DETROIT - Before there were guaranteed contracts, $1,000 courtside seats, NBA.com and players who reach out and touch you - Latrell Sprewell, meet P.J. Carlesimo - there were coaches like George Irvine of the Detroit Pistons.
A former player himself, Irvine coached way back in the covered-wagon days - first as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets in the old American Basketball Association before joining the Indiana Pacers in 1980.
Irvine worked his way up the corporate ladder and survived the office politics without bumping his head on the glass ceiling to become head coach of the Pacers from 1984-86.
Two years was enough to convince Irvine he didn't want to be a head coach anymore. Two years of working 365-24-7 and watching every loss become a gray hair.
At 51, Irvine's hair is now generously flecked with gray. And, like it or not, he's a head coach again.
When Irvine took over the Pistons after Alvin Gentry was fired March 6, he said he didn't want the job. He didn't like it that Gentry, who brought him to Detroit to be an assistant, wasn't given more time.
Grumbling, he finally accepted the promotion. Directing his anger toward what appeared to be a near-impossible task, Irvine convinced the Pistons to start playing with passion and a purpose.
"He tells us what we should be doing and how we're going to play," guard Jerry Stackhouse said. "He demands a lot from the players and the players have responded."
At the time of the coaching change, the Pistons were 28-30 and had lost 15 of their previous 22. As the Pistons lost ground in the playoff race, speculation increased that superstar Grant Hill would leave Detroit when he became a free agent in July.
In their first 21 games under Irvine, the Pistons went 13-8 and clinched a playoff berth on Sunday. After dropping 11 in a row on the road under Gentry the Pistons are 7-5 on the road after last night's 100-88 loss at New York.
"Has it been a little better than I thought?" asked Irvine. "Yeah. We've done better than I anticipated."
Ironically, because Irvine didn't want the job in the first place, he was able to coach the Pistons his way without considering the consequences.
He wasn't looking for a new multi-year contract consisting of part-ownership and $400-a-day per diem. Therefore, Irvine isn't shackled by the restraints that confine other coaches.
He's not afraid to get in Hill's face, or tell Stackhouse to stop shooting so much. After all, what are the Pistons going to do, fire him?
"I'm at the stage of my life where I'm not worried about lasting a long time in the league," said Irvine, who has been a professional player or coach since 1970. "Through experience, I've realized the only way to win is to do it the right way. If you hurt feelings along the way, then you do. But if you're fair and honest with the players, the majority of them will accept it."
Stackhouse said the Pistons enjoy playing for Irvine because he tells them how it is. Not how they want it to be.
Just the facts, Coach.
"I love it," Stackhouse said. "He doesn't hold back on his displeasure of what I do or what Grant does. We're the quote-unquote stars of this team. If guys see him coming at me or coming at Grant, they accept it a lot easier."
Hill and Stackhouse have openly campaigned for Irvine's return next year.
"He is definitely what this team needs," Hill said.
What does Irvine need?
How about something as simple as coaching a playoff team for the first time? It's something he admits to wanting "very badly."
Irvine didn't ask for this job. He didn't run from it, either.
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