March 3, 2016

Q&A with Del Harris (Part 2)

Few coaches had more influence over the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation than Del Harris. As a young coach, Harris was an assistant on the Utah Stars when Moses Malone broke into professional basketball.  The two later re-united when Malone joined the Houston Rockets in 1976, where Harris worked as an assistant. Harris was the team’s head coach when Bill Willoughby, another prep-to-pro pioneer, played under him and when Joe Bryant joined the team in 1982-83. Harris was also the Lakers coach when Bryant’s son, Kobe, broke into the league two decades ago. The following are portions of an email from Harris concerning his thoughts on coaching Bryant and Malone early in their careers. Part 1 is on Bryant. Part 2 is on Malone. The email is lightly edited for clarity.

Harris on Malone:

Moses is the most underrated great player in the game. He was a three-time MVP and did that twice with us at Houston and then again the following year when Philadelphia signed him away from the Rockets on their way to the championship of 1982-83.  Of course without him, I was let go that same year, even though I had the most wins of any Rockets coach at the time.  I owe my entire NBA career to him.  Tom Nissalke brought me into the league after we had become friends while we were coaching in Puerto Rico.  In those days most coaches and even pro players had summer jobs to supplement their incomes and the best jobs were to coach in Puerto Rico.  Most of the coaches there were either ABA, NBA or NCAA D-1 coaches. I coached there seven summers and won the national titles in 1973 and 1974. The following year, I was coaching in Spain and thought I would not be able to go back to Puerto Rico for the 1975 season.  Tom got fired at San Antonio and so I called him from Spain and asked him if he would coach the Bayamon team for me.  He agreed, but then he got the job at the Utah Stars and my team went under financially two weeks later.  Tom had a plan.  He said that it would be good for me to go back to Bayamon and that he would come coach a couple weeks to have a vacation for his family and then after the season was over there, I could come be his assistant at Utah.  That is how I came to know Moses in his second season.  I had actually met him when he played the Pacers in Indianapolis his rookie season, but had no idea at that time that he would be a career-changer for me.

Obviously, from a statistical standpoint Moses did not suffer from coming out early to the pro game.  His second year in the NBA would have been his senior year at Maryland, where Lefty Driesell had gotten the inside track on recruiting this phenomenal player from Petersburg, VA.  He made the All-Star team and put up 19 points and 15 rebounds, but his season was cut short at 59 games when he reinjured the foot that had ended his season with the Stars.  Undeterred, the next year he upped his numbers to 24.8 and 17.6 and won the first of his three MVPs.  Still, the negative side was that he tended to remain a bit shy and certainly reserved when it came to interviews.  He lacked the personal confidence that he would have gained with a year or two in college and away from Petersburg.  Ironically, he was anything but reserved when he was in his comfort zone with his teammates in the locker room and elsewhere.  He had an exceptional sense of humor, could give and take with it.  He was loved and respected by his teammates and coaches.

Probably the central reason for Moses’ shyness and reluctance to talk to media and outsiders was that he had not experienced the world outside of Petersburg and basketball.  It was not a matter of prejudice in that one of his best lifetime friends is Kevin Vergara of Petersburg and Moses has always assimilated well with his teammates and coaches.  His trusted agent and financial people are white as well.  He was just unsure of his speech and had to get accustomed to the media world.  As he grew older and gained confidence in himself and his ability to communicate, he became much easier to understand and more trusting of media.  But he missed out on a lot of commercial endorsements because he was conservative in his life.  He was not a drinker or smoker.  He was always ahead of time to events.  He was not outrageous.  He was basically a simple man who loved what he did–play basketball.  He became a good family man and his grown sons have become quite successful and although they were good athletes, they were not of pro caliber, but have become successful in other fields. But this quietness during the time that he gained three MVP trophies kept him from becoming a household name. Virtually everyone that has gained [an] MVP has been able to turn that into significant endorsements.  Imagine it!  He is one of only nine players to win the MVP more than twice.  They are men who have had millions in endorsements or follow-up work due to their celebrity: Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Magic Johnson…and Moses Malone.  All but Moses have been in significant commercials and even movies.  Moses is the least known great player possibly in the history of sports.

Moses may not have gone to college but he was extremely bright, again, to the surprise to those who confused his lack of verbosity to mean that he was not that.  For example, we took our players to the Dominican Republic to put on some exhibitions and to help their national team prepare for the CentroBasket games of 1976 or 1977.  Everyone was given Dominican money but that would do them little good in New York or Houston, so it was necessary to go to the black market to change the money to US dollars.  I speak Spanish, so I had all the players who wanted to change their money give me their money and I arranged to have it changed.  It was quite a deal.  A man came to Tom Nissalke’s room with a suitcase full of dollars.  He was accompanied by a man who sat down across the room and laid a pistol on the table.  We spread out the Dominican money in piles and the man spread out his money and we traded piles.  No problems, a clean exchange and better than one could get according to what we had been told, which is why we shopped to get the best we could get.  Later that day, I asked Moses why he had not given me any of his money to change.  He said, “I’ve done changed it.”  I asked, sympathetically, “Well, what percentage did you get?” (Sure that they had taken advantage of this young fellow who had grown up in poverty in Petersburg, VA and did not have the advantage of our university system.)  He beat my deal by a point!!