Coach Albeck - Forever Stan-din Tall
By Peter Vecsey
Almost instantaneously upon taking over the ABA Denver Rockets from Joe Belmont 13 games into the 1970-71 season, Stan Albeck got initiated into the unstable head-coaching fraternity and its susceptibility to the impulsive, repulsive, compulsiveness of others.
The profession’s unadulterated wackiness, whims and whammies would surface soon enough.
Spencer Haywood, by far the ABA’s most dominant player and already one of the game’s most rousing above-the-cylinder contortionists at the tender age of 20, was withholding his services due to a contract dispute with the Ringsby trucking family.
Out of Detroit’s Pershing High School, and two years at the University of Detroit, the 6-9 funky forward had signed a long-term pro contract the previous season for $1.9 million thanks to Al Ross, a hot-spit young Beverly Hills lawyer/agent from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Ross pushed hard to gain a landmark court decision that essentially decreed that a certified “hardship case” couldn’t be deprived of his livelihood, date of birth notwithstanding.
Haywood’s winning streak continued when he captured the MVP and rookie awards. He also polished off the scoring and rebounding titles, averaging 30 points and 19.5 boards during the regular season, 36.7 and 19.8 in the playoffs. Instead of being everlastingly grateful to have such superiority on their side, though, Bill Ringsby and son, Don, attempted to devalue the deal, insisting they be permitted to invest his money in a fashionable 10-year plan, er, scam.
Ross warned them, “Either honor it, or we’re out of here.”
Pre-Christmas negotiations to resolve the matter appeared to be going well when the Ringsbys requested a brief recess. They walked into an adjoining room and accidentally (on purpose?) left the door slightly ajar.
“There’s nothing I hate worse than dealing with a n….. and a Beverly Hills Jew,” Ross overheard old man Ringsby blurt – a decadent remark passed down through the decades. Several days ago, Ross, 68 and still in no danger of being downgraded from a hurricane to a storm, confirmed the bigoted remark word for word.
Haywood jumped to the NBA six weeks later, struttin’ his stuff (33 games that season) for Sam Schulman’s Seattle SuperSonics. The Ringsbys were made richer by $1 million in compensation, paid by Schulman. Albeck, meanwhile, learned that a coach is only as good (27-44) as his talent-- minus the league’s mightiest magnet.
The ABA was out of luck and, come the end of that season, Albeck was out of work. Not until eight years later, following shifts as an assistant under Hubie Brown (Kentucky Colonels), Wilt Chamberlain (San Diego Conquistadors) and Jerry West (Lakers), did he get another chance controlling the joy stick.
Bill Fitch, the Cavaliers’ original coach since 1970-’71, had quit after the team again hit the skids in ’78-’79. Owner Nick Mileti offered Albeck the job. He could’ve had more than one year, but preferred to prove himself to his employer before entering into anything long-term. His first move was to call on his good friend Chamberlain, whom he’d covered for during most practices during the ’73-’74 season (37-47), losing to Utah 4-2 in the Western semis.
“He was this close to coming back,” Albeck said haltingly, his speech (but not his legs or travel throughout the world) still limited by a stroke suffered at 2:35 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001 in the Raptors locker room in Toronto.
As I sat with Stan and Phyllis, his wife for 53 years (they met at an Illinois high school tourney in 1949), during an extended visit to their San Antonio home last week, he held up two fingers, one millimeter apart.
Chamberlain, 43 at the time, hadn’t played since the ’72-’73 season, threatening to come out of retirement each subsequent year for years to come.
“I told him I just wanted him to rebound,” recalled Albeck, now 74. “He said, ‘The hell with that, I want to shoot threes.’ I told him, ‘Fine, shoot all the threes you want.’ ”
Cavs GM Ron Hrovat, a basketball neophyte, was entrusted with the responsibility of hand-delivering the contract to Chamberlain’s palatial home in Bel Air. Nobody was there when Hrovat arrived, so he stuck the contract in the gate. By the time Chamberlain showed up, the papers were strewn around his yard.
Chamberlain immediately got Albeck on the phone. “Forget it, Little Man,” he said, using his endearing nickname for Albeck. “I can’t play for a team that handles its business like that.”
