Among the candidates for the Basketball Hall of Fame announced today was Bill Fitch, who coached in the NBA for 25 seasons, including his final four seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. Fitch is a first time nominee, but unlike Reggie Miller who is also on the ballot the first time, Fitch probably won't make it into the Hall at this time. After all, Don Nelson is on the ballot again after failing to get in last year.
Fitch won two Coach of the Year Awards -- with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1975 and the Boston Celtics in 1980 -- and took the Celtics to the NBA Championship in 1981 and the Houston Rockets to the Finals in 1986. Unfortunately, as a coach with a reputation for turning around failing franchises, Fitch once owned a very dubious NBA record -- when he left the Clippers in 1998, his 1106 career losses were the most of any coach in NBA history. His futility record was surpassed by Lenny Wilkens in 2003. But as either of those coaches would surely tell you, you must be doing something right to have the opportunity to lose 1100 games.
It's amazing he lasted more than a season or two -- he probably wouldn't have in today's NBA. Fitch's first NBA head coaching job was as the first ever coach of the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs won just 15 games that first season; they won 23, 32 and 29 the three seasons after that, finishing with a sub .400 winning percentage for four straight seasons. An expansion team is always going to lose a lot of games, but there's no way that a present day NBA front office would suffer through four seasons averaging 25 wins, even for an expansion team, without firing the coach. And invariably once you get the reputation as an unsuccessful NBA coach, it's difficult to get another job. Brian Winters was fired midway through his second season with the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies in 1997 -- he's had one interim head coaching gig with the Warriors since. The late Bill Musselman got two full seasons with the expansion Timberwolves in the early 90s -- he never made it back to the first chair.
Either through apathy or respect, the Cavs stuck with Fitch through the early growing pains, and were rewarded with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1976, just the sixth year of the team's existence.
If Fitch was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the expansion Cavs, he was in the right place at the right time in his next coaching job -- in 1979 he took the helm with the Boston Celtics during Larry Bird's rookie season. The following season, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale arrived in Beantown to form perhaps the most formidable front line in NBA histoy and Fitch won his only championship.
When the Clippers hired Fitch in 1994, he was 60 years old and had been out of the league for a couple of seasons. Fitch inherited a terrible situation. The back-to-back playoff teams of Larry Brown had been dismantled, the vagabond Brown had moved on to Indiana, and in one season under Bob Weiss the Clippers won just 27 games. The season before Danny Manning had been dealt for Dominique Wilkins who then left as a free agent, Ron Harper left as well, and Mark Jackson was traded to the Pacers to reunite with Brown. Gary Grant and Loy Vaught were basically all that was left of the playoff teams, and the Clippers lost most of those players without getting anything back. Fitch was starting from zero.
The Clippers went from 17 wins in Fitch's first season, to 29, to 36 in 96-97, even slipping into the playoffs in a down year for the Western Conference. Those Fitch teams were serious overachievers -- the year they made the playoffs they were led in scoring by Vaught at 14.9 points per game, Malik Sealy at 13.5, and Rodney Rogers at 13.2 and the team also featured Bo Outlaw, an NBA overachiever if ever there was one. And as you may have noticed, that team also had a component of tragedy -- Sealy (car accident), Lorenzen Wright (murdered) and Kevin Duckworth (heart condition) all died at a young age, while Rogers was paralyzed in a dirt bike accident and Dwayne Schintzius has battled leukemia, though happily he is currently cancer free.
Unfortunately, Fitch's time with the Clippers in LA ended badly. Directly after the playoff appearance, Sealy and Outlaw left via free agency. Vaught suffered an injury that limited him to 10 games and he left as a free agent a season later. The Clippers won 17 games in 97-98 with a starting lineup of Rogers, Wright, Lamond Murray, Darrick Martin and Brent Barry -- it was probably the finest coaching job of Fitch's career, winning 17 games with that group. He was fired at the conclusion of the season. To add insult to injury, he had to take Clippers owner Donald Sterling to court to get the money he was contractually owed.
Bill Fitch probably won't be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame any time soon, but he certainly deserves consideration for putting up with Sterling for four seasons, and against all odds taking the Clippers to the playoffs once. That should be the first line on his resume, followed by the NBA Championship.