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The pendulum swings back

May 9, 1997

The pendulum swings back.

In the past few days, coaches Rick Pitino and Larry Brown signed deals with Boston and Philadelphia, respectively, that will pay them like sheiks and give them more say over how the business is run than Leona Helmsley once had.

But it’s not just an East Coast thing. On Thursday, Larry Bird accepted an offer from the Indiana Pacers reportedly worth $4 million a year. And that squealing in the background? That’s the barely concealed glee of agents guessing the figures that will be thrown at Bulls coach Phil Jackson when _ and if _ he puts himself on the auction block.

The times are indeed a-changin’. At the start of this decade, jokes about how poor and powerless coaches had become were a staple of the NBA.

The average player salary was about to cross the $1 million-a-year threshold and coaches making one-tenth of that couldn’t control their squad as it was. And they didn’t see how things would improve by giving more money to kids already dizzy with self-worth. All they could do, however, was sit back and laugh.

An assistant rushed into Dick Motta’s office in Sacramento one day to report Danny Ainge couldn’t play that night. The guard had injured his back lifting a suitcase. The coach didn’t take his nose of the newspaper. ``Must have been the suitcase,″ Motta cracked, ``with his contract in it.″

An even better story is told by Chuck Daly, who was coaching Detroit at the time. A known clotheshorse, he walked into a store on the road one day and looked over a suit made of virgin wool. The salesman quoted the price as ``only″ $1,300.

``I coach the Pistons,″ Daly protested, ``I don’t play for them. Don’t you have something around $300 from a sheep that fooled around a little?″

No word yet on whether Pitino’s $70 million deal with the Celtics includes a clothing allowance, but it wouldn’t be the first.

Heat coach Pat Riley, who made Armani de rigueur dress on NBA and college sidelines, had such a clause tucked into the 1995 contract that took him from New York to Miami. That deal, which also allowed Riley to buy into ownership of the Florida club, is considered the one that started the shift away from trying to buy franchise players and toward hiring franchise coaches. A year later, a Riley-Pitino wannabe named John Calipari, with no experience in the pro ranks, was handed an even sweeter deal by the New Jersey Nets.

``Those deals look tame compared to what’s going on now,″ said Pat Williams, a senior vice president with the Orlando Magic.

``The mindset used to be get the great players, then get almost anybody to keep them in line. Now clubs have figured out there aren’t enough truly great players to go around. So the mindset becomes get the great coach who can extract more from the players you have.

``And remember, we’re a trendy league,″ said Williams, whose 28 years in the NBA also include front-office stints in Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta. ``This will probably be the trend until one of these coaches falls flat on his face.″

No sign of that happening yet. Riley’s restoration work, in fact, got him named coach of the year on Thursday _ something he won’t hesitate to mention when his deal is up for renewal.

In the meantime, coaches are tripping over each other rushing to cash in. Seattle’s George Karl, in a candid moment, told the Dallas Morning-News he didn’t consider himself worth the money being talked about _ $8 million per year _ but didn’t say he wouldn’t take it, either.

And except for the owners who wind up signing the huge checks, nobody in NBA front offices see a downside to bringing coaches’ pay and influence back into the line with the people they’re charged with keeping in line.

``l think (pro sports) went way too far in that direction,″ Mavericks general manager Don Nelson told the Dallas newspaper, ``and what we’re now seeing is that coming back the other way. A coach with the power of ownership behind him obviously has more strength in the locker room.″

That could be the one thing about this trend most worth watching. More and more, players will be dealing with coaches who will be around for longer and longer hauls and who represent an equal investment.

``It’s going to be like a marriage,″ Williams said. ``You have coaches with major dollars and long-term commitments and players with the same deals.

``This,″ he added, ``could really get interesting.″

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