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.

But it was a single 18-foot desperation jumper that made him the stuff of legend. With a single second left on the clock, Heard's bucket sent his Phoenix Suns into triple overtime against the Boston Celtics in Game Five of the 1976 NBA finals; it was the so-called "shot Heard 'round the world." When the league celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago, that Suns-Celtics contest was judged by 50 NBA beat writers as the greatest game of all time.

He retired in 1981, returning to the hardwood when Dallas coach John McLeod hired him as an assistant coach in 1987. That was the same season the Mavericks got further in the playoffs than the team ever had, or ever will again, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Seven of the Western Conference finals. Heard stayed in Dallas long enough to outlast everyone on that team, save the martyred Derek Harper. By the time Heard became Dallas' head coach for the final 53 games of the 1992-93 season, he had seen Roy Tarpley self-destruct, watched Mark Aguirre go to the Detroit Pistons, witnessed McLeod's firing, and been part of myriad other catastrophes that turned a contender into a puff of stale smoke.

To say the 1992-93 season was a bleak, difficult period for Heard would make it sound too rosy. The Mavericks were odds-on favorites to at least tie the Philadelphia 76ers' pitiful record of nine wins and 73 losses, set in 1973; national reporters came to Dallas in search of the sad story. There were times during those 53 games when Gar Heard looked like a man who couldn't tell the difference between a good laugh and a good cry; his face seemed frozen in a look of sad, groggy disbelief. Once, during a game against the Houston Rockets, Heard was relentlessly cajoling a referee -- yelling at him, cursing, but mostly begging for mercy.

"You gotta help them out," Heard pleaded from the sidelines. "They can't see anything. They're blind." After the game, Heard told reporters he was thinking only one thing during the blowout loss: "Would somebody please make a shot?"

To make matters worse, Heard knew almost from the beginning of his tenure as Mavericks head coach that it wasn't to last. He assumed control of the team the morning of January 13, 1993 -- Richie Adubato, with a record of two wins and 27 losses, was fired before the team's shootaround -- and won his first game as head coach only six days later. But on March 4, then-general manager Norm Sonju announced that NBC basketball analyst Quinn Buckner was going to take over the team -- the following season.

Buckner, who was introduced the same day as holdout Jim Jackson, insisted he wanted to start fresh, meaning there was no way in hell he wanted to be the fall guy if and when Dallas set the league's record for the most losses in a single season. It fell upon Heard -- who had been told by management he wasn't expected to win with such a talentless lot -- to take Dallas to the end of the season. A more thankless job has never existed in the history of professional sports.

"When Gar found out Quinn was going to be coach, he took it in stride, but it hurt him a little bit," says former Mavericks guard Brad Davis, who acted as Heard's assistant in 1993. "It wasn't the fact it was Quinn, but they weren't going to see him through to the end of the season -- see what he could do and give him a chance. He wasn't even a viable candidate for the job. But even when he was an assistant with McLeod, I could tell what a good coach he was -- the way he understood the game and related to players. He's a class guy."

Heard knew Buckner was going to be coach weeks before the official announcement was made. But he never complained publicly, never denounced owner Don Carter, general manager Sonju, or vice president of basketball operations Rick Sund for making him the lamest of ducks with the lamest of teams. Indeed, years later, Heard would end up as an assistant with the Detroit Pistons -- where Sund still holds the title of vice president of basketball operations. Heard holds a grudge like a colander holds water.

"If I had gone 49-10, I wouldn't have gotten the head coaching job in Dallas," he says. "It was a no-win situation. But I enjoyed it. I didn't have the greatest talent in the world, but they worked hard every night."

Heard deserved far better than the screw-you-very-much he received from Dallas management. Seventeen years after the buzzer-beater in Boston, Heard was coaching Continental Basketball Association rejects, becoming more and more exasperated with every loss until all he could do was smile and groan. Back then, he genuinely believed that heart could compensate for the lack of talent; he was convinced passion could fill in the blanks left empty by skill. He was wrong.

"We had all CBA guys," Heard recalls of a lineup that included such never-rans as Mike Iuzzolino, Randy White, Donald Hodge, Walter Bond, and Morlon Wiley. "We probably wouldn't have won the CBA championship that year."

Heard left Dallas at the end of the season for the Indiana Pacers; during his five-year tenure with head coach Larry Brown in Indiana, the team averaged 47 wins a season, landing in the playoffs as often as the Mavericks stayed away from the post-season. From there, he and Brown went to Philadelphia; then, last season, Heard ended up with the Detroit Pistons under Alvin Gentry. There was a time when he had hoped to land back in Dallas, but saw that chance disappear when Dick Motta was brought back in 1994.

So now Gar Heard is in Washington, where he's expected to fail simply because he's not a big name. In a perfect world, the Wizards will go 82-0 during the 1999-2000 regular season, sweep the playoffs, and win the finals. Couldn't happen to a nicer -- or more qualified -- guy.

"I didn't come here for recognition," Heard says. "I came here because I got an opportunity to make this team win. If I win, no matter how many press conferences Phil holds in L.A., it won't make a difference."

Now, about that Dallas coaching job...

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