“HE’S GRABBING MY GUY!” THE REDfaced man in the tailored suit screams at the fellow with the whistle. “We can’t hold. Why can they hold?”
“Sit down, Richie,” replies the man, who is wearing a striped shirt. There is a threat in his tone.
The hands go through the thinning red hair. He tugs at his suit, which fits perfectly yet somehow doesn’t. He turns around and scans the bench, the floor, looking for something that isn’t there-justice, perhaps-then shakes his head and sits down.
“Heh!” He’s up again. “How can he do that?!”
It would seem that Richie Adubato’s climb to NBA head coach was destined. It has taken awhile-fifty-two years to this point-but his life’s experiences all seem to have prepared him not just to coach, but to coach these Dallas Mavericks, a talented group of veterans poised to make their strongest run yet toward an NBA title. A quick glance at his resume has him covering the conventional bases: NBA assistant, seven years; college head coach, six years; high school head coach, six years; even a stint ten years ago as an interim NBA coach. But there are other criteria. Patience. Energy. Spirit. As well as being a serious basketball junkie.
Watching Adubato talk to the press after a game is to watch someone completely in his element. Richie doesn’t just recap a game; he talks hoops. Hands working. Fixing the hair. Adjusting the tie. No condescension. No standoffishness. He’s not talking at you; he’s talking to you, even asking an occasional question back, assuming you know just as much as he about the peaks, valleys, subtleties, frustrations, joy, and gut-wrenching torture of being a man working to keep a job in the NBA. Ask him a question about organic farming in Peru, and the answer will eventually include substitution patterns and low-post matchups. Obsessed is putting it lightly.
“He is a basketball savant,” explains Carol Adubato, Richie’s wife of a year and a fellow New Jersey native. “I can’t believe the stuff he can remember. I actually saw Richie coach in high school, but I didn’t know who he was. My cousin played against Richie’s team. Richie can not only remember my cousin, who was a good player, but how many points he scored against Richie’s team and what the score of the games were.” This was in the early Sixties.
“When we win,” Carol says, “we go out to eat, go home, and watch a tape of the game probably twice. When we lose, we go home and eat soup, and he watches the tape about twenty times.”
For Richie Adubato, the 1989-’90 season was an exercise in pressure. All he had to do was make a winner out of a team coming off a backsliding 38-44 season, and which had basically quit on the just-canned John MacLeod. The team’s most talented player, Roy Tarpley, was thirteen days into what would become a sixty-seven-day, thirty-three-game suspension for failure to comply with his after-care program; Randy White, the number one draft pick, was already pouting his way out of the playing rotation; and many veterans were unhappy. Here, Richie. Have fun. And don’t forget to win, or else.
The Mavericks finished the ’89-’90 season at 47-35, their third best record ever, despite losing players for a combined 108 games from injury or illness. On the last day of the regular season, Adubato was made the “permanent” coach. Though bumped from the playoffs in three straight by Portland, the Mavs under Adubato had developed a quality for which they’d never been famous. Heart. Coaches don’t get that result without the respect of their players.
“He’s shown confidence in me, and I’ve gained confidence from that,” point guard Derek Harper says. Harper had his best year as a professional in ’89-’90. “Richie has helped remove a fear of failure. Don’t misunderstand. When I mess up he’s the first one to tell me. But I’m not afraid to take the last shot and miss.”
Mavericks owner Don Carter, who had threatened to trade team problem child Tarpley if he didn’t straighten out. later said that if he has softened on the issue, it is because of Adubato.
“I told him [Carter] I still had compassion for Roy,” Adubato explains. “He’s twenty-five years old. I have a son who’s twenty-five years old.”
Adubato says that teaching in the inner city for sixteen years made him aware of “the problems that can develop.”
As part of a special program in Paterson, New Jersey, “I taught five kids a day,” he recalls. “I would go into their homes and teach them. Now, in going into the homes of inner-city kids I would get a tremendous education. There was one place I went where before I would start I would drag the kitchen table into the middle of the room and slam it on the floor to keep the roaches away… There were a couple of kids where the home life was so bad I taught them in a diner. One kid I taught from twelve to one and I’d buy him lunch every day.
“So when you get to Roy Tarpley and talk about having problems, I’ve seen a lot of problems. It helps me to understand people.”
It is easy to see only the fast-talking Easterner in Adubato and not the man behind the accent. Adubato has a history of accepting challenges. When a friend told him he needed a master’s degree before he could get a college coaching job, he spent three years in night school earning his M.A. in administration from William Paterson College (New Jersey). Paterson is also his undergraduate alma mater, where he captained the basketball and baseball teams.
Coaching at Upsala College in New Jersey without the benefit of athletic scholarships (or even a full-time salary), he compiled a 100-53 record in six seasons, taking his team to the NCAA tournament.
Adubato came to Dallas in 1986 via Dick Motta, the Mavericks’ first coach, and was given the chore of improving a defense that ranked twenty-first in the league, giving up 114.2 points per game. The Mavs improved to fourteenth in his first season; then sixth, fourth, and fourth again this year, yielding only 102.2 points a game.
Though Adubato’s transition from assistant to head coach was smooth in terms of player relations, he acknowledges being out of practice at responding to game situations.
“As an assistant I always focused on the defensive end,” he explains. “It took a couple of games for me to get used to calling plays, to letting the offense get at least half of my attention.”
Help in this area will come front new assistant Bob Zuffelato, hired in the off-season specifically to work on the Mavericks’ offense. Also this off-season, Dallas traded the three 1990 number one draft picks they had stockpiled for respected veterans Lafayette “Fat” Lever and Rodney McCray. These moves center on the premise that the Mavericks cannot wait around for draft picks to mature into productive NBA players while the team’s core ages beyond its prime. The lone loss came when free agent forward Sam Perkins spurned a three-year, $18 million Mavericks offer to join the Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavericks moved quickly to sign aging but still productive forward Alex English. Even with Perkins’s departure, the Mavs will be better. The question is, by how much?
At a draft-day press conference that introduced the just-acquired McCray, Adubato was asked if he felt more pressure to win immediately. Relishing the scenario- the new players, the understanding that this is his team with which to win or lose-he smiles his “What? Me worry?” smile, and replies, “In this business, the pressure is on you every day.”