Texas has its share of coaches who merit distinction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but there is one beginning to fade from memory when both he and his contributions to the game mandate enshrinement.
Long before Rudy T changed Choke City into Clutch City, Gregg Popovich constructed a title town next to the Alamo, or Rick Carlisle guided Dirk and his Merry Band of Misfit Toys to a title, Bill Fitch was the first to lead a team in Texas to an NBA Finals.
Fitch did far more than lead the Houston Rockets to the Finals against the Boston Celtics in 1986, or win a title with the Celtics in 1981. His influence is all over a league that is one of the most popular in the world.
“He was ahead of his time in so many ways,” said Ralph Sampson, Fitch’s former center in Houston, in a recent phone interview.
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Today, Fitch is 86 and lives in Conroe, north of Houston.
The Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. is currently reviewing potential candidates for its fall of 2019 class, and Fitch needs to get that call. He would never openly lobby for such an invitation, so I will: Put Bill Fitch in the Hall of Fame.
“I just got a new pacemaker, so I guess I’m doing better than the alternative,” Fitch said last week.
“You’re not breathing,” he said. “I come under the category of ‘Breathing.’”
Whomever votes for the Basketball Hall of Fame, and no one knows because those people are a state secret, don’t wait on this one. Don’t be a HOF that inducts a person posthumously. Those occasions are bittersweet. A guy like Fitch deserves to enjoy his moment.
THE CASE FOR BILL FITCH
Fitch’s biggest problem, as far as reaching Springfield, Mass. comes down to .460. That’s his career winning percentage. He lost 1,106 NBA games in a career that spanned from 1970 to ‘98.
Any voter would have an easy time dumping Fitch based on those two statistics, which explains why he is not included.
Only three other NBA coaches have lost over 1,000 games: Dick Motta, Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens. All three men are regarded by their peers as great coaches.
If one can stop to consider the teams Fitch coached, the circumstances, the achievements, the impact, rather than the percentage, the man should be next to some of the best to ever coach the game. Because that’s what Bill Fitch is.
Fitch led the expansion Cavaliers to the playoffs three times in the ‘70s; in ‘75, “The Miracle of Richfield,” a team comprised of Austin Carr and a collection of obscure names, reached the East Finals.
He was the first coach of the ‘80s dynasty Boston Celtics, where he won an NBA title in 1981. He is the reason Boston acquired center Robert Parrish.
Fitch led the Rockets to the Finals by defeating the L.A. Lakers in the West Finals in ‘86; he also eventually coached the New Jersey Nets and L.A. Clippers to the playoffs.
He was known to take on horrible teams with wretched ownership, particularly in New Jersey and L.A., and make them respectable. Because so few coaches actually win NBA titles, the next best thing is to do what Fitch did. He did it everywhere he stopped.
“In New Jersey, we had five different owners one year and if you put them in the same room for breakfast they’d starve to death,” Fitch said. “In L.A., there was one owner, and I won’t name him, but if he ran for (Unflattering term associated with a person’s posterior) of the the Year he’d win it. That was a tough job.”
He won more than 940 NBA games, and was named the league’s Coach of the Year twice. When the NBA celebrated its 50th anniversary in the 1996-’97 season, it listed its top 10 coaches, of which Fitch was named next to men like Phil Jackson, Red Holzman, Chuck Daly, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley.
THE FITCH LEGACY
Much like Lenny Wilkens, and Larry Brown, Fitch’s strength was not in massaging egos but rather teaching. He was essentially a college coach who landed in the NBA.
Fitch coached four schools before going to the expansion Cavaliers in 1970. In ‘68, he led Bowling Green State to the NCAA tournament.
He approached pro teams like a college team.
A former drill instructor, he emphasized conditioning before it was “a thing.” He would run his players for multiple hours during training camp. Both Larry Bird and Parrish credit Fitch’s conditioning as a major reason for their success in the NBA.
“Parrish is a good example; once he learned the first one down the floor on offense and defense gets free stuff he was into it,” Fitch said.
Parrish’s problem was he could not keep on weight. He lived in the same building as Fitch, whose wife would often make sure Parrish was eating enough.
When Fitch arrived in Houston, he coached Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, The Twin Towers.
“We first started practicing and I’d call a play to run the back door, and Hakeem was looking for the exit; that’s a true story,” Fitch said. “I’d say to run five laps, and he’d run six. He said it was because he couldn’t count, but I think he was that eager.”
Fitch also was one of the first to introduce class room and video instruction to the NBA.
“We called him, ‘Captain Video,’” Sampson said. “And my first year in the NBA, I would work out and bring weights into the Summit (the Rockets home arena). The second year, we had a full-time strength coach. He understood the game was changing and always adapted to it.”
Bill Fitch accomplished everything an NBA coach could, up to and including a legacy that changed the game.
If one can look past those two stats, and consider what the man did for the game and the league, there is no decision. Bill Fitch is a Hall of Famer.
The man is 86. Just do this now while he can enjoy a moment he deserves.