EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- During his most careless moments, Chuck Daly is optimistic. It's unintentional. No one embraces fear as warmly as Daly, who is determined to live up to his moniker, "The Prince of Pessimism."
Daly was in his best worrying form Wednesday before the Nets met the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he said without a trace of a smile, "We might never win another game. I don't know. I still get a little nervous. Can we win another game?"
The New Jersey Nets had played only 33 games at the time, so Daly's basic concern was a 49-game losing streak. That was not surprising. That was from a man whose Pistons had a 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1989 NBA Finals with Magic Johnson and Byron Scott sidelined with injuries. Yet he screamed at his troops at halftime of Game 4 because he was worried about a Laker miracle.
"You have to approach it like that," Daly said, earnestly.
Daly, however, slipped slightly on Wednesday when he began )) discussing the positives of the Nets.
"I like some of the things I've seen," Daly said. "This is an interesting team because they want to do the right thing. They get frustrated very easily. A lot of teams do. But I kind of like what I see."
That was innocent enough. Nothing huge. Daly admitted positive feelings, which is a little unusual. But he didn't go overboard.
Yet in his next breath, Daly began talking -- in roundabout terms, but still talking -- about the Nets competing for a championship. He was careful, yet his optimism was evident.
"I look around the league," Daly said, comparing his team to other contenders, "and we've got talent. There are some talented people here. And I think there's a lot of things wide open in NBA basketball right now. Yeah, Chicago is the odds-on favorite and you've got the Portlands, the Clevelands and all these people. But nothing is etched in stone this year."
When it was pointed out that Daly sounded unusually positive, he smiled and snapped, "Don't get carried away. There's talent and opportunity. I just don't think the coaching is good enough to get it done."
Daly laughed at his conclusion. He's best when downplaying his considerable influence and leadership. He also knows it would take an incredible set of circumstances for the Nets to win a title.
But the Nets are playing well in spots. They defeated the Cavs, 104-98, to improve their record to 19-15. Later, the Knicks lost in Denver and, suddenly, the Nets are only 1 1/2 games behind the Knicks in the Atlantic Division. Like the Knicks, the other Eastern contenders -- the Bulls and the Cavs -- are playing well only in spots. So if the spots happen to cross during the playoffs, with zTC the Nets playing well and someone else playing poorly, who knows?
Yes, it seems outrageous, but considering Daly's pedigree, maybe it shouldn't be. Why shouldn't a guy who has won two titles and commanded the respect to be selected as the first NBA coach to lead an Olympic team, work a little magic with a talented, albeit wayward, group?
Daly is so unique that he is bucking the current theory that only an ex-player can be a players' coach. At 62, Daly is not only the oldest head coach in the league, but also is one of only five who did not play professionally.
Yet you listen to the Nets, and they talk about Daly like they are talking about an ex-player.
"As early as it is in my career, I can already say I owe him a lot," said 22-year-old Kenny Anderson. "And he's only coached me for 34 games. He's given me a lot of confidence. He's made me a coach on the floor and told me to run the team. He doesn't get on you when you make mistakes. He'll say, 'Your guy was open. Try to get it to him next time.' He speaks to you as a human being. He's a players' coach, a great relater. And in this league, that's what you have to be."
Nets assistant Paul Silas admires Daly's ability to handle distractions and controversies. The Nets had some characteristic internal sniping earlier in the season, but Daly never lost his cool. He confronted it, downplayed it, encouraged professionalism and hard play, and went on about his business.
"He just knows the right things to say," Silas said, "and not in a belligerent manner. It's a soft toughness, which is very, very difficult for anyone to achieve because most people perceive you either as soft or tough. But when he says things, it's like everybody listens, and he has a soothing effect."
Silas said Daly also has projected more confidence in the Nets than they have in themselves. Daly constantly tells the coaching staff that the players lack confidence, so it is the job of the coaching staff to instill that in the players. It's almost like a father attempting to build self-esteem in his 9-year-old, which may be a good comparison because some would suggest that the old Nets were, to be kind, childish.
"He knows how to handle egos," said Rick Mahorn, who played on one of Daly's championship teams in Detroit. "He did in Detroit, and we had some egos on that team."
Perhaps Daly's greatest asset is that he doesn't have the need to take credit for doing an excellent job. He never complained publicly when the Pistons minimized his contributions to their two championships. It may have hurt his feelings, but he is content to win and let the players get the credit. "That's why he has survived, and survived on top at age 62," said Nets assistant Brendan Suhr.
And that's why, despite his pessimistic facade, he has his players thinking optimistically. Catch him in an unguarded moment, and you'll find he's thinking the same way.