Throughout the first two months of this NBA season, in which persistent rumors have placed him among the growing ranks of the unemployed, New Jersey Nets coach Bill Fitch has made only two requests of his team.
"First," said Fitch, "I asked the guys to bust their butts, trying to win every game, and, second, if they come out at halftime and see me swinging from the rafters, please cut me down."
Gallows humor aside, the only thing swinging these days is the rejuvenated Nets, who carry a four-game winning streak into tonight's game with the Washington Bullets at the Meadowlands.
"No, I haven't got a vote of confidence from the owners, and I guess that's fortunate," said Fitch with a laugh after practice yesterday. "Nothing has really changed. All that ever matters is if you win. Otherwise, your neck is always on the line. But I learned a long time ago not to worry about things I can't control. I don't know if there is anything you can do about rumors except to keep doing your job and try to control your temper."
Before the Nets' rebirth during Christmas week, Fitch read constant reports that he would be replaced after the holidays by former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, now an ESPN basketball analyst.
Valvano's New York-based agent, Art Kaminsky, told the New Jersey media that an offer Valvano received from Nets minority owner Joe Taub was "formal and firm."
But yesterday, an associate of Kaminsky's at the New York firm of Athletes and Artists said: "I don't think we were ever close to making a deal [for Valvano]. It all got blown out of proportion by the media. It's embarrassing, and a shame for everybody concerned. As far as I know, it's a dead issue."
Fitch, who ranks fourth on the all-time NBA coaching list in victories (816) and has a 1981 championship ring from the Boston Celtics, has maintained his sense of humor. "If I knew I had to go through a year like this, I would have quit and sold encyclopedias," he said.
That sense of humor and balance has helped him through five losing seasons in Cleveland in the '70s before turning the expansion Cavaliers into a playoff contender.
"I came to New Jersey three years ago to try to do something people said couldn't be done," he said. "But people don't want gradual success, they want miracles, and I never promised that."
Taub, who refers to himself as the "basketball man" among the fragmented Nets owners known as the "Secaucus Seven," has been the most vocal critic of Fitch, particularly over his failure to .. give meaningful minutes to Kenny Anderson.
The rookie guard signed a five-year, $14.5 million contract as the second lottery pick over the protests of Fitch and general manager Willis Reed, who favored the selection of Syracuse forward Billy Owens. Anderson has averaged 7.9 points and 3.4 rebounds, playing nearly 20 minutes a game as the Nets' 12th man.
"I also wish that Kenny Anderson could have instant success," said Fitch. "Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way in the NBA. It takes a lot of time, especially for a point guard."