SPRINGFIELD, MASS – Del Harris spent the bulk of his 82 years on earth coaching basketball.
And he was darn good at it.
Harris coached for five decades, starting at the high school level in his native Indiana and moving up the ranks to the NBA. During that 50-year span, Harris was a consistent winner. To wit:
- In his first college head coaching job, at Earlham (Ind.) College, he led the Quakers to a total of 15 conference and tournament titles.
- In his combined 13 full seasons as the head coach of the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks, his teams advanced to the playoffs on 12 occasions.
- He guided Houston to the NBA Finals in 1981.
- In a four-year span with the Lakers from 1994-98, Harris’ teams registered 48, 53, 56 and 61 wins. He was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 1995.
For his outstanding coaching and numerous other endeavors in the game of basketball, Harris was bestowed with the prestigious John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday night at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Some previous Bunn Award winners were John Wooden, Arnold “Red’’ Auerbach and Bob Cousy.
Harris, who is still actively involved in basketball as vice president of the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ G League affiliate, spent almost a decade working for the Bucks, beginning as a scout, then an assistant coach under Don Nelson before becoming the franchise’s head coach and general manager.
Harris said he has many fond memories of his days in Milwaukee, but the one that ranks right at the top came during the 1989 NBA playoffs when he was in his second season as head coach.
The Bucks opened postseason play against the Atlanta Hawks and nobody in the NBA world gave Harris’ team a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the series. After all, the Hawks were stacked. They boasted hall of famers Moses Malone and Dominique Wilkins.
But the Bucks, who had lost all six regular-seasons games to Atlanta, stunned the Hawks in the best-of-five game series. Harris remembers the series like it occurred yesterday.
“Nobody thought we’d have a chance to beat Atlanta; they had a great team,’’ Harris said. “We couldn’t even sell out the Bradley Center. We drew only 13,000 for our first home game, which was Game 3.
“I remember I had promised Bucks fans that we would win a game in Atlanta and I asked them to bring cowbells. We wanted to do something symbolic of Wisconsin.
“Well, we won a game in Atlanta (108-98 in Game 2) and then we came back to Milwaukee. For Game 3 in Milwaukee, they had put up a Del’s Noise Meter and the fans did bring a lot of cowbells. We won Game 3 and went up two games to one.
“Well, we’re in Game 4 and we are tied with about three seconds to go and they fouled Jack Sikma, the first 7-footer to shoot over 200 3-pointers in a season and first 7-footer to win the free throw shooting title in the NBA. The champion free throw shooter in the league. The game has to be over, right? (Long pause). He missed. We lost the game and had to go to Game 5 in Atlanta.
“I don’t know what the odds were in Vegas, but they had to be overwhelmingly against us winning another game in Atlanta. Not only did it look like we had lost our chance to win the series (in Game 4), we had already lost Terry Cummings and we had lost Paul Pressey to injuries.
“So we go down to Atlanta and we win that Game 5 (96-92 as Ricky Pierce scored 25 points and Fred Roberts added 18). I remember tears were in my eyes after the game during the post-game interviews. I said it at the time that I feel better about this for Jack than for me because he was such a warrior, such a great team leader and player and, for him to think that if we lost that it was his fault, it just wouldn’t have been right. When we won, I felt that was Jack’s game.’’
That thrilling memorable series remains etched in Sikma’s mind as well. He had been acquired by the Bucks in a trade the season before after having been a seven-time All-Star with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Like Harris, the Bucks-Hawks series stood out as his most memorable moment in a Bucks uniform.
“That series is the highlight of my time in Milwaukee,’’ said Sikma, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday night. “Having two free throws to win Game 4 against Atlanta and making only one and we lose in overtime. …
“I was a good free throw shooter and I missed it. I was the most surprised guy. Maybe it was just a little too much adrenalin; it was just a little too long.
“My teammates all knew what it feels like when you have a shot to put a team away and you don’t get it done. It’s not a good feeling. Thankfully, my teammates picked me up and we won Game 5.’’