach said. “Watching that growth, it’s fun.”
Fitch first got a taste of success at the University of North Dakota, as the then Fighting Sioux, captured back-to-back Final Four runs thanks to the help of All-American Phil Jackson. The 11-time NBA champion coach was lightly recruited coming out of high school, but Fitch saw something in him that others didn’t.
“One of the reasons I was able to recruit him was because I was the only dumb coach to drive through a (North Dakota) snowstorm to watch him,” the coach said.
Bird was in only his second year when Fitch lead the Celtics to a title. He quickly became the missing piece Boston sorely missed. They also added Robert Parish and Kevin McHale and held on to Tiny Archibald, three of the league’s all-time best. Fitch takes credit for pushing Bird during his initial stint in the NBA. He saw a work ethic that was unmatched among others he’d coached before, which was key to the title run.
“He got better every year, and that’s the type of guy I always look for. They are never self-satisfied,” Fitch said. “When I sent him home after his rookie year I said ‘I want you to come back better than you are now.’ I know he spent the whole summer working on different shots. A lot of rookies, if they had the year he’d had, they wouldn’t have gone and gotten any better.”
Fitch held a career coaching record of 944-1,106. Many of those losses came when he was tasked to take over those down-trodden franchises, which may have kept him from the Hall of Fame until now (Fitch retired from coaching in 1998). Fitch will officially be inducted in September, though the honor doesn’t mean much to the long-time coach. He’s just glad he’s still alive with a sharp basketball mind.
“Just as long I am not in jail for running a guy to hard or taking his smokes away,” Fitch said with a laugh. He now lives in Houston, Texas. “There are a lot of great players in that I’ll be joining and there are a lot of great ones that aren’t in.”