NEW YORK — Several weeks after Chuck Daly was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer on Feb. 9, Jack McCloskey, Don Casey, Bob Weinhauer and Bob Staak, whose coaching careers were knotted at the high school and college level in the Philadelphia-New Jersey area , arrived in Jupiter, Fla., to see their friend for what they knew would be the last time.
Daly’s Hall of Fame fantasy-come-true journey began in 1955 on the sidelines at Punxsutawney (Pa.) High School, where he spent eight seasons before Vic Bubas hired him at Duke. Bucky Waters, who played for McCloskey at Collingswood (N.J.) High School and already a Blue Devil assistant, recommended Daly.
When Waters became West Virginia’s head coach, and Tom Carmody took over Rhode Island, Daly recommended Hubie Brown, who had made a local name for himself at St. Mary’s (Elizabeth, N.J.) before advancing to William & Mary as an assistant.
Casey grew up in Collingswood, as did (Maryland’s) Gary Williams, a classmate of Michael Landon; real name Eugene Orowitz. As coach of Bishop Eustace (N.J.) High School (Hubie showed up in his gym in the mid-1960s to recruit Gary Melchionni) he would often scout McCloskey’s squad, or study Harry Litwack’s zone precepts at Temple, or what Jack Ramsay was concocting at St. Joseph’s.
“If you weren’t good enough to be on a team, that’s how you learned,” said Casey, who wound up replacing Litwack before joining the NBA where he coached the Clippers and Nets.
Twenty years after Daly’s initial whiff of college coaching, McCloskey, then the Pistons GM, hired him to transform offensively fashionable Detroit — and ultimately the copycat NBA — into a demonically defensive team. But not before coaching Boston College and Penn, succeeding Dick Harter; Weinhauer replaced him, while Staak was one of Chuck’s assistants, as was Rollie Massimino.
In Atlanta on Saturday night as an ESPN analyst for the Cavaliers’ third straight double-figure victory over the Hawks, Hubie vibrantly recalled the day in 1969 when Daly got his big break.
Two seasons later, having experienced moderate (26-24) success, Daly was up for the Penn vacancy opened up by Harter leaving to coach Oregon. Athletic director Fred Shabel also had assisted Bubas at Duke.
“Only two candidates were interviewed,” disclosed Hubie, still at Duke at the time, “Chuck and me.”
“Talk about an incestuous relationship,” Casey yelped. “About one degree of separation exists between the coaching contingent of Philly and New Jersey; Mike Fratello, Richie Adubato, Brendan Suhr, the list goes on and on.”
So, nostalgia hung heavy in the home of Chuck and his wife Terry for three days in March when Daly still was mentally sharp enough to appreciate the company of four close friends, though not sufficiently strong enough to go out to dinner with them.
At the same time, Daly’s hopeless condition regularly left the group searching for something to say.
“How much can you really talk about after an hour?” Casey said.
At their final gathering, Bob Morehead, a longtime Palm Beach/Wall Street friend of Daly’s, brought along a diminutive leprechaun of a priest, Father Paddy.
Terry Daly said she knew Father Paddy could sing but never imagined to what level. As everyone was about to leave, she took a shot and asked him if he would please sing Danny Boy; it was her husband’s favorite.
His clarity and quality and beauty of voice were stunning.
“You couldn’t have scripted or orchestrated it any better,” Casey said. “It was as if the priest popped in from heaven. It was like an F. Scott Fitzgerald book. Like a Pat O’Brien movie.”
“We were overwhelmed,” said Terry Daly, who suffered a stroke two years ago — her right hand trembling at times, her walking slowed to a limp — and recently underwent a pacemaker implant.
When Father Patty finished they all applauded.
He promised to sing it again at the funeral mass, scheduled for Wednesday at 1 p.m in Jupiter, where the 78-year-old Daly died in a hospital early Saturday morning.
Whenever I’ve thought about Chuck Daly over the last few months, I remember him sitting alongside Jack McMahon in 1977-78, schooling raw rookie 76ers coach Billy Cunningham, winning back-to-back Bad Boys championships, creating The Jordan Rules, guiding the 1992 Dream Team to an Olympic gold medal, and his passion to dress to impress.
Most of all, I remember Daly whipping a comb out of his pocket and combing his thick mane before heading for the bench or going on camera.
“You know how vain Chuck was about his hair,” Terry said sadly when we last talked. “Well, he’s lost it all as a result of the chemo. I told him not to worry about it because nobody’s going to see him like that.
“That might be true,” Chuck chuckled, “but for the first time in my life my head is cold . . . and we’re in Florida.”
Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.
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