A decent shot

Six years after coaching a wretched Mavs team, Gar Heard finally gets back in the game

Garfield Heard doubted the day would ever come, and when it did, almost no one knew about it. ESPN and CNN/SI didn't air the press conference live; newspapers didn't splash the headlines on the fronts of their sports pages. OK, so in Washington, D.C., it got a little coverage, but that's to be expected when the Washington Wizards name a new head coach. The only problem was, the Wizards decided to make the announcement at the very moment the Los Angeles Lakers were giddily presenting former Chicago Bulls Zen master Phil Jackson as their new coach.

So no one's going to remember June 16, 1999, as the day Gar Heard rode into the nation's capital to save pro basketball.

Not that Gar Heard had a real problem with that. God, no. He figured it was good timing after all. Maybe he could sneak into the job without too many people noticing, without too many people going, "Pardon, Gar who?" Heard has always liked keeping a low profile. That's probably why, after 12 years of coaching in the NBA -- including a stint as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, surely an episode long since erased from the local collective consciousness -- Heard never got the call from a real team.

Gar Heard coached the worst team in the history of the Mavericks; finally, he gets a real team.
Gar Heard coached the worst team in the history of the Mavericks; finally, he gets a real team.

"Maybe I just had the wrong PR guy," Heard says, laughing slightly on the other end of a phone line from a D.C. hotel. "It's been frustrating in that you see these openings come up, and it's not that I never got them, but I was never even considered. Every now and then, I'd see my name in the paper -- with 15 other guys. I thought I would have had a job by now, but I never had the chance to talk to the right people. Everybody was star-struck. It's always been about the big names."

In the grand scheme of things, there are fewer names smaller than Heard's; there will not be much buzz attached to a man with a mere nine wins on his head-coaching résumé. Look only at the reaction he has received in the Washington press since his hiring last week. He's been welcomed with folded arms.

Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post and ESPN was underwhelmed by the announcement, chagrined his team didn't land someone like, well, Phil Jackson. "I hope [Heard] does great," he wrote, "but the cynic in me fears this is an uninspired choice...When I found out it was Gar Heard, I felt nothing." Kornheiser was quick to point out that Heard's career as a head coach was less than inspiring: Nine wins with a terrible Dallas team, he wrote, is enough to "slide your name down the pole a bit."

The columnist -- like so many other league observers and fans, many of whom have posted disparaging remarks on the Post's Web site -- was sure the job would go to Isiah Thomas or at least Doc Rivers, who is said to be looking for a way out of the broadcast booth. Instead, they got Gar Heard, who has played for or been an assistant to some big names -- among them Larry Brown, Jack Ramsey, Lenny Wilkins.

Like a big name means anything. Like a big name can put the ball in the hoop; like a big name can play defense. You want a big name? How about Don Nelson, Mavericks fans? They don't get any bigger: The man's the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history.

And never has Nelson, as head coach, even smelled the finals. He's watched them on TV, just like you.

A big name -- it's just another way of saying "recycled goods." Maybe the problem is that no one has yet stamped an expiration date on Gar Heard's forehead.

The most astonishing thing about Heard's hire in Washington is that it took so long; he's beloved by players and coaches, considered an offensive guru and a defensive freak. Wizard Tim Legler, who played for Heard in Dallas in 1993, insists he campaigned for him: "Every day I said, 'Please get Gar Heard.'" But dozens of jobs have come and gone, and only now is he getting his shot. Meanwhile, a retread -- pardon, a genius -- like Don Nelson keeps getting hired to draft European projects and trade away first-round draft picks.

Seems fair, right?

"I don't criticize anyone for getting a job," Heard says, without a trace of bitterness in his voice. "Those coaches with big names usually take over great teams; they don't take over the Clippers. They have an advantage over everyone else. We -- the unknowns -- have to show them we can operate a team, that we can run things the way we're supposed to run them. And if you can do that, we can win. It's all about competing."

Heard has done that on the pro level for nearly 30 years. He was the very definition of a journeyman during his 11 years as a player: The Seattle Supersonics drafted Heard out of the University of Oklahoma in 1970, and he went on to play for the Chicago Bulls, the Buffalo Braves, the Phoenix Suns, and the San Diego Clippers. He set his career highs with the Braves during the 1973-74 season, averaging 15.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game -- which would make him a superstar millionaire by today's pitiful standards.

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