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Wednesday, April 18, 2001
Updated: September 13, 6:39 PM ET
The Bulletproof Eight

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Coaching in the NBA is like playing poker with somebody else's money. You can play by any rules you choose. Five-card draw. seven-card stud, zones, no zones, eight-second count. If you can play cards, you can play cards. If you can't, you develop subtle ways to blame others while losing as slowly as possible.

Larry Brown
Iverson craves acceptance from coach Larry Brown, but he doesn't always get it.
Either way, if the stakes get high enough, you still need a deadpan mug and a cast-iron stomach.

The best NBA basketball coaches -- all great poker players -- are Bulletproof. They fear no Coach-Killer.

Among NBA coaches, there are only eight Bulletproof, out of 30. And counting. Whoops, better duck.

Being Bulletproof doesn't mean you can't get fired.

It does mean somebody else at the NBA level will hire you, and quickly, if you want work. Where are the Bulletproof Eight? By happy coincidence, they are in the playoffs, and according to Road Dog, their teams, except one, could be said to be a hunch bet with a puncher's chance to win a conference title. We talking boxing or basketball? Hard to tell sometimes, lately, which is why they changed some NBA rules, and also asked Charles Oakley to cease and desist all impromptu shootaround sparring sessions.

Bulletproof NBA Coaches. The Unsnuffables, The Fearless Coach-Killer Killers.

Larry Brown
"You can't fire the players," LBrookie said to me and Dog last week before watching his boys mail one in at Orlando. "The nature of the job is that you will eventually lose it. But the trick is, in the meantime, do it well. There's a difference between being employed and doing the job, gettin' it done."

The job of NBA coach requires a feel for "chemistry" -- how many shooters and nonshooting rebounders and defenders and passers to have on the court at once, in what blend, and how to adjust on the fly:

Bulletproof never blames his tools. Brown on the rules changes: "I don't like how the game's being played right now. The 3-point line should be moved back -- it's killing the game. We've forgotten what a great team game we have. Right now we're paying guys a lot of money to point when they see an illegal defense. Zones? Well, the last college team to win playing a zone -- Coach Richardson at Arkansas came close seven years ago, but that was fullcourt pressure -- I don't know who. Whatever the rules are, we'll play."

Bulletproof must inspire faith in his tactical bench abilities from a bunch of grown men, peppered with prima donnas, who all think they personally invented the game; Bulletproof must inspire in combat, under fire, so players will buy in, even if, as in Philly's game, it takes time to take full effect.

The Sixers, outside of Allen Iverson, cannot score, world-class, at any position, except at 2, with A-I, and the back-up 2, Aaron McKie, although Brown finds ways to have them both on the court at the same time when Philly needs a late rally to win. Philly's next best scorer may be the back-up back-up 2s, Buford and Jones. So Philly can't score, except for one guy who can score at will. What the Sixers do is effort you to death, on the boards, as defenders. This kind of play defines a coach. How hard they play, toward what end.

They dealt for defense, for the true shot-blocking center who can defend Shaq, or Duncan, or the Admiral -- Dikembe Mutombo. In the end, Brown knew it was the stops they made that defined them. That's why -- that and the fact that Theo Ratliff was out injured for the year with a bad wrist. Brown spoke of him respectfully throughout. That's another thing Bulletproof does, and not obsequiously -- Dog just signaled for a timeout -- but sincerely.

If Brown can take this collection to the NBA Finals for a matchup of Iverson-Mutombo vs. Kobe-Shaq -- sorry, Shaq-Kobe -- he is the Bulletproof mastermind. Who hasn't he taken to the playoffs?

Doc Rivers
Two years ago, when the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title, Doc picked them to win as a TV commentator. Now he looks the other way when you ask him about 2001, as if he's picking them again, but now that he's Bulletproof, best to keep the poker face.

Rivers was NBA Coach of the Year in 2000 while not making the playoffs, just missing them dramatically, which is impressive. More impressive, he lost top free agent Grant Hill this season, and this time made the playoffs. And he predicted that, four months before it happened. Along with John Gabriel, Doc picked Tracy McGrady free agent over Eddie Jones. Who knew? When Hill went down, the Magic still had a No. 1 option in T-Mac. Now when Hill comes back, Doc has T-Mac's respect enough to ask T-Mac to step back to No. 2 option -- even though the Big Sleep, or the Sleeper Will Awaken On Yo A--, as Dog calls him, has proven he has world-class game.

"I always saw Grant Hill as Magic, anyway," says Rivers, meaning Magic Johnson. "Up top, with the ball. I'd like to put Darrell Armstrong, Mike (Miller) and Tracy on the wings and let Grant make decisions.

"My passion for the game ... is pure. I don't need attention. Let the players have it. I had it before. That's part of the edge. If you know all the little rhythms and nuances of an environment, it helps you master it."

Doc Rivers is, to Dog, maybe me too, the hottest Bulletproof property, because he's the youngest. He will win a lot of games over a lot of years for whoever employs him, and it seems as if that might be Orlando for a while. Of course the Magic draw Big Dog, Sam I Am, Ray-Ray Allen and Tim Thomas in round 1.

