You knew he was coming before you saw him.
The cologne. OMG, the cologne. Bill Fitch was always bathed in cologne.
You might not think of an ex-Marine as a cologne guy, but he was. He dressed well, too. The late Bill Fitch was always cognizant of how he presented himself to the outside world.
I doubt he ever had an unsure moment. The Celtics found that out very quickly when he assumed command in the 1979-80 season. Bill Fitch had an answer for everything.
Case in point: One night early in his tenure the Boston Garden 24-second clock malfunctioned. What a mess. But suddenly here came Fitch running up the scorer’s table, brandishing a stopwatch. What? Well, Fitch said he always kept one in his suit coach pocket, just in case. Now that’s preparation.
“Bill Fitch was organized,” explains Dave Cowens, the man he had succeeded as the Celtics’ coach. “He was a little more like a college coach. X minutes on this. X minutes on that. He definitely had a plan.”
Fitch’s hiring marked a departure in Celtics history. He was the first head coach from outside the family, so to speak. He was also the first post-Red Auerbach Celtics coach who had not played in the NBA. He was part of an influx of college coaches, starting with Butch van Breda Kolff, and continuing with the likes of Dick Motta, Joe Mullaney, Cotton Fitzsimmons, John MacLeod, and Chuck Daly, who entered the league in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and who flourished for years. In Fitch’s case, his path had taken him from Coe College, his alma mater, to Creighton as an assistant and then to North Dakota (where he coached Phil Jackson), Bowling Green, and Minnesota.
His NBA life began as the first coach of the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs had a predictable 15-67 inaugural season, a highlight being a 117-116 triumph over the stunned Celtics. The team emerged as an Eastern Conference threat in 1975-76, defeating the Bullets and taking the Celtics through a hard six-game series. And had starting center Jim Chones not been injured, who knows? Perhaps this is when Fitch caught Auerbach’s eye.
Nothing escaped his attention, as I found out one season when he berated me for writing in a preseason magazine that his Cavaliers had “the worst frontcourt in basketball,” which, of course, at that time included the ABA. Suffice it to say he passionately disagreed with the assertion.
After hiring Fitch the Celtics went from 29 wins in 1978-79 to 61 in 1979-80. Most people attribute that historic turnaround to the presence of Rookie of the Year Larry Bird, and surely he was a huge factor. But there was more to the story. Red had signed M.L. Carr away from Detroit as a free agent. Tiny Archibald, whose career had been set back by an Achilles’ tendon injury, had a strong comeback season. Gerald Henderson was a surprise rookie addition. Cowens himself played better after being relieved of the added burden of being the coach.
And Fitch gave them all the benefits of having a real coach.
“He put in the work,” Cowens says. “And it was different. He wasn’t doing it with the six plays.” By that Cowens means he wasn’t doing it with the same basic six plays, plus options, that had been the staples of Boston’s half-court offense since Auerbach installed them in 1950. Even the fast break was run differently, with the center running straight down the floor, rather than lagging back as a trailer.
Despite the 61 wins, the Celtics couldn’t get by the 76ers, in large measure because they were just too small. Now we all know how that situation was rectified by the 1980 draft day acquisitions of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. It is habitually lauded as an Auerbach coup, but I strongly believe the driving force behind that deal was Fitch. I can still hear him telling me over coffee one morning that “I’d love to get my hands on that Robert Parish,” whose running ability, he felt, was not being properly exploited by the Warriors.
I loved being around Fitch, who was a genuine basketball encyclopedia. With his college background, he had a vast knowledge of NBA personnel. After road games he would chat on the phone with buddies such as the aforementioned Fitzsimmons about league happenings, which he would share with me on the bus the following morning en route to the airport. I could always call him at home on the 33rd floor of a high-rise near the Garden — he laughingly called his abode the “Bird’s Nest " — to talk about NBA matters. When the Globe decided to do a story on NBA referees, he was an invaluable source, rating them all from A to Z.
Sometimes those conversations concerned baseball. Fitch was proud to say he had coached Bob Gibson in freshman basketball at Creighton. And he was all over the 1981 Montreal Expos during their playoff series with the Dodgers. Jim Fanning had replaced Dick Williams as Expos skipper during the season. Fitch and Fanning were old friends. For me, Fitch was the ideal coach of the Celtics.
Of course, I didn’t have to play for him.
The fact is that despite winning championship No. 14 in 1981, his stay in Boston was fairly short, just four seasons. You could take Bill Fitch out of the Marines, but you could not take the Marines out of Bill Fitch. He was hard on Parish. He was hard on Cedric Maxwell. When Danny Ainge came along, he was hard on Ainge. His approach didn’t faze Bird, however, because Larry was always respectful of authority. And how often was anyone going to yell at Larry Bird?
One person who did not take well to the Fitch coaching style was Pete Maravich. Four months of Bill Fitch was enough for Pistol Pete, who bailed during the 1980 training camp.
“He could grate on people,” says Cowens, ever so politely.
There is also little doubt he should have been more appreciative of K.C. Jones, a beloved Celtics icon.
It fell apart in the 1983 playoffs, After squeaking by an inferior Atlanta team, the Celtics imploded against the Bucks. True, Bird was sick and missed Game 2, but a sweep is a sweep and it’s safe to say that Bird was the only player of consequence who hadn’t tuned out Fitch. When the sweep was accomplished and the season was over, the general team feeling was one of relief.
Bill Fitch was out and K.C. Jones, his complete temperamental opposite, was in. We all know how that worked out.
If no one else missed Fitch, I sure did. But as I said, I didn’t have to play for him.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.