The sense of drama, says Houston Coach Bill Fitch, would be much keener if it hadn't taken three years from the time he left Boston for his Rockets to reach their current position, playing the Celtics in the NBA championship series.
The series -- which continues with Game 2 Thursday night at Boston Garden -- matches Fitch and his Celtics successor, K.C. Jones, two men whose style is vastly different and whose days together in Boston were less than harmonious.
"I saw a quote of his recently where he said he was a better builder than maintainer," Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers said of Fitch. "He'd gone through that building stage here, and I guess he wanted that challenge again."
Perhaps Jones is the classic maintainer. Two nights before the series began, Jones serenaded customers with song at a local night spot. He is cool, and Fitch is near-legendary fire. Many observers believe the team didn't miss a beat when Jones took over.
"Whatever the reasons are, I'm glad I got the job. But my own personality and style is the only way I can go," Jones said. "I didn't come in here and say, 'Let's try and go in a different direction.' If I had, I don't think I'd be here today."
At the time of Fitch's departure from Boston, shortly after a four-game sweep by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1983 Eastern Conference semifinals, it was said that he was commanding a rebellious ship. He was viewed as a martinet whose strident manner offended a team with a proud tradition. And he virtually ignored Jones, one of the team's former stars, who served as his assistant along with Rodgers.
"I was so busy trying to win that the other factors -- what the press was saying and the guys who were here way back when -- didn't count," said Fitch.
"I stopped off here for four great years, but there were other things I wanted to do. Even if we had won four straight against Milwaukee and went on to put another ring on the finger, I'd have still been gone."
Fitch said the main reason for his departure was the decision of then-owner Harry Mangurian to sell the team. Also, team president Red Auerbach decided to spend the majority of his time at his home in Washington rather than in Boston.
"I didn't want to be the guy to sit in Red's office for the next 10 years hearing people say, 'Red wouldn't have done it that way,' " he said. "Life is too short for that."
Auerbach, who says Fitch left on his own, believes it was "a smart move on his part.
"You have to take opportunities when they come, and he had more of a future there. When he's done coaching, he could become their general manager; he knows how to do that sort of thing. With us, Jan Volk [the current general manager] was here, and I was here."
And Jones remained as well. "The year before, the team had won 60 games for the second or third time in a row. I knew it would be a difficult act to follow," he said. "I hadn't been a head coach for seven years, which presented astronomical problems. Fortunately, I got through them."
That he did it with a velvet hand, instead of an iron fist, only heightens the contrast between the two men. "Bill is tremendously well-organized, he is a disciplinarian, and things bothered him more than they do K.C.," said Auerbach. "I'm not saying one way is better than the other -- both get results."
The role Jones played under Fitch also illustrates the differences between the two.
"Bill was more of a dominant figure," said Rodgers. "It's not that we didn't contribute, but it wasn't on the surface or openly seen. K.C.'s been a guy to allow more communication between Chris [Ford, another assistant], me and others around us."
Perhaps that's because of the limited role Jones had under Fitch. "Being an assistant, you do whatever the head coach needs or wants," said Jones. "An assistant coach has nothing to say unless he's asked. You have to accept what the position calls for. If he didn't want to use me, he didn't. That's what being an assistant is all about."
In assessing Jones or, say, Pat Riley of the Los Angeles Lakers, one is tempted to dismiss coaching ability as the offshoot of working with stars such as Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. Bird acknowledges how instrumental Fitch was in his development, yet he and the other Celtics understand how important Jones' style is to the team.
Guard Danny Ainge was equally uncertain. "I didn't agree with some of the things he did concerning my personal situation, but I grew to understand him and we had a good relationship," he said. "K.C. makes the game more fun, or at least more relaxed. But they both want to win very badly and, once you understand that, you'll do anything that either one of them asks."
Fitch hopes Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon will stay out of foul trouble Thursday night and remain on the court long enough for him to ask something of them. That wasn't the case in Monday's opener of the best-of-seven series, which the Celtics won, 112-100. Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5 will be played in Houston.