No one can truly appreciate the feeling of being a Have more than one who has extensive experience being a Have-Not.
That's why among all close participants in the Boston Celtics' current success, no one is savoring the feeling of each and every day as much as Don Casey, an assistant coach who can see your best tale of National Basketball Association coaching woe and raise it with consummate ease.
Laughs Casey, "A guy called me the other day and said, 'Last July, you were scratching around without a paycheck. Now you're on the All-Star coaching staff with a team that has a very good chance of going to the finals.' God is finally over on my side."
A year ago, he was head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, a collection of young guns who collectively had, and still have, no clue. "There," he explains, "you were coaching to be competitive and hoping good things could happen. Here you walk into the arena feeling they have to beat us. That is a major difference."
A self-professed coaching "oddball," the 52-going-on-25-year-old was brought in to render some wisdom and personality balance to rookie head coach Chris Ford, whom Casey first met many years ago when he tried to recruit the star of Atlantic City's Holy Spirit High School to play for him at Temple.
There is only one Don Casey. At 21, he was a high school head coach. He is not ashamed to say he entered college in 1955 and didn't graduate until 1970. He is amused that the Celtics' public relations staff, figuring that the Clippers had typically screwed up the story, have arbitrarily changed his graduation year. On Page 24 of the 1990-91 Boston Celtics media guide, it says he graduated from Temple in 1960. They are off by 10 years.
"Harry Litwack hired me as his assistant without my having a degree in 1966," Casey explains, "and it took me four years to get it done. If Harry hadn't taken care of me, I'd probably be back coaching at Bishop Eustace High and delivering the Camden Courier-Post on weekends."
Degree or not, Casey was a certified coaching prodigy and he is an educated man. No other NBA type would explain what's going on with the Celtics as follows: "As great as the Big Three are, they are not bigger than the franchise. Red Auerbach has created something special and unique here, and you're a part of it. It's almost mystical. Joseph Campbell could come in and do a job on this franchise."
Joseph Campbell? Infrequent are the references to the celebrated mythology expert when NBA people gather.
But that's simply Don Casey casually being Don Casey.
He came into the league eight years ago when his old friend Paul Westhead took over the Bulls. A year later, Jimmy Lynam summoned him to San Diego. He next tried Italy for a year, before coming back to the now-relocated Clippers, first under Don Chaney and then under Gene Shue. When Shue was bounced in January 1989, he took over as head man, lasting till the end of the '89-90 season when, following an injury-riddled 30-52 campaign, he was replaced by Mike Schuler.
He comes here as an expert witness on the underside of the NBA. He knows all there is to know about bumbling, meddling ownership and vacillating general managers, not to mention ill-advised, self-absorbed, pampered, bullheaded and unfocused players. He therefore finds the present situation refreshing.
There is, for example, the matter of the Hall of Fame front line.
"As Sinatra said after watching Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dance in 'That's Entertainment,' take a good look, because you're not going to see anything like this again," Casey contends. "And there was one day at practice when you had Walton, Cowens, Bird, McHale and Parish all together. Can you imagine that in one little Greek theology gymnasium in Brookline? Five of the best of the best together, all headed for the Hall of Fame?"
Casey is a product of the astonishing Philadelphia pipeline that has given the NBA such figures as Jack McCloskey, Jack Ramsay, Jack McKinney, Westhead, Lynam, Chuck Daly, Bob Weinhauer, Matt Guokas and others. While coaching at Bishop Eustace High in Pennsauken, N.J., he haunted various Big Five practices, often hustling back across the river to implement tactics, drills, techniques and philosophies he had picked up that very night with his own squad.
"Then I got players," explains Casey, "and they'd come to see me for recruiting purposes." One of these athletes was Bill Melchionni, who took his team to a state title and Jack Kraft's Villanova team to the NIT final (when that really meant something).
But all that seems like an old movie print to him now, as does a successful college coaching career at his alma mater. Nine seasons removed from the collegiate world, he is a paid-up member of the NBA fan club.
"Most people in college don't appreciate what goes on up here," reflects Casey. "When I was at Temple, I was absolutely one of them. They don't comprehend the difference the clock makes, how vital those 24 ticks are and how quickly you have to move into it and execute. At their level, if you can't get a shot off in 45 seconds, you should go back to the clinics.
"Now," he continues, "I understand that being up here is, in addition to teaching and coaching, managing. By that I mean you put in the system, and then keep 'em comfortable, rather than trying to impart all the knowledge in one sitting. Kevin McHale, who says a lot of things, says one thing I think does make sense. He says, 'Coaches take a simple game and make it complicated.' There is truth and value in that."
Anyway, Casey is in Boston now, and loving it all. With his three kids grown, he and his wife, Dwynne, live in the Back Bay, where he can indulge in his cosmopolitan tastes.