Six years ago, in the bowels of the AT&T Center in San Antonio, longtime NBA swingman Brent Barry tracked down his first NBA coach and thanked him.
He thanked Bill Fitch for the guidance and the discipline for the lanky combo guard. The two weren’t close during their time together with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Barry was a 6-foot-7-inch leaper with point guard skills and a shooting guard’s size. Fitch was a 64-year-old coach who had no idea that multi-positional players such as Barry were actually useful. Barry was shooting guard size and should play shooting guard, Fitch believed. But Barry wasn’t physical enough to defend the likes of Michael Jordan, Mitch Richmond, or Steve Smith.
Twenty-two years ago, Fitch was an old-school coach still trying to remain relevant and the Clippers were a franchise looking for a coach with name recognition — Fitch won a title with the Celtics in 1981 — and who would accept a bargain salary to coach.
It would be Fitch’s final NBA job. He was being ushered out of the game by younger, more energetic coaches with bright ideas, slick hairstyles, and Armani suits. But Fitch, who is being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame on Friday in Springfield, had one final coaching feat in a career filled with rescuing franchises from the depths of despair and insignificance to respectability.
Fitch took 13 teams to the playoffs, won the title with Boston and took the 1986 Rockets to the Finals, but willing the ’97 Clippers to the postseason may have been his greatest accomplishment.
There has been so much documented about the Donald Sterling-owned Clippers in recent months, but 20 years ago, the franchise was truly the unwanted stepchild of the Lakers. They played in the decrepit Los Angeles Sports Arena, which housed the Lakers 30 years prior until they moved to the Forum.
The Clippers practiced at a sports club in nearby Carson, Calif., where they had to make reservations just to play in the gym. It was a low-budget organization that sold fans on up-and-coming players and the opportunity to see premier NBA teams at lower prices than the Forum.
Fitch was simply hired to foster the growth of their lottery pick and draft picks, and keep the team respectable. Fitch coached in his grating style, perturbing many of the players. But this was the NBA of the 1990s. The coach being adored by his players wasn’t a requirement to stay employed.
“We had a cast of characters for that little window in my first couple of seasons there, that was a very interesting group for an elderly experienced coach,” Barry said, “with an old-school attitude and a bunch of undisciplined, hungry players. It was an interesting combination of personalities, that’s for sure. And the one thing we knew that Bill Fitch the coach was not going to change.”
Fitch succeeded Bob Weiss in 1994-95 and combined to win 46 games over the next two seasons. The 1996-97 team was painfully inexperienced with just two players — Pooh Richardson and Kevin Duckworth — at least 30. Loy Vaught, probably best known for helping the ’89 Michigan team win the NCAA title, was the model of consistency for the franchise.
Vaught was the team’s leading scorer, a power forward who could get physical and also drain the midrange jumper.
The rest of the squad was filled with upstarts such as Barry, Malik Sealy, workhorse Bo Outlaw, and future Celtic Rodney Rogers.
Hovering over the head of the franchise was holdout Brian Williams (who eventually became Bison Dele). Williams, the team’s starting center the year before, demanded a trade and held out until his contract was terminated in April 1997.
While they were again picked as a lottery team, the Clippers fought valiantly to stay within striking distance of .500 all season. Fitch inserted rebounding-machine rookie Lorenzen Wright into the starting lineup along with journeyman guard Darrick Martin as the starting point guard.
The Clippers played hard. They were scrappy. After an 88-84 home loss to the defending champion Bulls early in the season, Sealy told Jordan, “We’ll see you in the Finals.” Jordan responded, “Uh, OK.”
Of course, the road to the playoffs was easier than in most years. The San Antonio Spurs decided to shut down superstar center David Robinson after six games because of back surgery, and the Clippers beat the Robinson-less Spurs four times. (Of course, the reward for those beatings was Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft lottery.)
The Western Conference, in those days, was considered the weaker conference. While the Bulls, Miami Heat, and New York Knicks brawled for that top seed in the East, the Utah Jazz were seven games better than the No. 2 Seattle SuperSonics.
The Clippers snuck into the postseason with a 36-46 record. By comparison the eighth-seeded Washington Bullets won 44 games in the East. It was just the third time since the franchise had moved from Buffalo to San Diego in 1978 that the Clippers had reached the playoffs.
For a short while, they were no longer laughingstocks. Fitch put together a bunch of youngsters, journeymen, and miscasts and forged a playoff team without an All-Star or All-NBA player.
The playoff road was brief. The Clippers fought the Jazz each game but were swept, but that didn’t overshadow the accomplishment.
“We had some guys that really pulled together and felt like this responsibility of trying to gain some respectability for a franchise that was such a long-suffering one that did not have many rungs to lay hats on,” Barry said. “I think as a young group we tried to rally around that idea. Coach Fitch was the one at the helm during that time and somehow we were able to win. The idea was more the players banding together and trying to do something with an opportunity. Coach Fitch was the one who got us there.”
The ascension was fleeting. The Clippers won 17 games the next season with Vaught missing most the season with back surgery and Barry getting traded to the Miami Heat.
Fitch was fired after that season with two years and $4 million left on his contract. Sterling sued Fitch for breach of the contract, claiming the 66-year-old did not try to seek another NBA job.
The two sides settled the case in August 2002. Fitch finished with a career record of 944-1,106 but all five teams he coached reached the playoffs during his tenure, including the Clippers.
Fast forward to 2013. Fitch was not kind to Barry during their time together, seemingly frustrated by Barry’s gregarious personality and slight frame. That still didn’t prevent Barry from thanking his old coach when it was all over. The experience was a learning one, he said, that helped him last 14 years in the NBA.
“He was ornery and old school and all that type of stuff but he was there for a purpose,” Barry said. “My opportunity to play for Bill Fitch was something that I am still grateful for. You could see the real human side of Bill Fitch [when I saw him in 2013] which didn’t always come out during his years as a coach. I won’t forget the moment where coach offered a handshake and a hug and a hearty congratulations on a career. That meant a lot to me.”