He was in his fourth year and third job as a head professional basketball coach when Tom Nissalke learned his lesson.
Nissalke was arguing with the meddlesome team owner. "He thought he was a tough guy," Nissalke says. The owner poked a finger into Nissalke's chest. Nissalke grabbed the finger, and the meddlesome owner's meddlesome finger broke.The coach was fired by the meddlesome owner.
"I made my mind up (then) that I would never be beholden to anybody," says Nissalke, who's never been shy about saying what he thought.
That's what makes the 15-year NBA/ABA head coach with 27 years of pro experience the most respected opinion, and sometimes the harshest critic, on Salt Lake City sports talk radio. Forthright. Blunt. And right on the money - most of the time.
He is unafraid of consequences from things he says on KFAN-1320AM as part of the Championship Jazz Talk triumvirate. Nissalke is the straight-shooter, the insider, while partners David Locke emotes and Steve Klauke calculates. Nissalke's knack for biting commentary has gotten him nominated for Utah Sportscaster of the Year honors - a sign that The Coach has reinvented himself again.
He is one of only three men to ever win coach of the year honors in both the ABA (Dallas Chapparals) and the NBA (Houston Rockets).
He also was named coach of the year in the WBL (under 6-foot league) and twice in the Puerto Rican Summer League. He was coach of the Puerto Rican 1976 Olympic team. He's been an assistant coach, a scout, a WBL general manager, CBA general manager and commissioner of the National Basketball League of Canada.
That gives him the background to say what he will, and he will say it.
"I've tried to always be above-board and honest," says Nissalke, who was the last coach of the ABA's Utah Stars, the first coach of the Jazz and a Salt Lake City resident since the Jazz moved here from New Orleans.
When Bill Daniels called to hire him for the Stars job just after he'd been fired by ABA San Antonio, he asked why Daniels would want him. "He said, `Because I know exactly what I'm getting. I don't want to be sweet-talked,' " Nissalke says.
That goes for sports-talk radio listeners, too. They want it, they get it, straight from The Coach.
"I don't want to be (Jim) Rome," Nissalke says of the nationally circulated midday show host whose show is also heard on KFAN. "I don't want to get in the position of savaging somebody." And, he adds, "I wouldn't violate a confidence."
Someone once wanted to pay him for a tell-all book about pro basketball, but he refused. "A lot of people have confided in me," he explains. Those things aren't for public consumption, at least not from The Coach.
Despite his wealth of experience in sports, and more previous air time than you might think, Nissalke's quick to thank those with whom he works for their help and willingness to do the background work that goes into a broadcast. "I don't have to organize things," he says.
He likes and admires Locke and Klauke for their statistical-mindedness and says the trio would never work if Klauke "were not reasonable and measured," barrowing words from a Brad Rock column.
Nissalke spends mornings learning possible topics for the day when Locke calls him at 8:45 a.m. He makes several calls a day to his own NBA sources, watches ESPN and Fox Sports, and, "I have a guy that surfs the Internet for me," he says, for other tidbits.
Though he actually began his media career working for ESPN's Bob Ley about 10 years ago doing CBA color, The Coach says, "A lot of this is brand new. I've tried to work hard at it." He learned camera and microphone presence from being interviewed so many times. When he started with Ley, he considered himself simply a part of a team. Then he did color on Houston television for two years, leaving to help his former Jazz assistant, Gene Littles, who became head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. As commissioner of the Canadian league, he did TV color with Kenny Albert.
Nissalke did some work with KALL-910AM but considers his first real Salt Lake-market experience to have been when Chris Tunis hired him about five years ago as an on-air consultant for KISN-570AM, Salt Lake's first sports-talk radio station.
"It was good. I liked it," Nissalke says. "I think a lot of Chris (now with KALL)." Tunis basically interviewed him by phone, and that continued even when Nissalke was working as a consultant in Texas to a young Baylor coach given an interim job when his boss was fired, or when he again assisted Littles at Denver.
When KFNZ started and plucked Dave Blackwell, Ron Boone and Klauke among others from KISN's roster, Tunis paired Nissalke and Scott Mastellar in afternoon drive time against Blackwell, Boone and Klauke. When KISN went off the air, Locke used Nissalke to fill in when the regulars had conflicts and put him on full-time last fall for the afternoon drive.
That limited his doing color analysis for Utah State basketball broadcasts with Al Lewis on the Aggie network. He still does them when he can. He'll be there this weekend and is going to the Big West Conference Tournament in Reno next week. Nissalke's in his third season with USU after being hired by outgoing athletic director Chuck Bell.