In spite of such negligence and the disappointment that Walt Frazier (three games and out; the lone Cavalier not to play in the opener) had reached the end of his career, you’d have to say Albeck was fairly successful that season; the Cavs finished 37-45 and made the playoffs.
But you would have to overlook Albeck’s orchestration of a trade with the Lakers that secured Don Ford (known more for marrying Sharon Tate’s sister than for anything meaningful between the lines) and a 1980 No. 1 pick (Chad Kinch) in exchange for Butch Lee and an ’82 first-round pick that would be translated into James Worthy.
Before that deal, and before the Cavs were sold to the buffoonish Ted Stepien, Mileti rewarded Albeck with a three-year contract. Indians GM Gabe Paul had warned the Albecks that Stepien was loco in the sombrero when they bumped into each other that summer at an Angels game in Anaheim. On their first day back in Cleveland, they happened to hear Stepien tell radio host Pete Franklin his first order of business was to renegotiate Albeck’s contract.
The Spurs bailed them both out. That September, GM Bob Bass, who’d left Denver just before Albeck got there, offered Stan a three-year deal. Nothing like a simonized superstar, George Gervin, to bring out a man’s slickest strategy. In three years, Albeck amassed 153 wins against 93 losses, once earning the NBA’s top coaching honor.
Albeck completed his head coaching tour in Chicago. Bulls GM Jerry Krause recruited him away from the Nets (at the cost of a second round pick), following a successful two-year stint there.
That ’85-’86 campaign was basically a bummer, polluted by poor play, bad luck and an injury to Jordan that shelved him for all but 18 games, compounded by his acrid frustration that his minutes were fiercely restricted by owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The toxic cloud lifted a little in the first round. Despite getting swept 3-0 by the Celtics, the Bulls, and Air Jordan’s rapidly multiplying supporters, salvaged their sanity, if not the season, when M.J. averaged 43.7. His 63-point eruption even prompted Larry Legend to gawk and gush.
Most observers believe Albeck was fired for ticking off Jordan by removing him from winnable games, as per instructions from above, after he’d played the designated time. Truth is, Krause got angry because Albeck stopped taking his incessant calls at home during the last two months. Albeck didn’t discoverer ‘consultant’ Doug Collins had tailgated the team the last few weeks on the road, until the day before being dismissed.
When asked for his most treasured memory of his coaching career, Albeck didn’t hesitate, Jordan’s 63. Second place also went to Jordan, for nicknaming Krause “Crumbs.”
Albeck’s next cherished memory was the Nets’ 1984 upset of the defending-champion 76ers, in the opening round. Each team won twice on the road. The deciding fifth game was on the Sixers’ home court.
“They are not going to win [the series] in Philadelphia,” Julius Erving proclaimed. “You can mail in the stats.”
“Oooh,” Phyllis Albeck cooed. “Those were fighting words to Stan. He really used them.”
U.P.S. did not deliver. Dr. J capped a substandard series with 6-of-16 shooting and four turnovers. Micheal Ray Richardson, on the other hand, notched 24 points to give New Jersey its first NBA playoff series victory, 101-98.
Whoops, we have another winner, suddenly perked up Phyllis, as perky as they come.
“I should have reminded you of the Cavs’ quadruple-overtime win over the Lakers with Kareem and Magic and Nixon and all the rest.”
So many Cavs fouled out that Bill Willoughby had to play center and actually blocked one of Kareem’s sky hooks in the fourth OT, she distinctly recalled. Right after that, Kareem got called for his sixth foul with about a minute and a half left. Mike Mitchell won it with two free throws and Cleveland prevailed by one.
“I think the refs were getting tired and wanted the game over!” Phyllis deduced.
The Albecks have Joe Tait’s play-by-play on cassette and when they take long auto trips (Stan is always putting on the imaginary brake, Phyllis says, which drives her crazy), they listen to the game and enjoy reliving every detail.
That victory was particularly sweet, Phyllis stressed, because Jerry Buss paid no attention to Albeck as a coaching candidate when West left the sidelines.
“That was so early in Stan’s career, we forget about that as one of the memorable moments,” Phyllis said. “Like picking the first girl you see, and then you see a dozen more beautiful come along … but the pick has already been made.”