With the names Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers and Isiah Thomas being thrown around lately in regard to coaching vacancies, the selection of Gar Heard isn't exactly setting the town on fire. It's just like the Bullets/Wizards to make the safe move, the predictable move, instead of something bold that knocks you back on your heels. After all, it's a franchise that has underwhelmed us for 15 years and counting. Okay, there was that day in November 1994 when Chris Webber and Juwan Howard arrived together and got everybody jazzed. But overall, whoever is running the Wizards isn't likely to give us much in the way of spice.
Having said that, of all the men who have earned the right to be a head coach in the NBA, I would put Paul Silas and Gar Heard at the top of my list. They played in the league for double-digit years, making themselves valuable as role players because they knew more than the next guy, studied harder, stayed in better shape, took instruction, always represented their teams professionally. They were the kind of player about which a coach would say, "Man, if I only had five more like that guy." Silas was snatched by the Charlotte Hornets, and today Heard will be named head coach of the Wizards.
Heard has paid his dues and then some. He played for five teams in 11 years and was part of, for my money, the Greatest NBA Game of All Time, Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals between the Suns and Celtics. It was Heard who hit the buzzer-beater that forced the first overtime of that game. He then spent 12 years as an assistant coach, six in Dallas under John MacLeod and Richie Adubato, four in Indianapolis under Larry Brown, one more in Philly with Brown, and this season in Detroit under Alvin Gentry.
Now, there's another columnist at this newspaper who runs around carrying water for Brown. But I think he'll allow me to say that working five years for Brown qualifies as a credential.
Still, Heard is not Brown or Pat Riley or Chuck Daly or Phil Jackson -- who will be named head coach of the Lakers today -- or even Lenny Wilkens. This is his first head coaching job. And there's no sense in rushing to judgment as to whether this is the right move or the wrong move. If we've learned anything about the Bullets/Wizards over the last 15 years or so it's that whatever looks wrong at the time is probably right and whatever looks great turns out to be worse than bad. Trading Tom Gugliotta and three No. 1 draft picks for Webber led to celebration at the time, but today?
What we know is that Heard is held in high regard in the coaching fraternity. One of his strengths is communicating with players, which GM Wes Unseld had said was probably his number one criteria. From what we've heard, lack of communication last season was one of the team's major problems. Another was that the coaching staff didn't have one guy who actually played in the NBA. Heard played. He stuck for more than a decade despite being drafted in the third round. He went to the playoffs seven times, played on bad teams, played on a couple of really good teams, played with stiffs and superstars. He's been there.
Whether he'll be any better or worse than Rivers, only time will tell. Rivers takes over a better team in Orlando, even with Penny Hardaway on the way out. Will the Wizards look bad if Rivers winds up being as successful as so many people expect he will?
Absolutely. Rivers wanted to live in metropolitan Washington. He was there for the taking one month ago. What does Rivers have that Heard doesn't? Certainly not experience, but he does have more visibility from his TV gig, plus youth and a vitality that this franchise desperately needs. The Wizards players, particularly Howard, Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond, were certainly pumped over the possibility of Rivers becoming the coach here. Other soon-to-be free agents around the league were asking excitedly during the early rounds of the playoffs, "Is Doc really going to Washington?" How often do you think the Wizards have that kind of buzz?
Howard and Strickland also were very candid in supporting Thomas as a candidate. So what happened to Isiah? The same thing that always happens to Isiah: Some folks in high places had some harsh things to say about him. You don't need CIA operatives to unearth critical stuff about Zeke. I've been following Isiah's career since he was 14, an oversized talent in Chicago where we both grew up. He has rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way for more than 20 years, coast-to-coast. I've criticized him in this space more than once.
But let me say this about Isiah. He has been good at everything he has ever attempted professionally. He was one of the great players in NBA history. He had Toronto on course as president and general manager before the rug was snatched from underneath him. He got better as a broadcast analyst every time he set foot in the studio. My bet is he would have come in here, shaken things up in a hurry, and the players would have been scared to death not to play for him.
Now, we know more about Thomas and Rivers because they've played in the league more recently and they come into our living rooms every week on TV. But just because we don't know as much about Heard doesn't mean he doesn't have a lot to offer. Neither Thomas nor Rivers can claim a dozen years of sitting on the NBA sideline preparing for this day. Thomas and Rivers haven't helped put together practice plans or game plans or sat in meetings with Brown, trying to figure out what to do about Allen Iverson.
If salary demands or indecision or poor homework led to the Wizards passing on Rivers or Thomas, shame on them; the club will have justified (once again) the skepticism that it is a small-time operation. But if Unseld looked at Heard and saw a man who has served his apprenticeship and appears to have all the experience and wherewithal to lead this team out of the wilderness, he has made a very defensible choice.