Nissalke, in his early 60s, has no aspirations of going nationwide with his radio gig. After being fired in San Antonio before taking the Utah Stars job, Nissalke did branch out, putting his money in real estate back home in Madison, Wis., and starting the Trolley Square sports bar Green Street with a partner. They recently sold the private club. He's made other investments, too, in San Antonio and Houston, and simply takes offers - in the media or in coaching - as they come.
As for Jazz Talk, "The money is decent enough, and it doesn't take a lot of my time," Nissalke says. "They've been very fair with me. Talk radio has been fun. I love what I'm doing."
He admits if his son and daughter were still facing college, he'd have to find a bigger paycheck, but Tom II is a Ph.D now, working at Georgia Tech and as a consultant with Atlanta/Hartsfield Airport. Holly got a Master's degree at Syracuse and works for a high-tech ad agency based in Salt Lake and San Francisco. His wife, Nancy, sings with local opera groups and is active in community charities.
Tom has just become president of the Salt Lake City YMCA and has plans to improve Y-owned Camp Roger. And, he says, "The YMCA is still looking at the possibility of a downtown YMCA." Nissalke says he's far behind his wife in doing community work, and it's something he really wanted to get started in. As for coaching again - only if the perfect situation arose. When he went to work with Littles at Charlotte, his former Jazz player, Allan Bristow, was the personnel director and he had apparent designs on getting the coaching job. Nissalke knew immediately that it wouldn't last.
"I made up my mind then and there that I would never coach again unless, once the season starts, I would have complete control of my roster, or, if I was an assistant, that (the head coach) had to have complete control. You can't do it if you don't have the hammer."
He's recently been offered college, European and stateside pro jobs but turned them down.
"It (coaching) isn't a burning desire," he says. "I've had enough of being the head guy."
In his career, Nissalke said he was never afraid of losing his job, even though nearly all coaches know that's inevitable. Nissalke says he learned to take it in stride and do and say what was needed while on the job. And maybe get a good lawyer later.
A lot on his mind
The Coach is never, it seems, at a loss for opinions. Here's what he thinks about:
- Latrell Sprewell: "(P.J. Carlesimo) made a very serious mistake when he had the problem with Sprewell the first time . . . He should have immediately had an assistant coach go with Sprewell into the locker room and talk with him . . . If (the assistant) couldn't get it cleared up, he should have at least said, `Let me get you with PJ after practice or tomorrow or the next day.' They just didn't handle that very well with somebody's who's a known bad guy . . . somebody who had no interest in playing there and continually wanted to show his contempt for authority."
- Sprewell's suspension: "After (Sprewell) came back, he deserved whatever (punishment) the league wanted to give him. But it won't last. He'll be playing by the first of next season, signing with somebody by the first of July."
- Dennis Rodman: "I think Rodman needs psychiatric help. That doesn't mean he's a bad guy. I think he desperately wants and needs help. I think he's a very crafty guy in how he's constructed his image. He wasn't that way when he was at Detroit. He got that way when he was at San Antonio.
"They were very permissive with him there, and he's been very clever how he's marketed himself. And they obviously have been very permissive at Chicago in how they've dealt with him because they've realized that if they don't have him, they're probably not going to win."
- A possible NBA lockout: "As of right now, I think it will happen for sure. It shouldn't. An agreement should be able to be reached, but this thing has gotten out of hand. There has to be a real, hard salary cap that sticks. It could be very difficult for both sides."
- National sports radio host Jim Rome: "Another guy who very craftily created an image of outrageousness and is laughing all the way as he trundles to the bank. He, I think, has a very tightly structured, choerographed show. He knows exactly what he's going to say, how he's going to say it, when he's going to say it. He likes to make it sound like spur-of-the-moment; he's a very smart guy and knows exactly how he's going to do things."
- Radio partner David Locke: "A very smart, impetuous, hard-working young man. I've really enjoyed working with him. The contrast is probably a good contrast. He works very hard at his job, and I think, contrary to what some people think about him, I think he knows what his weaknesses are and what his strengths are. He's very statistical-minded but knows that he's not a coach.
- ESPN color analyst Dick Vitale: "Very smart, a la Jim Rome. He knows exactly how he's going to market himself. I never knew him until he coached the Pistons. I liked him. I thought he made some bad mistakes in the selection of his staff when he came into the NBA. He brought in non-NBA people with him."
- Jazz coach Jerry Sloan: "His strength is he's very consistent as a person and a coach, and that's going to be his legacy. A lot of coaches could have taken the tremendous material that he's had over the years and had a couple of very good seasons, but he's done it for 10 years. To do that game after game, season after season, really is a terrific mark of the character of somebody, because it's a hard business, even if you win."