The Bizarre Coaching Career of Bill Fitch

When the NBA named its 50 Greatest Players on the occasion of its 50th anniversary season in 1996, they also named a list of the 10 greatest coaches.

And on that list was a guy who had a losing record for his career on the sideline, a guy whose 55-54 playoff record was all but completely the result of coaching in Boston in the early 1980s, a guy who has the second-most coaching losses in NBA history.

The guy is Bill Fitch. And how he got to a 944-1106 career coaching record, led only by Lenny Wilkens in losses (and Wilkens coached 437 more games, going 1332-1155 over 32 seasons) is one of the most interesting stories in the annals of the NBA.

For one thing, Fitch started out as the coach of the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers and coached them throughout the 1970s.

In that time, the Cavs went from 15-67 in their inaugural season in 1970-71 all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in their first-ever playoff appearance five years later. Sure, they lost to the Celtics, but Fitch coached them to two more playoff appearances, both first-round outs, before finally resigning after the 1979 season and a 30-52 record.

Fitch’s capacity to turn around a franchise then went to Boston, where a team that went 29-53 the year before hired Fitch to coach a rookie by the name of Larry Bird.

Boston won 61 games in Fitch’s first year on the sideline. They won the title in Year 2. But Fitch only lasted four years with the franchise, getting run out of town after the Celtics got swept in the East semis against Milwaukee. K.C. Jones would take over and win two titles in the next three years.

Fitch wasn’t done, however; another year, another rebuilding franchise.

This time it was the Houston Rockets, who went a horrific 14-68 in that 1982-83 season under Del Harris and brought Fitch in to oversee the franchise’s rise to respectability.

With a little help from Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, picked first overall in the ’83 and ’84 drafts, respectively, Fitch was coaching against his old team in the Finals in just his third year at the helm.

And, much as he had in Cleveland and Boston, Fitch got drummed out of Houston when he couldn’t follow up on that coaching success and eventually crashed out in the first round in 1988.

Enter the New Jersey Nets, that hapless shell of a once-proud ABA squad in New York, a team that got exiled to the swamp and stripped of its best player because the Knicks got spooked by having another team in the Big Apple—considering the Nets have become kings of New York now that they’re in Brooklyn, perhaps not an unfounded fear.

Fitch took over a team where its 26-56 record the year before was the best they’d put up in three years.

In Fitch’s third year, the Nets made the playoffs. Sure, they were 40-42—this is the Nets we’re talking about here—but that 1992 season was the team’s best record since 1985.

Fitch left after the playoff appearance on his own accord. Chuck Daly, lured over from Detroit, got them to two more playoff appearances, but by 1994 it was all over.

Fitch, meanwhile…well, if he wanted to retire with his legacy secure, 1992 would’ve been a good time to do it.

Instead, he took command of an even worse franchise than the Nets, namely the atrocious Los Angeles Clippers.

And beyond all reason, that Fitch-led Clippers team went from 17 wins to 29 to 36—the last Western Conference team to make the playoffs with a losing record that didn’t do so in a bubble during a global pandemic—and, like every other team Fitch led to a high-water mark, back into the Dumpster.

After the Clips went 17-65 in 1997-98, they fired the 64-year-old Fitch, who finally called it a career, his career losing record secure and the clubhouse leader in career losses by a coach.

And yet he’s regarded as one of the top 10 best coaches of the NBA’s first 50 years, precisely because nobody before or since—the jury’s still out on Brett Brown—turned chicken crap into chicken salad the way Fitch did, first with the expansion Cavs, then with a beat-up Celtics team coming off a couple of terrible years, then with a moribund Rockets team.

The final stints with New Jersey and the Clippers just seemed like Fitch wanted to thumb the middle finger at the basketball gods, like a video gamer who’s gotten so good at a game that they play on “Makes Dark Souls Look Like Disneyland” difficulty just because it’s the only thing left that looks like a challenge.

Fitch was the ultimate coach you hire to turn a franchise around. He was Brett Brown before Sam Hinkie was even a twinkle in his father’s eye—and if Fitch had coached Hinkie’s Sixers, the Process might not have worked because ol’ Bill would’ve found a way to get even the worst roster Hinkie could give him into the playoffs.

Not all heroes wear championship banners—although Fitch does have one of those, thanks to Larry Legend and his jolly band of outlaws in Beantown in 1981.

Fitch is still alive, 86 years old, the elder statesman of former NBA sideline patrollers now that Dr. Jack Ramsay’s gone. May he live to a hundred as a symbol of the often thankless job of coaching the NBA’s Dumpster fire franchises and actually making them good.