Pat Riley
Riley the grinder, the dead-spot-in-your-offense finder. He somehow gets the Heat to the party all the time, this year with collapsing D and bailing wire, keeping them playoff-quality despite Mourning's absence. Imagine if Riley had what Knicks' Van Gundy has and Van Gundy has what Riley had.

Phil Jackson
Talk about a real smooth player. Nice move, climbing into the Buss family tree like that. Wasn't necessary for becoming Bulletproof, though. Phil always was a little more aware, or seemed to be, of what was going on around him; he knew how to foster an environment for the great player to create in, within something of a confinement, just enough to be an irritant to the great player. Like a Viennese baron telling Mozart the music is good -- different -- but there are . . . too many notes. Mozart, or Jordan, is going to say, "Oh? Which notes would His Majesty have me remove?" But at least you have Mozart's, or Jordan's, attention. Phil's speciality? You'll never see him anywhere where there isn't a Mozart. Or maybe two.

Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens
Toronto's Lenny Wilkens has already won more games than most coaches will ever see from a head coaching seat.
You could drive a stake through Lenny Wilkins' heart and he'd still get up and coach a former also-ran NBA team into the playoffs. Another Brooklynite, as Road Dog is stabbing me to point out. Did it with Toronto, did it with the Hawks. Of course, Lenny goes back 20 years to the 1979 NBA title, with Dennis Johnson -- the young DJ and Gus Williams. You can't know how crazy good they were. Now it's Vince Carter and Antonio Davis falling out the sky, as Dog puts it. Lenny has already won more games than most coaches will ever see from a head coaching seat. Lenny vs. Van Gundy, first round? Uh-oh.

Jerry Sloan
Don't know why Utah's Sloan is Bulletproof. Just is. Maybe it's the town. That's Dog back there going, "Psss!" I tell him, it's either Sloan, Don Nellie or Van Gundy. Dog, an eternal Knick fan, stops saying, Psss!" about Sloan. We can go forward now. Sloan -- can't tell what he's holding. Always only had the one job. Never bluffs. That we know of. Maybe Stockton and Malone had something to do with him working out, but even they had to be working off some kind of a general plan. Has the deadpan glare down.

Gregg Popovich
Popovich starts every season with Tim Duncan and David Robinson on the low block. Watched the Spurs play dig-and-spike on the boards against Portland in a pre-playoff warmup -- they made it look like two-man beach volleyball. Popovich is also a wise man who knew when to come down out of the executive offices to the bench -- when Duncan showed up to row the boat with the Admiral.

George Karl
George Karl
George Karl is trying to send some type of message to Doc Rivers.
Karl's got four dudes who can get you 30 and 10 on any given night, which is very comforting for a coach to have -- though not as comforting as the $14 mil contract Karl has signed, we assume.

If me and Road Dog seem to be a little too familiar with George Karl, it is because we knew him when. We knew him when he wasn't Bulletproof, when he was coaching the Golden State Warriors in the late '80s. Boy, he had a burr in his saddle then. Thought the NBA was like, Big College or something, like when he went to North Carolina and was in awe of just putting on the uniform. Thought he could berate and browbeat grown men because his Polo shirt had some thread on it that read Coach. Thought he could change the essential natures of men; when this was not the case, as of course it could not be, coach George Karl of Golden State had wasted lots of energy with no real return.

But he was the sincere sort who would not go away and could often will his way through, as he'd done as a player -- no Larry Brown or Doc Rivers or Lenny Wilkens as a point guard he, but a scrappy little duck who tried to motivate others to his energy level. Oblivious disasters like Chris Washburn -- my God, he was third overall pick -- remained unmotivated in Karl's early days by the coach pointing out that he had the NBA record for steals in a playoff game. Seven. This drew quizzical looks from all involved, except Washburn, who yawned. Washburn, he was great at yawning. And?

George Karl will still occasionally and often innocently put his foot up around his mouth, which makes him work pretty well as far as journalists go. He loosened up some, allowing himself to be dumped on -- water bucket, Gatorade-wise -- and smiling over it. Can't imagine him doing that back in the Golden State days. Since then he took Payton and Shawn Kemp and the Seattle Sonics to the NBA Finals in 1996, when they fell prey to the King of Bulletproof, Michael Jordan.

As a player, that is. Even the great ones can't buy immunity as coaches. "When I brought Julius in, I asked if he wanted to try the bench," says Orlando's John Gabriel. "But I warned him, and he listened." And every season, including this one, Karl gets in a dig at the Sonics' brain trust who let him go, not noticing it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

In 2001, Karl's Milwaukee Bucks went 8-0 against the top four teams of the Western Conference. They have an offensive edge at every position against the Philadelphia 76ers, except at 2, where the Bucks are one of only two teams in the league who have a player the approximate equal of Iverson, in Ray Allen.

Bulletproof. How did they get that way? Final Answer.

When once asked the secret of coaching (or poker), the former coach of Winston-Salem State, and of Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Clarence "Bighouse" Gaines, uttered one word, with lip-puckering relish and absolute authority:

"Personnel."

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."