Coach's Corner

Las Vegas conjures images of gangsters, Elliot Ness style guys, like Frank Nitti, selling sin in the western Nevada desert. I see the old Mafia-run casinos of the Fifties. I see Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis on the Desert Inn marquee. I see the Vegas of Casino, where Robert Di Niro and his wiseguy pals controlled a sleazy, semi-pornographic city. I liked that. You could walk The Strip and, at least, imagine guys wearing fedoras and toting tommy guns. Las Vegas was, not long ago, an adults-only city.

Ah, how that's changed. Rollercoasters spiral down from the tops of skyscrapers. Right on The Strip, white tigers cavort playfully with dolphins and penguins. Monorails connect hotels. Tourists stroll through giant underground theme malls, replicating an Italian villa or an MGM movie lot. A gargantuan sphinx guards a pyramid-shaped hotel. There's even a luxury hotel for you grungies, The Hard Rock Hotel, blaring the Eagles, Jackson Browne and some awful shit -- Whitesnake, I think -- through the casino's sound system. Everyone at the Rock looks like a wasted rock star, Courtney Love, or my son. Nobody really understands the rules of blackjack or whatever, and they don't give a shit. The dealers and pit people have long hair, look stoned, and are sullen and quarrelsome, just like the youthful customers. Sinful Vegas is now a family theme park, with the streets sporting more kiddy prams and 10-year-olds wearing Michael Jordan jerseys than Caddies and gangsters.

Good thing for the sports books, where I was barely able to keep up with the barrage of basketball coaching changes and the fantastic rustling of cash, stunning even here, where $100 dollar chips are chump change.

The NBA, usually a paragon of exquisite market savvy, has been off its game lately, allowing management movement to compete with and sometimes overshadow the league's marquee showcase, the playoffs.

Though there's been a lot of distracting motion, still, some constants remain: Bad teams display, over and over, why they're bad teams. A case or two in point: The new coaching conglomerate of Bird & Pitino. The Indiana Pacers (not too bad but headed that way) hired Larry Bird to a huge coaching contract. In fact, Bird, who's never coached on any level at all, is instantly one of the top-paid coaches in the league. I have no problem with coaches making lots of money, but why waste the money (I'm in Vegas, remember, where the percentage always wins) gambling on a longshot? Superstars almost never make good coaches. After playing at such an instinctive, unthinking, high level, they don't understand good players playing poorly, lazy players coasting, and the limitations of the everyday, journeyman athlete.

So, why Bird? Can a coach really sell tickets? Are Pacer fans going to buy enough season tickets to finance a new stadium, just to watch Larry call a 20-second time out? I'll admit, I'm curious to see how Bird, a Hoosier with a sense of style worse than Barney Fife, acquits himself from a sartorial standpoint, but watching him seethe and squirm through a 40- or 50-loss season?

Rick Pitino's another story. The money he's being paid, reportedly $70 million, is so obscenely staggering, it's beyond comprehension. But again, why Pitino? College coaches don't do well at the professional level. In fact, they invariably fail. One college coach, P.J. Carlesimo, was just fired by the Trailblazers. Jerry Tarkanian lasted two months in San Antonio. John Calipari barely survived the season in New Jersey. The last survivor, Larry Brown, has been back and forth so often it's hard to say if he's a college coach in the pros, or the other way around.

Professional basketball and the college game are not the same animal. The college game is about recruiting, period. If you recruit talent, you'll win. All schools recruit, more or less equally, among the talent pool of America. Every school has at least a theoretical chance of landing the 9-foot monster with the wing span of Rodan. The pros don't recruit. They draft and sign free-agents. Bad clubs stay bad, because they draft badly and make poor free-agent choices.

Pitino, who himself was barely a .500 coach during his unhappy, two year ('88-'90) pro stint with the Knicks, isn't going to be dealing with an 18-year-old freshman from Happy Hollow. Though some of his charges may indeed be 18, they won't be frightened or much inspired by rah-rah college speeches. Sullen veterans with rotten attitudes won't be too crazy about playing D. Millionaire power forwards might not want to dive for loose balls if they don't see winning results quickly.

So again, why Pitino? Celtic management, as it were, certainly is aware of the undistinguished record of the college coach. I might, one time, pay to see Larry Bird come out on the court in a lime green blazer (at least it's Larry Bird), but to watch Rick stomp his Gucci loafers on the Fleet Center parquet floor? Pitino might make a great pro coach, but why would Boston make this stretch, at such bad odds? Make a run for Phil Jackson, maybe Lenny Wilkins or Paul Westphal, youthful guys with a good, proven NBA track record. How about Rudy T? That kind of money for a flashy college coach, I just don't get it at all.

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