While it’s nice to be Gregg Popovich and coach in one spot for more than 20 seasons, guys like Richie Adubato are scattered throughout the ranks, with nomadic careers.
“I’ve been fired four times,” Adubato told NY Sports Day. “Two times I should’ve, two times I shouldn’t have.”
The man who coached in high school, college, the NBA, WNBA and overseas is the author of “Havin’ a Ball: My Improbable Basketball Journey” (University of Nebraska Press), written with Peter Kerasotis.
Adubato was one of the “Jersey guys” making their way up the coaching ranks in the 1970s.
“Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, Dick Vitale and I were all coming up at the same time,” Adubato said.
Adubato, who would bartend and teach at inner-city schools, coached at Division III Upsala College. It was not the big time. One player would shower before the game because, the player said, the shower would be too crowded after the game.
Adubato declined an offer to join Vitale’s staff at Detroit University but joined him in 1978 when Vitale was named coach of the Pistons.
The two were close friends. When Adubato needed a speaker for a clinic he asked Vitale for help and Vitale sent Bulls star Bob Love. All good, until it turned out Love had a terrible stutter. When Adubato Calle’s Vitale, the latter just laughed.
But when Vitale was fired by the Pistons, Adubato was tabbed to replace him. Struggling with injuries and a lack of talent, the team staggered to the finish line and Adubato was not retained by Detroit.
Then he went back to teaching inner-city school students in New Jersey. How dangerous was it? Four of the students in one of his classes had lit a homeless man on fire.
“I just came from the NBA,” Adubato said. “The Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls. How did I get back here? It was the saddest day of my life.”
Adubato returned to the pros when Brown asked him to join his staff with Fratello on the Knicks. He was on the sidelines when Bernard King helped take the Celtics to seven games in the 1984 playoffs and when Patrick Ewing was in his rookie season.
When Fratello left to coach the Hawks, Rick Pitino joined the staff. Adubato recalls one night when the two of them went out drinking and the next day, Brown told Adubato that Pitino was sick. Adubato wasn’t happy having to do extra work for a hungover Pitino. Before the game, Brown and Adubato saw Pitino being pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse. Adubato chased Pitino but the young coach jumped out of the wheelchair, sprinted to his car and drove off.
Adubato left the Knicks to handle defensive duties for Dick Motta’s Dallas Mavericks. The defensive improved and Adubato stayed when John MacLeod took over. MacLeod was fired early in the 1989-90 season and Adubato led the struggling team to the playoffs. But the team saw injuries and departures ravage the team and Adubato was fired after a 2-27 start in 1992-93.
After a season coaching with Fratello’s Cavaliers, Adubato joined Brian Hill’s staff in Orlando. Hill has played his high school ball for Adubato.
The Magic made the Finals in 1995 and advanced to the conference finals in 1996 but then Shaquille O’Neal left for the Lakers. The next season, Hill was fired amidst heavy team dissent and Adubato took over. Orlando went 21-12 to finish the season and pushed the Miami Heat to the limit in the first round of the playoffs, with Penny Hardaway putting up consecutive 40-point games.
It seemed like Adubato should return and O’Neal even supported him from across the country.
“Shaq is the best guy I ever coached,” Adubato said.
But the front office went for Chuck Daly.
“He didn’t even want the job,” Adubato said.
Daly’s agent, Lonnie Cooper, worked the Magic until they gave him a lucrative contract. An angry Adubato fired his agent — Lonnie Cooper.
He resurfaced in the WNBA with the New York Liberty and led the franchise to three WNBA Finals before being dismissed in 2004. Adubato later took the Washington Mystics to the postseason.
Adubato notes that after coaching, Fratello, Brown and him became longtime announcers, with teams looking for younger coaches but still wanting their thoughts on the game.
And, as Adubato says, he’s been having a ball.