When fired as coach of the Chicago Bulls in the midst of the 1981-82 season, Jerry Sloan was deeply concerned. There were the usual worries about mortgage payments, etc. But mostly he stressed over whether he'd be hired again.
Sloan never did shake the fear of losing his job.
He didn't coach in the NBA for two years but hooked on as an assistant coach for the Jazz in 1984. He was appointed head coach in 1988 and is now the longest tenured coach in professional sports.
If the same thing had happened today, Sloan probably wouldn't need to worry. He has what has become one of the world's most secure jobs — head coach of an NBA team. Not that most coaches actually keep their job for long; it's just that there's always another one waiting. Consider this: 10 teams have made coaching changes since the start of last season. Already, five of those teams have hired former NBA head coaches. Four of the remaining teams are expected to do the same. The other one, Toronto, is looking at several NBA assistant coaches.
Remember when your parents told you to get a good secure job with a steady paycheck? Who knew they were talking about coaching?
It's a lot like the Hotel California: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
The network of NBA coaches and administrators has always been tight. But that has never been more apparent than this year. Paul Silas, for example, is a respected coach. Still, he was fired by the New Orleans Hornets. Most people who get fired must settle for a less-prestigious job. Not Silas. He was hired immediately as Cleveland's head coach. The Cavs have the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft this month. He'll be coaching one of the most talked-about prep players in history, LeBron James.
Talk about a golden parachute.
Replacing Silas in New Orleans is Tim Floyd, who resigned as coach of the Chicago Bulls in late 2001. He was a natural for New Orleans, as he used to be a college coach there. Still, he compiled one of the worst coaching records in NBA history (49-190) and still got the Hornets' job.
Where do I sign up?
One problem is that it is hard to get in the loop. John Starks, Cliff Levingston, Robert Reid, Mike Sanders, Kenny Charles, Jeff Malone and Darryl Dawkins are all former NBA players toiling in outposts like White Plains, Dodge City, Glens Falls, Easton and Yakima. They're sleeping in towns like Melbourne, St. Joseph, Enid, Cedar Rapids, Sioux Falls and Salina. Each of them has the same goal: To get on the NBA gravy train. Once on, the offers just keep coming.
Rick Carlisle, who was fired in Detroit, is reportedly considering two other head coaching jobs in the league. Alvin Gentry, the fired Clippers' coach, doesn't seem too worried; he has been vacationing since mid-season. He seems confident something will turn up. Lenny Wilkens was let go in Toronto, but got $5 million to do it. At 66, finding a job isn't something he needs. Memphis hired Hubie Brown after Sid Lowe resigned. The same Hubie Brown who was head coach in Atlanta and New York.
Mike Dunleavy, the former Milwaukee, Portland and Lakers coach, is now being considered for the vacant Atlanta job. Jeff Van Gundy, who quit the Knicks, got to choose between Washington and Houston. He settled on the Houston job that was vacated by Rudy Tomjanovich for health reasons. For his trouble, Van Gundy inherited the runner-up for Rookie of the Year, Yao Ming, and All-Star Steve Francis.
Getting fired in the NBA isn't a negative, it's a rite of passage.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia is beating on the door of the Portland Trail Blazers, trying to hire away Maurice Cheeks. That's because Larry Brown left Philly to take the Detroit job.
Of course, the ultimate gravy train is the Dallas Mavericks. Don Nelson — a regular Mother Teresa — has taken in five assistant coaches, including Del Harris, who was fired in L.A. Another assistant is Nelson's son, Donn. Blood can get you into the club automatically.
All this points to a glaring flaw in the NBA: It's a buddy network, by invitation only. Kids taking P.E. classes in college, hoping to become NBA coaches, have a better shot at becoming president. At the start of last year, 22 of 29 head coaches had played in the NBA or ABA.
Some well-known coaches haven't landed head coaching spots yet. Stories during the NBA Finals have bemoaned the fact Spurs' assistant P.J. Carlesimo hasn't had an offer yet. But he is being taken care of, nonetheless. John Lucas, fired in Cleveland, and Lon Kruger, in Atlanta, remain at large. Wait awhile. There are still openings to fill.
Family takes care of family.
That doesn't mean most NBA coaches aren't competent, or that they haven't paid their dues. But it does mean most NBA teams aren't truly equal opportunity employers.
If you do somehow get in the club, remember one thing: You're a lifer if you want to be.