A longtime NBA figure, Weiss knows how to rebound
Forty years ago, Bob Weiss looked up at the large clock high up on the back wall of the ancient Palestra and thought he saw the final seconds...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Forty years ago, Bob Weiss looked up at the large clock high up on the back wall of the ancient Palestra and thought he saw the final seconds of his basketball playing career ticking away.
Penn State was losing to Bill Bradley's Princeton team in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and life was about ready to smack Weiss into the real world.
"It was 62-60, and I saw the last three seconds tick off, and I said to myself, 'God, it's over. Basketball has been my life, and now it's over,' " Weiss said yesterday after he was named the 13th coach in Sonics history. "Coming from Penn State, being in the NBA was like being a movie star. I wasn't exactly a hot name, so I didn't even think about playing in the pros."
Three, two, one, the Palestra's final claxon blew what Weiss thought was "Taps" on his life in basketball.
Little did he know the circuitous route his life was about to take. The road blocks he would have to overcome. And the odds he would have to beat.
Weiss' is the story of a basketball lifer whose career crept to the brink more than once in the last 40 years. His is a Lazarus-like story of a career that wouldn't die, that was resurrected in a basketball backwater and has survived into five decades.
He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the spring of 1965 and stuck with the team for the first month of the season before getting cut. He signed with the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Bombers of the Eastern Basketball League, the precursor of the Continental Basketball Association.
College: Penn State (1965).
Family: Wife Tracy; son Stuart, daughter Grace.
Hobbies: Tennis, golf, chess, poker, magic.
Playing career: Drafted in 1965 by Philadelphia with 21st overall pick. ... Played 12 years with six teams, winning NBA title with 76ers in 1967. Came to Seattle in 1967 expansion draft and played one season. Retired in 1977.
Coaching career: Assistant for San Diego Clippers and Dallas Mavericks before becoming coach of San Antonio in 1987. Also was coach of Atlanta Hawks and L.A. Clippers before joining Sonics as assistant in 1994.
"I lost all of my confidence playing with the Sixers," Weiss said. "I got down to Wilmington and played a few games there, then (coach) Neil Johnston didn't dress me for a game."
Weiss went to Johnston and asked him why a couple of guards named Maurice McHartley and Waite Bellamy were playing in front of him. Johnston's answer helped change Weiss' life.
"Neil said to me, 'When a guard goes into the game, something has to happen, whether it's good or bad,' " Weiss said. "He told me I was playing not to make mistakes. It was like a light switch being thrown on, and I said to myself, 'OK, I'll cut it loose.'
"He was the one who turned my basketball career around, from losing confidence to just going out and playing basketball and making something happen. He saved my career. And by the end of the season, I was starting and we won the (1966 EBL) championship. And from then on, I played with that same philosophy."
Still, as Wilmington was making its title run, Weiss was making plans for a future far removed from the NBA. He was looking for a teaching job, asking anyone who could put in a good word.
One of those people was my father, who was a part owner of the Blue Bombers. I remember my father sitting at a table in our kitchen making calls for Weiss.
Eventually Weiss got a job developing a physical education program for a school district in New Jersey. He taught during the week and played basketball on the weekends. His long-term goal was to become a high school coach and maybe find a college job.
"You just don't know what turns there are going to be," he said. "Toward the end of the (1967) school year, I got a call from (Sixers general manager) Jack Ramsay telling me Larry Costello had severed his Achilles, and he wanted to bring me up. Now I have a decision to make. I had a job, but I had a chance to play in the NBA."
Weiss went to the Sixers, who won the championship, and after the season owner Irv Kosloff treated the team to a week's vacation in the Bahamas.
"I went into the school principal and told him we won the championship and we were going to go to the Bahamas for free," Weiss said. "He looked at me and said, 'Send me a postcard.' "
Weiss never came back.
He played 12 seasons in the NBA and has coached in the league since 1976.
And now, at 63, he begins what almost certainly will be his last hurrah, trying to continue what Nate McMillan started last season when the Sonics won 52 games and a Northwest Division championship.
Weiss is a survivor.
Even after he was taken in the 1967 expansion draft by the Sonics, nothing was guaranteed. At that time, the Vietnam War was raging, and he was drafted into the Army. Then-Sonics general manager Dick Vertlieb tried to keep Weiss out of the draft, but nothing worked.
"I got my toothbrush, got on a bus and went to Fort Lewis," Weiss said. "But in the meantime we find out my wife (Tracy) is pregnant. She's already had a miscarriage, so I sent a letter to my draft board in Pennsylvania. And two days before I have to report, I call up the draft board, and they tell me my induction's been cancelled. There's just been so many things like that that have changed my life."
He has lasted almost 40 years in a profession that chews up and spits out people like so much shredded paper. He has been the coach in San Antonio and Atlanta and with the Los Angeles Clippers. His career record in six seasons as a head coach is a less-than-dazzling 210-282.
"I had players who were on respirators," Weiss said of some of his past teams. "They were complete rebuilding jobs. We weren't even finished [with] the deterioration process yet."
By choosing Weiss, the Sonics took the safe, less adventurous path. Losing McMillan, former associate head coach Dwane Casey and former assistant Dean Demopoulos cost the team years of experience and countless man-hours of preparation.
It remains to be seen whether Weiss and his staff can be as well prepared as their predecessors. Weiss, who is an amateur magician, will need all of his magical powers to keep the team in the thick of a Western Conference that will be even more competitive than last season.
The Sonics gave him this last chance because he has been an assistant here for 11 years, and they want to maintain continuity. And because the players, especially re-signed All-Star Ray Allen, championed his promotion.
Weiss expects his Sonics to run even more than McMillan's Sonics. He said he will simplify the defense and experiment with more zones.
"It's going to be a tough act to follow," Weiss said of McMillan, "but you're going to have the ammunition to do it."
The players see him as more approachable, Nate-light.
"Nate went full bore," Weiss said. "He carried it with him all the time. I'm a little easier going. Nate was a very demanding guy, but I'll also be demanding in a little different way. I might even be a little more short-tempered about certain kinds of mistakes.
"If we continue to miss defensive assignments, I may jerk a player quicker than Nate would sometimes. Turnovers and shots that are missed — those things don't bother me. That's part of the game. But if there's things that I think they should focus on and they can't remember them, then maybe coming out of the game might help them remember."
Forty years ago, Weiss watched what he thought were the final moments of his basketball life tick in front of him. Forty years later, he embarks on his greatest basketball challenge — the first year in Seattle of life after McMillan.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com.
|Bob Weiss' coaching record|
|1986-87||San Antonio Spurs||28-54||.341||None|
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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